A 14-year-old boy in Donetsk, Ukraine, recently made a fascinating discovery halfway around the world and 894 metres under the sea. Kirill Dudko was watching Neptune Canada's live-stream footage of the ocean floor near Vancouver Island on his computer when he saw a creature with a "nose and moustache" eat a hagfish. It seemed unusual, so he contacted Neptune scientists, who checked the footage and identified an elephant seal.
It was unusual. Predators normally spit out the eel-like hagfish or avoid them altogether because they excrete foul slime when threatened. Scientists had never before seen an elephant seal eat one, and may not have noticed this evidence had it not been for Kirill. They believe the seal quickly slurped up the hagfish before it could release its slime.
Like many "citizen scientists," Kirill played an important role in advancing our understanding of the world. It takes a lot of study and training to become a scientist, but with some knowledge of scientific method, anyone can practise science.
Citizen science is not a new concept. The Audubon Society started its Christmas bird count in 1900. As the Society explains, from December 14 to January 5, tens of thousands of volunteers throughout the Americas grab their binoculars, bird guides and checklists and head outside. "Each of the citizen scientists who annually braves snow, wind, or rain to take part in the Christmas Bird Count makes an enormous contribution to conservation. Audubon and other organizations use data collected in this longest-running wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations -- and to help guide conservation action."
Thanks to the Internet, citizen science is a more powerful tool than ever before. Some projects are passive, such as Seti@home, where people set their home computers to search for signs of extraterrestrial life when they aren't using them. Others take a bit more effort. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade provides tool kits and training for people who live near oil refineries and chemical plants to take air samples for lab analysis.
Some, like the American Gut project, are highly interactive, requiring participants to provide detailed information about their diet and send in stool, oral or skin samples. In return for that and varying levels of monetary donations, researchers give participants information about their bodies and the microbial life inside them. The research is designed to "help shape a new way of understanding how diet and lifestyle may contribute to human health through each person's suite of trillions of tiny microbes."
Some initiatives require only simple observation. In a recent column, we mentioned RinkWatch, which asks people to send information about outdoor skating rinks to researchers at Ontario's Wilfrid Laurier University to help track the impacts of climate change. The David Suzuki Foundation has also invited assistance from citizen scientists, most recently asking Canadians to participate in a survey about toxic ingredients in common personal care products like soaps, shampoos and cosmetics.
On its website, Scientific American describes a range of citizen science projects designed to do everything from tracking animals in Africa's Serengeti to analyzing historical patterns in human DNA to studying the ways people play with their dogs.
Beyond providing valuable research, citizen science is a fun way for people to engage with nature and learn about the world and their place in it. Participating in the bird count, for example, is a good way for individuals and families to enjoy time outside in winter. Citizens can also enjoy the results of the research. Do you want to know what an indigo-banded kingfisher or a forest elephant sounds like? Cornell University's Macaulay Library is "the world's largest and oldest scientific archive of biodiversity audio and video." Thanks to contributors worldwide, site visitors can hear sounds made by three quarters of the Earth's birds, as well as a large number of insects, mammals, fish and amphibians. And anyone can add to the collection.
Some citizen scientists get involved for fun. Others have a general interest in science or a particular research area. Kirill Dudko plans to become a marine biologist. Regardless of their reasons or level of involvement, all citizen scientists help us gain a better understanding of the world and our place in it.
Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/alan-turing/">Alan Turing</a>, a British computer scientist and WWII codebreaker, is considered the father of modern computing. 2012 marked the centennial of his birth with a celebration of his life and scientific influence.
A "supermoon" is seen behind the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Sunday, May 6, 2012. A supermoon is the coincidence of a full moon (or a new moon) with the closest approach the moon makes to the Earth. (Victor R. Caivano, AP)
The Diamond Ring effect is shown following totality of the solar eclipse at Palm Cove in Australia's Tropical North Queensland on November 14, 2012. Eclipse-hunters have flocked to Queensland's tropical northeast to watch the region's first total solar eclipse in 1,300 years on November 14, which occurred as the moon passed between the earth and the sun, casting a shadow path on the globe and lasting for a maximum on the Australian mainland of 2 minutes and 5 seconds. AFP PHOTO / Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
This track is an example of simulated data modelled for the CMS detector on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, which will begin taking data in 2008. Here a Higgs boson is produced which decays into two jets of hadrons and two electrons. The lines represent the possible paths of particles produced by the proton-proton collision in the detector while the energy these particles deposit is shown in blue.
Still from a computer animation showing NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft as it explors a new region in our solar system called the "magnetic highway." In this region, the sun's magnetic field lines are connected to interstellar magnetic field lines, allowing particles from inside the heliosphere to zip away and particles from interstellar space to zoom in.
This image provided by NASA shows the image captured by Hinode on June 5, 2012 of the transit of Venus -- the last instance of this rare phenomenon until 2117. Hinode is a joint JAXA/NASA mission to study the connections of the sun's surface magnetism, primarily in and around sunspots. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages Hinode. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., is the lead U.S. investigator for the X-ray Telescope. (AP Photo/JAXA NASA)
In this photo provided by NASA, members of the U.S. Navy ceremonial guard hold a United States flag over the remains of Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong during a burial at sea service aboard the USS Philippine Sea (CG 58), Friday, Sept. 14, 2012, on the Atlantic Ocean. Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon during the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, died Aug. 25. He was 82. (AP Photo/NASA, Bill Ingalls)
The Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket lifts off from space launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012. The rocket is carrying supplies to the International Space Station. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)
FILE - In this June 1983 photo released by NASA, astronaut Sally Ride, a specialist on shuttle mission STS-7, monitors control panels from the pilot's chair on the space shuttle Challenger flight deck. The pioneering astronaut, who relished privacy as much as she did adventure, chose an appropriately discreet manner of coming out. At the end of an obituary that she co-wrote with her partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy, they disclosed to the world their relationship of 27 years. As details trickled out after Ride's death on Monday, July 23, 2012, it became clear that a circle of family, friends and co-workers had long known of the same-sex relationship and embraced it. For many millions of others, who admired Ride as the first American woman in space, it was a revelation - and it sparked a spirited discussion about privacy vs. public candor in regard to sexual orientation. (AP Photo/NASA, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2012 file photo provided by Red Bull Stratos, pilot Felix Baumgartner of Austria jumps out of the capsule during the final manned flight for Red Bull Stratos. In a giant leap from more than 24 miles up, Baumgartner shattered the sound barrier while making the highest jump ever with a tumbling, death-defying plunge from a balloon to a safe landing in the New Mexico desert. (AP Photo/Red Bull Stratos, File)
A Mosaic of MESSENGER Images of Mercury's North Polar Region Tradar image of Mercury's north polar region from Image 2.1 is shown superposed on a mosaic of MESSENGER images of the same area. All of the larger polar deposits are located on the floors or walls of impact craters. Deposits farther from the pole are seen to be concentrated on the north-facing sides of craters. Updated from N. L. Chabot et al., Journal of Geophysical Research, 117, doi: 10.1029/2012JE004172 (2012). Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington/National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, Arecibo Observatory
A still from a NASA video captures <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/01/sandy-from-space-nasa-time-lapse-superstorm-video_n_2056467.html">Superstorm Sandy from space</a>. The footage, which spans the storm's development from Oct. 21 through Oct. 31, was made from images taken by NASA's GOES-13 observatory, in geosynchronous orbit above the Caribbean and the Eastern Seaboard.
This image released by NASA shows the work site of the NASAs rover Curiosity on Mars. Results are in from the first test of Martian soil by the rover Curiosity: So far, there is no definitive evidence that the red planet has the chemical ingredients to support life.Scientists said Monday, Dec. 3, 2012 that a scoop of sandy soil analyzed by the rover's chemistry lab contained water and a mix of chemicals, but not the complex carbon-based compounds considered necessary for microbial life. (AP Photo/NASA)
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