How can you help the planet’s ecosystem from your home?

plankton collection process

Authors*: Participants of the Rhizome Foundations course – Goran Barbir, Paula Brčić, Bruna Ercegovac, Nessim Frejacques, Leon Mijić, Kristian Nakić, Sara Petrović, Ivan Šimunović

*all authors contributed equally

 

“Not all those who wander are lost”
– JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings (plankton – from greek: wanderer)

Plankton have always fascinated scientists with their ‘perfect’ shapes, beauty and mystical nature. But why should you care about plankton? After all, they are pretty abstract, microscopic and distanced just enough from our everyday experiences to be considered ‘textbook biology’ territory.

Well, have you ever taken a breath of fresh air? Probably, since you’re reading this. You can then thank plankton, as they create the majority of oxygen in our atmosphere.

sample of plankton
Credits: Students of Rhizome Association – Magnification: 400X – Mediterranean sea, Split, Croatia, 21.7.2018. – GPS: 43.503775, 16.408271 (sample from surface level)

 

They are also a crucial link in the food chain. But they are possibly in danger from pollution mainly coming from microplastics that attract pollution onto themselves like sponges and any organism that consumes the microplastics transfer all of the contamination up the food chain. Now that we agree plankton are irreplaceable for our ecosystem, let’s find out if we can solve their problems. And to do that, we need to analyze data. A lot of it.

ocean pollution
Pollution presents a huge risk, to not just plankton, but also us by extension!
Source: https://www.maxpixel.net/Pollution-Ocean-Degradation-Trash-Mar-Environment-1603644

 

How do you sort through so much plankton?

One approach would be to take small samples from the sea and let experts meticulously analyze each organism and write it down. However, this can get quite repetitive, and so people have designed machines that roam the sea and fill their container with seawater, screening it and forwarding it to the science center. It all comes down to finding the smartest way to sift through dirt and find the “gold nuggets”.

plankton collection process
Collecting and analyzing plankton samples. Drawing by Bruna Ercegovac

Scientists had to find new ways of analyzing the large amounts of raw data accurately (660 gigabytes of uncompressed imagery per hour) and in the least possible time. So they came up with three ways of doing that.

The first was gathering a group of biologists who would go through the data with high accuracy but were lacking speed.

The second idea was having data scientists compete with their best algorithm which could go through the gathered data. Even though it was more efficient, this method was not implemented very well (The mean precision of the competition algorithms is stated to be 77%, but the small dataset used for the competition (6000 plankton snippets) did not generalize well to the size of actual datasets (~6.6million)).

And the third way was through the use of ‘citizen science’ where volunteers would be given an interactive platform to go through the data themselves. In the beginning, the speed and accuracy matched the requirements, but people quickly started losing interest and the speed and accuracy fell below acceptable levels.

 

Now, what’s your part in all of this?

As someone who breathes oxygen created by plankton since the day you were born, the least you can do for them is click on the link below. Not only do you help scientists by identifying and separating the plankton from the Mediterranean sea and the Californian coast, but it is also surprisingly fun! Above all, you will learn about the shapes of these little creatures that fill out the water on our planet.

snapshot Plankton Portal
a screenshot of Plankton Portal website

To start, go to Plankton Portal. There, you select the location (Mediterranean sea or California current) and start the search. You will then see something similar to the photo above. The lower track shows basic info (depth, temperature, and location) and your job is to click on objects in the main frame and try to classify them. Do not worry if you are not sure about the plankton you see, there are no mistakes here! Also if your plankton doesn’t resemble any offered organism, go to the next one. A picture is classified only after a certain number of contributors agree on what they see. Have fun, explore the ocean and help scientists (who will return the favor one day for sure)!

So, now that you know how you can help the ecosystem from the comfort of your own home, what are you waiting for?

If all of this sounds fascinating and interesting to you, you can find out more by following the links below and by coming this Saturday (July 28th, 2018) to our presentation/workshop at MedILS (Mediterranean Institute for Life Sciences) in Split, Croatia. If you are unable to participate, you can always follow the Rhizome Association on Facebook and Twitter to find out the next exciting thing they are planning!

If you want to know more

“Plankton Portal.” Accessed July 25, 2018. https://www.planktonportal.org/.
Robinson, Kelly L., Jessica Y. Luo, Su Sponaugle, Cedric Guigand, and Robert K. Cowen. “A Tale of Two Crowds: Public Engagement in Plankton Classification.” Frontiers in Marine Science 4 (2017). https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2017.00082.
TED-Ed. The Secret Life of Plankton. Accessed July 25, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFQ_fO2D7f0.
nature video. Five Reasons To Thank Plankton. Accessed July 25, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=23mrtGCkAH8.
“Plankton.” Wikipedia, June 25, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Plankton&oldid=847518307.
US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “What Are Microplastics?” Accessed July 26, 2018. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/microplastics.html.