The following is a blog post by Dr. Steve Kessel, director of marine research at Shedd Aquarium.
You don’t have to be a scientist to contribute to a global research study thanks to a growing number of projects that rely on citizen science. These are projects in which volunteers and scientists work together to answer real-world research questions and get hands-on experience collecting data.
Shedd Aquarium has engaged thousands of citizen scientists to contribute to scientific research and conservation for more than 10 years. In Chicago, you can get your hands dirty by restoring habitats for native plants and animals through Shedd’s Great Lakes Action Day program, or select volunteers can collect data at Great Lakes tributaries to help Shedd study migrations of white and longnose suckers (Catostomus commersonii and Catostomus catostomus). More globally, we host expeditions to the Bahamas, where participants work alongside Shedd researchers to collect data and tag endangered Bahamian rock iguanas on Andros Island and the Exumas.
If you’re anything like me, you’re most fascinated with and interested in learning more about species in our oceans, like its top predators, sharks. Research suggests that some shark populations have declined heavily over the past few decades. The removal of these predators can disrupt the balance of marine food webs and cause large-scale habitat changes. As a result, fishing regulations, marine protected areas and trade controls have been put in place to reduce rates of decline, but there is still a long way to go.
Thus, scientists like myself dedicate our careers to developing a better understanding of sharks and how we can protect them. With a diverse group of animals widely distributed across the globe, the help of citizen scientists makes studying the world’s shark populations possible.
Shedd Aquarium Partners with Global FinPrint
As our conservation research team begins our own project to study Caribbean shark species, we also have the opportunity to bring shark research inland to Chicago. Shedd is teaming up with an international research project called Global FinPrint, a Paul G. Allen initiative, to engage Chicagoland teens with a hands-on STEM application.
High schoolers from Shedd’s Teen Learning Lab will have the opportunity to use a Vulcan Inc. software program specially designed for Global FinPrint to record data on reef ecosystems. Each session, participants will watch 60 minutes of underwater footage with the goal of recording the following:
- The maximum number of sharks and rays, from each species, present on screen at the same time
- The time stamp which they came into view
- The species of each shark
This information is added to Global FinPrint’s database of thousands of hours of underwater video footage to fill a critical information gap about the abundance and biodiversity of sharks across the globe, providing crucial data for management and conservation efforts for these aquatic species. In addition, this saves hours of time for the researchers and more efficiently consolidates the data.
Moreover, the project enables teens to directly contribute to an active research program while gaining experience identifying wild marine species and learning about the process of conducting applied scientific research. A few teens were able to meet and work beside Dr. Demian Chapman, lead scientist at Global FinPrint and professor at Florida International University, which is a unique opportunity to spark interest and inspire the next generation of shark conservationists.
In addition to activating the teen citizen scientists, Shedd Aquarium is also engaging its dedicated volunteer base of more than 800. Due to Shedd’s location in the Midwest, many people identify with local waterways but too often the oceans are out of sight, out of mind. This global research project provides Chicagoans with an active role in protecting species that live thousands of miles away in our oceans, which directly ties to our mission of sparking compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic animal world.
With the goal of wrapping up our contribution to this portion of Global FinPrint’s research in March, I look forward to working with Chicago’s youth and Shedd’s volunteers to teach them about some of the most important species in our oceans. Perhaps immersing ourselves in the Caribbean through the winter will also help us get through the cold Chicago weather!