Beachcombers, snorkelers and others who spend time near and in the water have an important role to play in helping scientists monitor the affect that global warming is having on marine organisms by acting as citizen scientists.
In recent years, a number of apps and websites have been created that allow people to report sightings and upload photos of animals and plants they encounter to help form databases that scientists can use in their research. A website and app just for jellyfish, jellywatch.org, is collecting important information from citizen scientists about how the various species spread around the globe and could one day soon reveal how a warming ocean is affecting them.
Dr. Steven Haddock from the University of California, Santa Cruz is using the site in his research on marine bioluminescence and deep see jellies and said it has been an invaluable tool. He said the reach of citizen scientists around the world is much greater than what he and other scientists can observe on their own.
“We can actually get a lot of insight into what’s happening on a large scale with regard to jellyfish abundances,” Haddock said to KTOO.org. He said that crowd-sourced sightings are giving scientists a better understanding of jellyfish blooms throughout the world.
For scientists researching the organisms, the most common way to gather data is to charter boats to observe jellyfish, but the expense of those trips adds up quickly and the time they can spend on the water is limited. Tapping into a website that is gathering observations from every corner of the globe is far cheaper and it can also paint a more complete picture.
Many theories say that a warming ocean has increased jellyfish blooms, but Haddock says that more observations are needed to confirm whether that's true. He believes the jellywatch.org community will help scientists to do that. Of particular interest is how jellyfish that are restricted to cold water, like the lion's mane, will be affected.
Most postings on the site or app include a photo that helps researchers identify what type of jellyfish was seen and where, but Haddock says postings without a photo are also very useful. Recently a diver posted a description of a jellyfish he saw that could be a newly-discovered species.
“He gave a perfect description. So he didn’t have a photo, but he gave a description of this jelly that sounds like a deep-sea species that we discovered here in Monterey, and a colleague of mine just described it recently,” Haddock said. “It’s called Tiburonia. We call it ‘The Big Red’ because it’s like the size of a beach ball. So this guy diving said ‘I feel like I’m reporting a big-foot sighting.’”
If you're interested in contributing to Haddock's site, you can report sightings of more than just jellyfish: squid, mammal, red sea, plastic and even just clean sea, or no jellyfish seen, reports are valuable to researchers. Haddock says that clean sea reports are just as important because they give validity to the actual jellyfish sightings. Knowing whether a lack of reports means no human sightings or an actual lack of jellyfish will help them discover true patterns.