Posts about citizen science

Mechanical Gears Found in Jumping Insects

A natural example of a functioning gear mechanism has been discovered in a common insect – the plant-hopper Issus – showing that evolution developed interlocking cogs long before we did.

The gears in the Issus hind-leg bear remarkable engineering resemblance to those found on every bicycle and inside every car gear-box. Each gear tooth has a rounded corner at the point it connects to the gear strip; a feature identical to man-made gears such as bike gears – essentially a shock-absorbing mechanism to stop teeth from shearing off.

The gear teeth on the opposing hind-legs lock together like those in a car gear-box, ensuring almost complete synchronicity in leg movement – the legs always move within 30 ‘microseconds’ of each other, with one microsecond equal to a millionth of a second.

This is critical for the powerful jumps that are this insect’s primary mode of transport, as even miniscule discrepancies in synchronisation between the velocities of its legs at the point of propulsion would result in “yaw rotation” – causing the Issus to spin hopelessly out of control.

“This precise synchronisation would be impossible to achieve through a nervous system, as neural impulses would take far too long for the extraordinarily tight coordination required,” said lead author Professor Malcolm Burrows, from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

“By developing mechanical gears, the Issus can just send nerve signals to its muscles to produce roughly the same amount of force – then if one leg starts to propel the jump the gears will interlock, creating absolute synchronicity.

Interestingly, the mechanistic gears are only found in the insect’s juvenile – or ‘nymph’ – stages, and are lost in the final transition to adulthood. These transitions, called ‘molts’, are when animals cast off rigid skin at key points in their development in order to grow.

It may also be down to the larger size of adults and consequently their ‘trochantera’ – the insect equivalent of the femur or thigh bones. The bigger adult trochantera might allow them to can create enough friction to power the enormous leaps from leaf to leaf without the need for intermeshing gear teeth to drive it, say the scientists.

It’s not yet known why the Issus loses its hind-leg gears on reaching adulthood. The scientists point out that a problem with any gear system is that if one tooth on the gear breaks, the effectiveness of the whole mechanism is damaged. While gear-teeth breakage in nymphs could be repaired in the next molt, any damage in adulthood remains permanent. It is amazing what evolution results in, not only gears but a system that changes to a different solution (maybe, who knows the real “reason”) when the gears solution lack of robustness would create a problem for survivability.

While there are examples of apparently ornamental cogs in the animal kingdom – such as on the shell of the cog wheel turtle or the back of the wheel bug – gears with a functional role either remain elusive or have been rendered defunct by evolution.

Related: Using Bacteria to Power Microscopic MachinesWebcast of a T-cell Killing a Cancerous CellBuilding A Better Bed Bug Trap Using Bean Leaves

In the video above, Professor Malcolm Burrows talks about finding the bugs that led to the science, and working with artists Elizabeth Hobbs and Emily Tracy and members of the community in the London borough of Hackney to produce the film ‘Waterfolk’.

Full press release

Domestic Cats Remain Successful Predators

House cats kill more critters than thought by Elizabeth Weise

While only 30% of roaming house cats kill prey — two animals a week on average — they are still slaying more wildlife than previously believed, according to research from the University of Georgia.

The cats brought home just under a quarter of what they killed, ate 30% and left 49% to rot where they died.

The carnage cuts across species. Lizards, snakes and frogs made up 41% of the animals killed, Loyd and fellow researcher Sonia Hernandez found. Mammals such as chipmunks and voles were 25%, insects and worms 20% and birds 12%.

Seeking a window into the hidden lives of cats, the researchers recruited 60 owners in the Athens, Ga., area. Each owner put a small video camera mounted on a break-away collar on the cat in the morning and let the cat out, then removed the camera and downloaded the footage each night.

Interesting data. As I wrote about before you can get your very own cat cam and see what your cat is up to. I posted an interview I did with the engineer that designs and sells the cat cams.

Related: Video Cat CameraPhotos by Fritz the CatSumatran Tiger and Cubs Filmed by Remote Wildlife Monitoring Cameras

Citizen Science: Use Your Smart Phone to Help Scientists

10 Ways You Can Use Your Smartphone to Advance Science by Matt Soniak

Scientists have started to use the abilities and prevalence of smartphones to their advantage, creating apps specifically for their studies and crowdsourcing observation and data collection. When almost everyone has an Internet connection, a camera, and a GPS unit right in their phone, almost anyone can gather, organize, and submit data to help move a study along.

The Indicator Bats Program (iBats), a joint project of the Zoological Society of London’s Institute of Zoology and The Bat Conservation Trust, got its start with a couple of researchers working in Transylvania (of course) in 2006. The idea of the project is to identify and monitor bat populations around the world by the ultrasonic echo-location calls they use to navigate and find prey.

The goal of Project NOAH (Networked Organisms and Habitats) is pretty ambitious: “build the go-to platform for documenting all the world’s organisms.” Their app has two modes. “Spottings” lets you take photos of plants and animals you see, categorize and describe them and then submit the data for viewing on NOAH’s website and use by researchers for population and distribution studies.

Invasive plants and animals can crowd out natives, compete with them for food sources and alter the fire ecology of an ecosystem, disrupting its natural balance. Researchers and programmers from UCLA, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and the University of Georgia have teamed up to create the What’s Invasive citizen science program and smartphone app. Volunteers can use the app to look up lists of the top invasive species in their area, created by National Park Service rangers and biologists. If they spot a plant or animal from the list, they submit a geo-tagged observation, with optional picture and text notes, so that scientists can locate, identify, study try to remove the species.

Great stuff.

Related: Backyard Scientists Aid ResearchCellphone MicroscopeThe Great Sunflower Project

New Blog with Simple Demonstrations and Scientific Explanations

Try this at home is a new blog by Dr Mark Lorch, a chemistry lecturer at the University of Hull, with instructions for the citizen scientist. This example shows how to move a can with a ballon without touching the can.

The posts include instructions on how to do these simple demonstrations and a nice explanation on the scientific reason for what is going on:

Rubbing the balloon on your hair charges it up with static electricity which makes the balloon negatively charged. When you put the balloon near the can it pushes electrons (which are also negatively charged) to the other side of the can. This makes the side which is nearest the balloon positively charged. Positive charges are attracted to negative charges so the can moves towards the balloon.

It is quite a nice site (especially if you have kids interested in science or are a kid interested in science – no matter how old you are), add it to your RSS reader. Here are some more science blogs you may enjoy.

Related: The DIY Movement Revives Learning by DoingHome Engineering: Building a HovercraftTeaching Through Tinkering

Fossil or Mystery Monster Found In Kentucky Seems to Defy All Known Groups of Organisms

Around 450 million years ago, shallow seas covered the Cincinnati region and harbored one very large and now very mysterious organism. Despite its size, no one has ever found a fossil of this “monster” until its discovery by an amateur paleontologist last year.

UC Paleontologist David Meyer, left and Carlton Brett, right, flank Ron Fine, who discovered the large fossil spread out on the table.

The fossilized specimen, a roughly elliptical shape with multiple lobes, totaling almost seven feet in length, will be unveiled at the North-Central Section 46th Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America, April 24, in Dayton, Ohio.

Fine is a member of the Dry Dredgers, an association of amateur paleontologists based at the University of Cincinnati. The club, celebrating its 70th anniversary this month, has a long history of collaborating with academic paleontologists.

“I knew right away that I had found an unusual fossil,” Fine said. “Imagine a saguaro cactus with flattened branches and horizontal stripes in place of the usual vertical stripes. That’s the best description I can give.”

The layer of rock in which he found the specimen near Covington, Kentucky, is known to produce a lot of nodules or concretions in a soft, clay-rich rock known as shale. “While those nodules can take on some fascinating, sculpted forms, I could tell instantly that this was not one of them,” Fine said. “There was an ‘organic’ form to these shapes. They were streamlined.”

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Citizen Science

Citizen science enters a new era

Another online program, Phylo, is advancing scientists’ knowledge of genetics by making a game out of DNA matching. If areas of genetic sequence are roughly similar between species, it suggests strongly that they could have an important function. Finding them has been beyond the scope of computer algorithms. But earlier this month, researchers published a study where gamers outsmarted the best computers – they made the best possible DNA sequence match between up to eight species at a time.

The potential for regular people contributing to science is great. This has a long history. For most of human history science was done by non-scientists since there were no scientists. Calling is science might be a stretch but to me it was (passing on what health cures worked for various sicknesses, how to use various tools, how to grow crops…). As scientists came into being they were primarily unprofessional – that is they practiced science but were doing so as a hobby, they were not paid and had no requirements to get a PhD or anything.

Today regular people help by collecting data (counting birds, documenting plant growth [time of year], migration data, weather data…) sharing knowledge with scientists who ask, sharing their computer to be used to analyze data, analyzing data (for example, in astronomy hobbyists often make new discoveries) and the latest way people help is through games (that essentially tap human brainpower to analyze data – such as Foldit, which I have posted about previously).

I like the contributions people can make to science but I think the biggest value is the scientific understanding people gain while participating. As Neil Degrasse Tyson says the scientifically literate see a different world.

Cornell University provides an online tool to find opporunities participate in scientific research.

And we shouldn’t forget the amazing science done by students like those honored with Intel Talent Search, though the work those winning the awards do I would lump with science by “real scientists” (I believe now most of those who win are working on projects with university scientists).

Related: Backyard Scientists Aid Research8-10 Year Olds Research Published in Royal Society JournalTeen diagnoses her own disease in science class

Backyard Scientists Aid Research

Backyard scientists use Web to catalog species, aid research

When a scientist caught onto her efforts, Jirachareonkul and a friend assembled about 20 volunteers — a group she calls the “Toad NUTS” — to collect data on the endangered Western Leopard Toad. The information they collect is being used in scientific research.

At a time when climate change and urbanization are poised to set off a new wave of extinction, some members of the scientific community are turning toward backyard biologists for the data they need to monitor ecosystems and protect struggling species.

Project BudBurst, out of Boulder, Colorado, aims to collect so much amateur data about plant species that scientists will be able to tell how climate change is altering the seasons in North America.

Technology is amplifying this passion for citizen science, which has been around since scientists started cataloging species. Researchers at several universities are working on iPhone applications and computer programs that could analyze digital photos of plant leaves and automatically identify the plant’s species.

The relationship between formal science and citizen science is similar to that between professional news reporters and bloggers; some scientists worry that the information coming in from nonprofessionals will be inaccurate, said John Musinsky, a senior director at Conservation International.

Great stuff. And you can get involved if you want. Just follow the links or search around the internet to find projects that interest you. These projects can be great ways to get kids involved in science.

Related: The Great Sunflower ProjectMonarch Butterfly Migration

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