Harnessing the power of the crowd to study plankton

25 September 2013

Dr Chris Lintott of the Oxford Martin School Programme on Computational Cosmology has taken citizen science beneath the waves with his latest project, Plankton Portal.

The Computational Cosmology programme looks at how data from enormous experiments can be processed, and at ways of extending methods that are developing in astrophysics and cosmology to other disciplines.

Plankton Portal joins more than 15 projects currently on the Zooniverse.org platform after a team from the University of Miami took millions of images using a unique underwater robot.

Plankton are a critically important food source for ocean life, and researchers are asking volunteers to classify the images to help them study the microscopic creatures’ diversity, distribution and behaviour.

The team from the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Miami, collaborated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation and developers at Zooniverse.org on the project.

The images were taken by a robot called INSIIS (In Situ Ichthyoplankton Imaging System) which operates as an ocean scanner, casting the shadow of tiny and transparent oceanic creatures onto a very high resolution digital sensor at very high frequency. This new technology can help answer important questions ranging from how plankton disperse, interact and survive in the marine environment, through to predicting the physical and biological factors that could influence the plankton community.

As well as being a food source, plankton also play an important role in the global carbon cycle, which captures the sun’s energy and the atmosphere’s CO2 at the surface of the ocean and releases it to other organisms and other areas of the ocean. Seeing where and when plankton occur at different depths in the ocean allows scientists to get a global understanding of the function and health of the ocean from small to global scales.

Dr Lintott said: “These fabulous creatures, imaged by a revolutionary new technique, are revealed as beautiful and intriguing. The project has more than an aesthetic point, however, as scientists are asking visitors to describe what they see in an effort to understand their population and behaviour.”

Jessica Luo, a graduate student involved in the project, said: “In three days, we collected data that would take us more than three years to analyse. It is impossible for us to individually classify every image by hand, which is why we are exploring different options for image analysis, from automatic image recognition software to crowd-sourcing citizen scientists.

“A computer will probably be able to tell the difference between major classes of organisms, such as a shrimp versus a jellyfish,” she explained, “but to distinguish different species within an order or family, that is still best done by the human eye.”

Volunteers are provided with a field guide and a simple tutorial, and the research team will monitor the site’s discussion boards and answer any questions.

Dr Lintott added: “The Plankton project is part of a significant expansion of The Zooniverse into environmental and ecological projects, following the success of last year's Snapshot Serengeti project, which has already seen more than 9 million classifications.

“Monitoring the health of populations - whether it's lions and elephants or the tiny inhabitants you’ll find on the Plankton Portal - is critical in the task of assessing the likely impact and effects of climate change, making this project not only interesting but important.

“Each Zooniverse project engages volunteers from the comfort of their own computer in a task of real value to scientists, harnessing the power of the crowd in order to produce remarkable results.”