A new citizen science project allows you to explore the open ocean from the comfort of your home. You can 'dive' hundreds of feet deep, and observe the unperturbed ocean and the myriad animals that inhabit the earth's last frontier.
The goal of the project is to enlist volunteers to classify millions of underwater images to study plankton diversity, distribution and behavior in the open ocean - even cheaper labor than post-docs.
Millions of plankton images are taken by the In Situ Ichthyoplankton Imaging System (ISIIS), a unique underwater robot created by Charles Cousin at Bellamare LLC and the University of Miami. ISIIS operates as an ocean scanner that casts the shadow of tiny and transparent oceanic creatures onto a very high resolution digital sensor at very high frequency. So far, ISIIS has been used in several oceans around the world to detect the presence of larval fish, small crustaceans and jellyfish in ways never before possible.
This new technology can help answer important questions ranging from how do plankton disperse, interact and survive in the marine environment, to predicting the physical and biological factors could influence the plankton community.
"ISIIS gives us a new view on plankton, enabling us to see them in their natural setting, where they occur, what other organisms are nearby, even their orientation," explains Dr. Robert K. Cowen, Director of Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center.
The dataset used for Plankton Portal comes from a project from the Southern California Bight, where Cowen's team imaged plankton across a front, which is a meeting of two water masses, over three days in Fall 2010.
According to Jessica Luo, graduate student involved in this project, "in three days, we collected data that would take us more than three years to analyze." Cowen agrees: "with the volume of data that ISIIS generates, 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 to citizen scientists."
"A computer will probably be able to tell the difference between major classes of organisms, such as a shrimp versus a jellyfish," explains Luo, "but to distinguish different species within an order or family, that is still best done by the human eye."
Want to dive in? Go to "Plankton Portal". A field guide is provided, and the simple tutorial is easy to understand. Cowen and the science team will monitor the discussion boards; answer any questions about the classifications, the organisms, and the research they are conducting.