Citizen science – two examples of it at its best   Leave a comment

Citizen science is a concept that members of the public can add considerably to scientific knowledge if they take part in properly executed investigations. Examples in the ornithological world include the Garden Bird Survey conducted by RSPB members. Surveys by the BTO such as the Breeding Bird Survey, WeBS count (wetland birds survey) and Nest Recording Scheme need a higher level of expertise, but are still carried out by volunteers, as of course, is the BTOs Ringing Scheme, which I have reported on many times in this blog.


Although produced and published by professionals, the data in these two massive and highly informative tomes from the BTO were gathered by amateur birders (the Bird Atlas) and ringers (the Migration Atlas)


The reason I am posting this blog today is because yesterday I was stunned by two bits of news in which citizen scientist played a significant role. The first concerned the migration of Red-necked Phalaropes in Shetland. Whilst this research was carried out by the RSPB, I’m sure  amateur ringers carried out a significant role. This tiny waders are on the edge of their circumpolar Arctic breeding range in Shetland and it had been long assumed that they migrate to the winter on the sea in the Persian Gulf and in the Indian Ocean off Oman, as do the European and west Siberian population.

By fitting data loggers the researchers found that the Shetland birds actually cross the Atlantic and Central America to winter off the coasts of Peru and Ecuador at the northern end of the Humbolt current. Thus the tiny British population probably derives from North America rather than Scandinavia.

More can be found about this research here


A female Red-necked Phalarope (females have the brighter plumage due to the reversed breeding roles in this species) Photo from Loch Funzie, Shetland by


We saw many Red-necked Phalaropes in winter plumage off the coast of Oman, in November 2011. It would appear that the British birds don’t join them. Photo by Ewan Brodie.


The second item that I found astonishing was when I was watching Stargazing Live on the BBC. On the first program on Tuesday they asked for volunteers to scan through thousands of photographs of distant galaxies on the website looking for examples of ‘gravitational lensing’. Due to the distortion of space-time by a heavy object, the light from a very distant galaxy can be bent around a closer galaxy, so that instead of eclipsing it the closer galaxy forms the light of a more distant one into a circle around it.

File:Gravitational lens-full.jpg

Gravitational lensing. Picture from Wikipedia.


Within 48 hours 50,000 amateurs had examined 7,500,000 images and found 5 examples of gravitational lensing. One showed a very distant galaxy, the light of which had taken 11,000,000,000 years to reach us. This means it the image comes from a time when the first galaxies were forming and due to the ongoing expansion of the Universe is now 40,000,000,000 light years (c 400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Km) away!

This discovery was sufficiently significant that observatories in the UK, mainland USA, Chile and Hawaii immediately turned their telescopes to examine it wavelengths across the EM spectrum.  A triumph for citizen science!

In the picture above, the light from the distant galaxy 11 billion light years away has been ‘lensed’ into a red ring around the closer galaxy, which itself is a ‘mere’ one billion light years away. Picture from BBC Stargazing Live website.

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