article / 18 March 2020

Enter the Zooniverse: Try Citizen Science for Yourself!

Trapped inside during the COVID-19 quarantine and looking to engage with conservation science without leaving your desk? Citizen science projects like those on Zooniverse offer a great opportunity to impact scientific research, learn more about how your fellow researchers are using technology like camera traps and bioacoustic sensors in the field, and fight boredom. 

Whether you're new to conservation tech or you just want to experience research from a new angle, Zooniverse offers the chance to participate in a wide variety of wildlife-themed projects. If you've always wanted to help train a machine learning model or put your animal identification skills to the test, now is the perfect time! Read on to learn more about a few of Zooniverse's citizen science projects that you can join right now.

Snapshot Safari

Snapshot Safari isn't just one citizen science project - it's a whole collection of biodiversity monitoring projects across Africa. These camera traps gather photos of mammals living in key African ecosystems, and citizen scientists are classifying millions of images to help researchers understand and answer big questions regarding species coexistence, competition, trophic interactions, and more. Here are some updates (and fun photos from the camera traps and behind-the-scenes) from WILDLABS community member Dr. Meredith Palmer on three Snapshot Safari projects you can join on Zooniverse today, and perspective into why these projects are so important. 


WildCam Gorongosa

Gorongosa National Park is a dynamic ecosystem under constant change. For over 15 years, this park has been at the epicenter of a civil war which decimated local wildlife communities. Thanks to the efforts of the Gorongosa Restoration Project, Gorongosa National Park has rebounded to become a flagship case study for the power of applied conservation. Successes in Gorongosa abound: over the last year, wild dogs have been released into the park and successfully denned, raising two litters of puppies. Lion populations are slowly expanding and the first leopards in decades have been captured by camera trap! Unfortunately, the last 12 months have seen their share of setbacks as well. In particular, the landfall of Cyclone Idai in March 2019 caused unprecedented levels of flooding across the park, massively restructuring the Gorogonsa ecosystem. Our camera trap network helps researchers and managers study the effects of conservation initiatives and track the recovery of this complex ecosystem. We're eager to see what surprising animals this current season holds and eaer to "unlock" the information we need to understand how these substantial changes are shaping Gorongosa's wildlife communities.     


(One bonus of being a citizen scientist is the lack of spiders on your gear, unless your home office is in a region populated by large spiders, or you're in a lab studying your collection of spiders. If that's the case, the author suggests brushing the spiders from your laptop keyboard before logging on to Zooniverse, as most arachnids are not skilled typists.)

Snapshot Grumeti

Grumeti Game Reserve lies on the western edge of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in Tanzania. Every year, hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle migrate across this open savanna, supporting diverse populations of hungry predators, clever scavengers, and dozens of sympatric species. This last year, the Grumeti Fund performed one of the largest and most successful acts of conservation to ever take place in east Africa: nine critically endangered black rhino were released in the Grumeti Reserve, increasing the Tanzanian population by almost 10%. How will the restoration of these mega-herbivores shape the wildlife communities in this part of the Serengeti? The Grumeti Science Team is carefully monitoring the progress of this rewilding event and you can help by classifying animals in the newest batch of Snapshot Grumeti camera trap data!     



(Author's Note: This herd is terrible at social distancing. Leave the grocery store immediately if caught in a similar situation.)

Elephants for Africa

An elephant is an elephant is an elephant, right? This might not be the case, at least in terms of how these animals act. Across their vast range, elephants in different areas can display surprisingly different behavioral patterns. We're helping Elephants for Africa (EfA), a UK-based conservation organization, understand different elephant "cultures". EfA focuses their research in the dry savanna salt pans of Makgadikgadi Pans National Park in Botswana. While it was previously thought that male elephants were primarily loners, rarely joining up with female herds, in Makgadikgadi, not only do males from large groups, but over 95% of the elephants recorded in the Park are males! Why would this be the case? Camera trapping allows us to monitor elephant "highways", investigating the demographics, group sizes, and movement patterns of this elephant population. These data are vital for revealing the hidden secrets of these animals' lives.



(When you adjust your webcam during a Zoom meeting while working from home.)

Visit Snapshot Safari to choose your camera trap project and get started identifying your favorite African mammals. You can also find updates from the Snapshot Safari project network on Twitter, and connect with lead researcher Dr. Meredith Palmer there as well.

Penguin Watch

Down in Antarctica, Penguin Watch helps researchers like Dr. Tom Hart understand how penguin populations are changing over time. Having recently used citizen scientists on Zooniverse to work through a trial of aerial nest photos for the British Antarctic Survey and WWF, Penguin Watch's main objective is to count penguins captured in time-lapse photography at over 100 sites in Antarctica and the Southern Sea. Because these cameras are capturing data over long periods of time, you'll get to see a diverse and shifting collection of adult penguins, nesting penguins, and chicks against a backdrop of the changing Antarctic seasons. We've selected a few pretty impressive photos that were posted in the Penguin Watch forum by project volunteers.

Penguin Watch 1

Penguin Watch 1

Calculating penguin numbers in these sites throughout this long-term study will provide a clearer picture of how climate change is directly and rapidly impacting Antarctic wildlife populations. By clicking through photos like these and dropping markers onto all the adult penguins and chicks, you'll contribute to critical population monitoring data while also enjoying some remarkable wildlife scenes.

Penguin Watch 2

(Author's Note: Penguins are not known for their social distancing skills either.)

Penguin Watch 3

(Scientist cameo! Can you spot the humans in the background of this one?)

Timelapse photo sets are available on Zooniverse's Penguin Watch now, and new aerial photo sets will be available soon. You can learn more about Penguin Watch's research goals on their programme website. You can also follow project updates on Twitter.

University of Wyoming Raccoon Project

Zooniverse is full of endangered species and far-off ecosystems, but you can also find some familiar faces from your own backyard (if your backyard is in North America) on the University of Wyoming Raccoon Project! These city-dwelling bandits are common throughout the United States and Canada, and are known for their impressive breaking and entering skills - if you've ever had raccoons break into your garage or pop the lock on your trash cans, you'll understand! But despite their widespread populations in our cities and suburbs alike, our understanding of their behavior and intelligence is still, surprisingly, full of gaps. Below, you'll see some favorite photos selected by citizen scientists, courtesy of the University of Wyoming Raccoon Project.



This camera trap project aims to gather data on just how raccoons approach problem-solving, how they learn, and how those skills impact their ability to rapidly adapt to urbanization and other environmental changes, all of which make them masters of living in human-dominated environments like cities. Zooniverse citizen scientists can help project researchers sort through thousands of infrared images to identify the species that visit these ever-changing puzzle boxes, which are designed to test raccoons' complex problem-solving skills. But on sorting through the photos, you'll often find that these puzzle boxes draw quite a diverse crowd!


(Fox on a Box with Locks: a forgotten Dr. Seuss classic.)

While the University of Wyoming Raccoon Project are busily investigating animal intelligence, citizen scientists are testing machine intelligence by training a machine learning model to identify individual animals over time. Check out lead researcher Lauren Stanton's demo of this simple process in her tweet: 

Thanks to >1,000 citizen scientists our first batch of data is finished & we have 30,000 images to begin training our detector! New batch of videos is up and more are on the way! 

Join @the_zooniverse here: #techforwildlife #raccoons

— Lauren Stanton (@Lauren_Stanton_) March 18, 2020

And in addition to using AI solutions to enhance this project, you may also spot some classic field technology in action while sorting through images. Many of the animals who frequent the puzzle boxes are tracked with PIT tags, and some even have radio collars, which enable University of Wyoming undergrads to understand the home range of local raccoons.


Ready to identify some crafty raccoons and their friends? Get started on the University of Wyoming Raccoon Project homepage, and visit them on Twitter and the University of Wyoming Animal Behavior and Cognition Lab website to learn more!

Manatee Chat

You've probably heard whale calls before, but do you know what manatees sound like? Researchers are just starting to categorize and recognize all the ways that manatees communicate, and you can help! Manatee Chat, a project from participatory platform Cetalingua, offers citizen scientists the chance to analyze audio data to classify various manatee calls and sounds.


Like many citizen science projects, Manatee Chat has recently incorporated a deep learning element to their data analysis; in this project's case, the deep learning model allows volunteers to confirm the AI program's accuracy, effectively training it to identify manatee sounds. This tweet from the deep learning model's launch within the Zooniverse workflow gives a nice overview of how this technology has been incorporated into the audio analysis.

We have an exciting announcement to make! We have incorporated our #deeplearning model classification into our #ManateeChat Zooniverse workflow. Please read our new blog post for more details. #citizenscience #artificialintelligence #zooniverse #fastai

— Cetalingua Project (@Cetalingua) February 21, 2020

By categorizing and analyzing manatee sounds, researchers will better understand manatee behavior, and in the long-term, this deep learning model could be developed into an acoustic monitoring system that alerts boaters of nearby manatees and prevents deadly propeller injuries.  The audio used in this project is collected from manatees at the Lowry Park Zoo (now Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park) Manatee Hospital in Florida, where many of these manatees are recovering from just the kinds of propeller injuries that they may one day be protected from thanks to this data.


Looking ahead into the near future, Cetalingua will soon launch dolphin and whale versions of this project. If you've never had the chance to experience how machine learning and acoustic monitoring can work hand-in-hand, this project is a simple way to test it out for yourself! Start listening today on the Manatee Chat homepage, learn more about their research here, and visit Cetalingua's website for information on their various other citizen scientist programmes, including members-only advanced platforms that include online classes, access to audio kit rentals, and more. You can also follow them on Twitter for updates.

Chimp & See

Collecting data on animal behavior is obviously important to conservation scientists, but it can also play a huge role in other fields like anthropology. The Pan African Programme's Chimp & See platform (say this one out loud for the full effect of this clever project title) is focused on studying behavior patterns of our closest living relatives to reveal how early humans may have behaved and evolved, and how tool usage, meat-eating, and hunting all contributed to big jumps in human mental, physical, and cultural development. If you've ever dreamed of becoming Jane Goodall, this is the next best thing!

(In this author's non-scientific opinion, this may be a demonstration of the common human behavior, "finding your good angle while taking a selfie.")

Like others on this list, Chimp & See collects data through camera traps, but instead of giving volunteers still photos to identify, these citizen scientists work with short video clips in order to categorize a variety of behaviors like climbing, traveling, mating, eating, grooming, vocalizing, and more. Here's a sample of some favorite video clips from 2019 and 2020, as featured on the Chimp & See blog and Youtube channel.


In addition to categorizing chimp behavior, volunteers will also contribute to data on the environments in which chimps live by identifying other species and watching how animals within these African ecosystems interact. With footage gathered from 15 countries in Africa, you're sure to see some incredible variety of wildlife every time you log on!

Join Chimp & See on their homepage to start watching videos now, and learn more about the Pan African Programme behind this project on their website. You can also follow Chimp & See on Instagram to see all the best animal behavior content.

Beluga Bits

Can one project collect enough data to address several complex, overlapping research themes about marine mammal social structure, reproduction, habitate usage, and life history? Yes! Beluga Bits does all this and more, and it all started by letting volunteers identify beluga's...well, bits. Citizen scientists sort through screenshots from the Beluga Boat cam livestream from Northern Manitoba, Canada to classify the whales according to sex, age, group size, and identifying markings. Here are a few favorite snapshots shared by volunteers over on Zooniverse; as you can tell, some beluga aren't very good at keeping data collection in mind whilst posing!



(This beluga is ready for their close-up...)


(Too close!)

Beluga Bits is also quite unique in that its data isn't coming from an automatic camera trap; instead, citizen scientists get to play an extra role in this project by taking screenshots of the popular cam when whales are present, which are then uploaded to the Zooniverse platform for classification. This handy flowchart breaks down the process, starting at the Beluga Boat and ending in a photo ID catalogue.


The Beluga Boat cam will be broadcasting again this summer, but in the meantime, you can start classifying thousands of photos right now on the Beluga Bits homepage. Researchers from this project are hoping citizen scientists like you will help them hit some big goals so they can start uploading and analyzing new 2019 photo sets to the platform, so get to work!

Steller Watch

And finally, here's a Zooniverse success story: in the time it took to write this blog post, busy citizen scientists actually finished the final photo sets on Steller Watch!


(This sea lion is proud of his social distancing skills. Good job, sea lion. We're proud of you, too.)

While we're a little disappointed that we can't join this neat project identifying marked sea lions from the Aleutian Islands, the incredible speed of citizen scientists in finishing their photo sets over the past week speaks volumes to just how active and exciting the citizen scientist community is right now! Congratulations to Steller Watch's research team and volunteers! You can read more about this project's goals and results here, and visit NOAA Fisheries' Alaska website and Twitter to learn more about research being conducted in this region.

Want to Share Your Own Citizen Science Project? 

We hope you've enjoyed this glimpse into just a few of the Zooniverse projects you can join during quarantine, in the classroom, or any time! Regardless of whether you use camera traps, machine learning, and other conservation tech in your day job, we think it can be quite fun to engage with other research projects, help our fellow scientists, and experience science from a fresh perspective. To see other Zooniverse projects, including those from other fields like climate science, the arts, history, literature and language, medicine, space science, and more, visit the full Zooniverse project catalogue here. And if this post inspired you to incorporate citizen science into your research, you can find out more about building a project of your own on Zooniverse here!

Are you already using citizen scientists in your work? Whether you're on Zooniverse, a mobile app, or elsewhere, we'd like to hear from you! If you have a project update you'd like shared with our community in a future blog post, or you're interested in creating a conservation tech case study, blog post, photo diary, video tutorial, or other content type about a project that incorporated citizen science, contact [email protected] to learn more about submitting content to the WILDLABS blog.

Until then, we'll see you on Zooniverse!

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