Cool Papers 3: Citizen Scientists to the rescue!

By Danielle Ludeman

Let’s face it – the world we are leaving for our children is not going to be the same one we grew up in.  But although biodiversity is being lost in our ecosystems at an accelerating rate, around the world there are countless tales of people doing their part in trying to preserve, conserve, and manage our natural resources.  Before we can protect biodiversity in ecosystems we need to know what there is to protect, and an important challenge for ecologists is to determine geographical patterns in biodiversity, which requires extensive data collection. More and more we are relying on ‘citizen’ scientists to help in this key step, and hundreds of thousands of volunteers each year take part in a variety of surveys, bioblitzes, and monitoring programs.  But how reliable can the data be?

In a paper that came out last week in “Methods in Ecology and Evolution”, researchers Dr. Ben Holt and colleagues have shown that Citizen Science can be just as effective in recording marine biodiversity as traditional scientific surveys. The study compared two methods of acquiring biodiversity data: a belt transect typical in peer-reviewed scientific articles, and the ‘roving diver technique’ used by the REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation) program.  Volunteers, no matter how enthusiastic they are, typically don’t have the training to use traditional scientific protocols, therefore most Citizen Science programs use alternate methods and techniques that may affect the outcome of the biodiversity survey.  This study therefore set out to try to determine how much the two methods differed when assessing the biodiversity in the Turks and Caicos Islands. They found that the two methods were consistent in their diversity estimates, with REEF’s rover method actually finding significantly more species than the belt method.  This rover method was not always the best method to use, as belt transects were more suitable for species richness estimates. However, the vast quantity of data that can be collected using REEF’s rover method and the consistency to diversity estimates of more traditional methods suggests that Citizen Science programs such as REEF can be invaluable for large-scale biodiversity surveys.

Divers performing a belt transect survey as part of a Citizen Science program called ReefCheck in Honduras.  Credit: D Ludeman

Divers performing a belt transect survey as part of a Citizen Science program called ReefCheck in Honduras. Credit: D Ludeman

Citizen Science is happening all around us. The REEF program has collected over six million sightings across 10 000 locations.  Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count has finished its 113th year, with tens of thousands of participants collecting data from over 2000 circles.  Government programs such as British Columbia’s ‘Report-a-Weed’ helps in early detection and rapid response to invasive species.  And programs such as the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s Bioblitz gets families from across Canada learning the plants and animals found in their own backyard.

So how about lets all get there and do our part!  Here is a (brief) list of just some of the Citizen Science programs that are happening out there.  Feel free to add more in the comments section, or send us a message at to get us to add yours!

REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation)
Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count
British Columbia Breeding Bird Atlas
Whistler Biodiversity project
E-flora BC
Alberta Mycological Society
Alberta Plantwatch
Project Noah
Monarch Larva Monitoring Project

Monitoring changes at Baeria Rocks Ecological Reserve

by Amanda Kahn

Life abounds in the northeastern Pacific Ocean–I could easily spend a whole SCUBA dive looking at the life on a single boulder.  Such dense carpets of life, however, can mask changes in the health or structure of the communities that live on those boulders.  Monitoring specific regions, especially ones designated as ecological reserves and marine protected areas, is one way to assess changes in what may still look like a carpet of life, but varies in what species make up that carpet, how diverse those species are, and whether sensitive species have been replaced by more robust or alien ones.

Baeria Rocks

Baeria Rocks Ecological Reserve. Source: BC Parks

One of those monitoring areas near BMSC is Baeria Rocks Ecological Reserve, whose original purpose was “To protect nesting seabirds, and to preserve rich intertidal and subtidal communities for research and educational purposes.”  It also protects a terrestrial plant, called the hairy goldfield (Lasthenia maritima), that lives primarily on wind-swept rocky shores.

Lasthenia maritima (plus some charismatic megafauna). Source: Encyclopedia of Life

It is also the closest provincial marine reserve to the marine centre, about 13 km away, providing easy access for regular monitoring.  The original detailed surveys from 1977 included species list, descriptions of different dive sites, and ecological observations.  The ecological reserve was established primarily for protection, so it is closed to the public.  However, various courses, students, instructors, and volunteers from the marine centre have continued monitoring through the years and provide virtual access where the public cannot go.  In the video below, and in others from this Friends of Ecological Reserves webpage, you can get a look at the life carpeting the cobbles of Baeria Rocks from a 2011 monitoring trip in video and picture form.  Enjoy the virtual dive!

To learn more about the ecological reserve, check out the links below:

Official BC Parks web page with information about Baeria Rocks Ecological Reserve

Photos from a 2009 monitoring trip by BMSC Scientific Diving course

I know I posted this earlier in the article, but the original 1977 dive reports have amazing details about the area and are an amazing read!

Land-locked scientists, getting their gills wet…for science!

by Amanda Kahn

As discussed in the previous post, my labmate Rachel and I traveled to the coast to collect more samples for our research on the reef-forming glass sponge, Aphrocallistes vastus.  We drove to Brentwood Bay the morning of our collection dive and went out to our dive site with the help of Pinnacle Scuba Adventures.  Everyone was in good spirits–it wasn’t raining yet, the water was calm, and we were going diving!  While I started talking about our most recent adventure (a.k.a. field collecting trip) in yesterday’s post on the blog, I have now continued the updates on the Leys Lab website.  Check it out to see how we fared during the dive and to learn more about why Rachel and I are studying the glass sponges, and what we’re hoping to learn about them.

Dive site

At our dive site. Credit: R Brown 2013

A “barren” landscape beneath the Love Shack

by Amanda Kahn

My first SCUBA dive in Bamfield was at a site called “Aguilar”, although by some it’s also called the “Love Shack.”  I don’t know the history of the building that sits perched on the rocky intertidal zone in the cove (maybe a local can chime in on that in the comments below), but the picturesque cove is an interesting, curiosity-inspiring place above- and below-water.

Love shack at Aguilar Cove

The “Love Shack” sits above Aguilar Cove. Credit: A Kahn 2012

A dive beneath the Love Shack features reveals a shallow field of cobbles housing sea squirts, sponges, snails, sea stars, and TONS of sea urchins.  Aguilar sits at the northeastern tip of Bamfield’s West Side, which means that from the marine station, it is accessible only by boat.  It is a good site for a training/practice dive, which is what we used it for, because it is protected from swells (it was a stormy day the day we dove), shallow, and there are open expanses on the seafloor where one can practice skills without quite as much worry about bumping into a fragile animal (though buoyancy control should never be undervalued).

This site is an urchin barren, meaning if you go, you’ll find a habitat that’s overrun with urchins.  Urchins are often opportunistic feeders who sit in burrows and feed on kelp that happens to drift by.  However, urchins in urchin barrens come out of their burrows and scour the benthos (seafloor), eating through live kelps.  What results is a habitat that contains mostly urchins, and very few kelps.  Pictured in the video below is an urchin barren filmed near BMSC.


Farther south, studies have shown that the loss of one of urchins’ key predators, sea otters, is implicated in facilitating the swap from a kelp forest habitat to one of an urchin barren.  Whatever causes urchin barrens up here, once a habitat becomes an urchin barren it is fairly stable–it would be difficult to recover the habitat back to a kelp forest.  Likewise, if a kelp forest is robust and healthy, it is difficult to convert it into an urchin barren.  In the video below, notice that there are tons of urchins visible, but no kelp in sight.


This interesting phenomenon is called “alternate steady states” by ecologists.and is interesting because it shows that no one habitat is the best for a specific location.  Can you think of other habitats, whether in land or in the water, where there can be alternate steady states?  The urchin barren/kelp forest is the classic example, and I realize that I haven’t really thought about other possibilities.  If you can think of some, please leave a comment below!

The hunt for glass sponge larvae

Amanda loves tide poolsby Amanda Kahn

This past week, I left frozen Edmonton, Alberta for some field work on the coast.  My supervisor (Sally Leys) and I went on the hunt for larvae of glass sponges.  Several years ago, a single larva was spotted in a sponge collected in November or December.  We then found sperm and eggs in sponges this past year, so we decided to go investigate.  This is important because this species of glass sponges forms the foundation of the sponge reefs that populate the straits of western Canada (and so far, form reefs nowhere else in the world), so learning about how and when they reproduce will help us determine what factors might positively or negatively affect their breeding success, and therefore the successful growth of the reefs.

Check out the post documenting our trip at the Leys lab website.

Credit: A Kahn 2012

Also, to see what the reefs look like that these sponges form,  check out the video at this link, compiled by Sameena Sherman of the Leys lab, showing reefs in Hecate Strait.


Predators that stalk on silent tube feet

Amanda loves tide poolsby Amanda Kahn

After a summer of exciting field research, I am back in Edmonton now at my home institution, the University of Alberta, for some exciting lab research.  Being in Alberta is great, don’t get me wrong–I just went to the Rockies this past weekend!–but it makes experiencing ocean life quite a bit more difficult when doing it from a landlocked province.  I spend my time in Edmonton processing samples I collect during the field season and by reading the primary literature to interpret the data I collected and formulate new hypotheses.  I do miss getting to see marine life on a day-to-day basis, however, so I sustain myself by reading great marine blogs about ocean science (check out our links page to see some), reading scientific papers, and finding great videos of marine life online.

Echinoderms: Sea Star Time-lapse: Eating Mussel from Shape of Life on Vimeo.

Here is a sped-up version of giant spined sea stars, Pisaster gigantea, as they hunt for prey along a piling.  This video was especially exciting because somehow, someone figured out how to put a tiny camera inside a mussel shell.  Watch as the sea star expels its cardiac stomach (as opposed to the pyloric stomach–sea stars have two stomachs) into a gap in the shell of the mussel, digesting it right inside its own shell.  Barbaric!  And awesome.

Pisaster giganteus

Credit: Chad King / NOAA MBNMS (Image source:

This species of sea star lives out in Barkley Sound and the Bamfield inlet.  In fact, if you get involved in a Live Dive you’ll probably see some.  Live Dives are hosted by BMSC’s Public Education Program and are ways that land-locked folks, like students who live away from the coast, can still see what lives underwater.  Scuba divers wear special masks with microphones and answer questions while diving the pilings beneath the docks of BMSC.

While the approach of a sea star seems like an unstoppable march of tube feet, they aren’t immune to predators themselves.  The sea star below didn’t notice the fish-eating anemone (Urticina piscivora) it was walking upon until it was too late.

Anemone chomp!

Credit: Chad King / NOAA MBNMS. (Image source:

Any guesses about who ate this one?  Here’s a hint: they like to hold onto their food with two paws, are known to control sea urchin populations from getting out of hand, and are locally extinct near Barkley Sound.  Leave your idea in the comments section below!

Pisaster giganteus, eaten by a...

Who might have eaten this sea star?
Credit: Steve Lonhart / NOAA MBNMS (Image source:

By the way, one of the cool things about sea stars: the one in the picture above is still alive! Even with two of its arms chewed away, it can still survive and will grow those arms back, as long as the central area of the sea star has not been damaged.