May 15, 2011 Devin Bloom is not your typical Facebook user. The Ph.D. candidate in evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) only posts sporadically to the site, and he wouldn't even have a personal Facebook page if his little sister hadn't secretly set one up for him. But recently, while on a scientific expedition to the remote jungles of Guyana, Bloom helped illuminate a powerful new use for the social networking tool. As a result, technology-averse biologists around the world may soon be flocking to the site.
In January and February, Bloom helped conduct the first ichthyological survey on Guyana's Cuyuni River. The trip was funded through the Biological Diversity of the Guiana Shield program at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History and was led by Dr. Brian Sidlauskas, assistant professor of fisheries at Oregon State University (OSU). The goal was to find out which species of fish live in the Cuyuni and get a good estimate of their abundance.
The Cuyuni is bisected by the Guyana/Venezuela border and extends 210 kilometres into the thick jungles of western Guyana. The region is under intense ecological pressure from the artisanal gold mining operations that pepper the Guyanese hinterland. This mining has terrible impacts on the surrounding environment. Chief among these are the increase in sedimentation in the rivers and the release of elemental mercury directly into the food chain. "That's why it's important we get there now, to find out what's there," says Bloom. "Because in 30 years, who knows what the Cuyuni will look like?"
For two weeks, Bloom, Sidlauskas and the rest of the team spent day and night catching as many fish as they could with various nets. They slept in makeshift jungle camps. In two weeks, the team had collected more than 5,000 fish specimens. Then they realized they had a big problem.
"In order to get the fish out of the country," says Bloom, "we needed an accurate count of each species." The team's research permit required them to report this information to the Guyanese government. "We couldn't leave the country until we turned over our data to the authorities."
Time was of the essence, as Sidlauskas, Bloom and OSU graduate student Whit Bronaugh had to return to North America as soon as possible. But how could a handful of people possibly identify 5,000 fish in just a few days? "A lot of people think fish experts know hundreds and hundreds of species," says Bloom. "But they really don't. We're all specialists on one particular group or another." The last thing the team wanted was to fudge the data, because the whole point of the project was to gather accurate information for the Guyanese government to use in its conservation and development planning.
That's when Bloom made a great suggestion. "Let's just put them up on Facebook and see if our friends can help." Sidlauskas loved the idea, so he uploaded the photos that Bronaugh had meticulously taken of each species. "The network of fish experts is pretty small," says Bloom, "and fish people can be real fanatics. Once a fish pops up on Facebook, they get very excited and start arguing. So next thing we knew, we had a really interesting intellectual debate going on between various world experts on fish, sort of like a real-time peer review that reached across continents and around the world." In less than 24 hours, their network of friends -- many of whom hold Ph.D.s in ichthyology and whom Bloom refers to as "diehard fish-heads" -- had identified almost every specimen.
With 5,000 identifications in hand, the team was able to deliver their results to the government and return home on schedule. The National Museum of Natural History's blog ran a story on the team's novel use of social networking to crowdsource their data. Then the Smithsonian Institution's blog, Smithsonian Science, and Smithsonian magazine's blog did the same. Not long after that, employees at Facebook caught wind of the story and chose it as a "Facebook Story of the Week" on the company's page. In less than a few weeks, more than 9,000 people had "liked" the story, and more than 2,500 comments were registered.
"Bloom's elegant approach to solving this particular scientific and logistical problem is reflective of the ingenuity and inventiveness that one finds amongst UTSC researchers," says vice-principal of research at UTSC, Malcolm Campbell. "Combining his passion for research, with the preparedness and cutting-edge thinking that are part-and-parcel of his UTSC graduate degree, Bloom devised a particularly effective solution in a tight spot," says Campbell. "Bloom and his supervisor, assistant professor Nate Lovejoy, are superb examples of how the best minds are conducting the best research at UTSC."
The results of the biodiversity survey on the Cuyuni River were somewhat discouraging. Bloom says 5,000 fish is not many; he can remember similar trips on different Guyanese rivers where the team pulled in up to 20,000 specimens. "Species diversity and abundance were very low," he says. "We need to continue monitoring, but this isn't good news for the region."
But the team's use of Facebook to crowdsource accurate scientific data has had an unexpected consequence: it's led Bloom to change his mind about the value of online tools. "Social networking is so powerful, and scientists should be using it more to connect with the world-at-large," he says. "I can't take credit for the idea, though." Bloom's friend, an ichthyologist at Texas A&M named Nathan Lujan, has been using Facebook to identify fish for years. "And Nathan?" says Bloom. "Nathan is a real fish-head."
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