Citizen Science: Finding my inner scientist on Zooniverse

Common pipistrelle.
Photo by Mnolf. Creative Commons.

I haven’t written much lately, because I’ve been busy transcribing ship logs, listening to bat calls, and squinting over ancient papyri on Zooniverse. It’s a virtual gathering place for more than 700,000 citizen-scientists and seasoned scholars. You don’t need an advanced degree to help one of a dozen research projects promoted on the site.

I originally went on this site to check out a project called Planet Hunters at the recommendation of my husband. An archaeologist who blogs at AmazonWalker, he knows more about ceramics from the Bolivian Amazon than astronomy. But he was excited to get an email this month announcing that Planet Hunters (a collaboration between several organizations, including Yale University, and thousands of volunteers like himself) had discovered its first confirmed planet. The gas giant, a little larger than Neptune and located 5000 light years from Earth, appears to orbit two stars in a four-star system.

Planet hunting sounded exciting. But when I logged onto Zooniverse, I got sidetracked by three other fascinating projects. Here’s what my experiences were like with each:

Bat Detective

I was afraid of bats as a child. Even the Count on Sesame Street scared me. As an adult, I’ve managed to put aside my fears of blood-sucking vampires (and pointy-eared muppets) to appreciate the real bats—some 1,200 different species—that populate our skies at night. So I was eager to join Bat Detective. This project of University College London and Bat Conservation Trust seeks to gather information from thousands of hours’ worth of bat calls recorded throughout Europe. The calls are picked up with ultrasonic microphones and turned into sonograms for analysis.

Because of bats’ sensitivity to climate, “Monitoring the status of bat populations can help tell us about the health of a natural environment as a whole,” the Bat Detective website states. “The bats serve as an early warning, like a canary in a coal mine.”

Being small and nocturnal, bats are hard to track visually. “More recently,” the website explains, “a growing number of bat surveys are being done acoustically because bats ‘leak’ information about themselves into the environment. This is because they use sound to find their way around, hunt for food, and to socialize.”

After a brief tutorial, I was ready to get started. I would need to highlight the sound I was classifying on the sonogram and decided what kind it was (or if it even belonged to a bat). Continue reading

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