OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Facebook assist: Getting ID with a little help from his friends

04/07/2011

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A team of scientists in the remote Cuyuni River basin in Guyana was conducting a fish biodiversity survey recently, when they ran into a problem – they had to identify more than 5,000 specimens in less than a week in order to obtain a permit to export them back to the United States for further study.

Their solution? Why, Facebook, of course.

The researchers posted photos of about a hundred different species on their Facebook pages and alerted their friends. Within 24 hours, they had identified 90 percent of the specimens.

“I’m a scientist and many of my friends are scientists,” said Brian Sidlauskas, an assistant professor of fisheries and wildlife at Oregon State University, who led the expedition. “The request went through this network of ichthyologists and the response was amazing. It has definitely changed my perspective on how we can utilize social media outlets like Facebook to bolster our work.”

Of course, not all of the responses and comments were, shall we say, in a serious vein?

“One poster said ‘I think that’s a fish,’ and another identified a species of anchovy as ‘pizza topping,’” Sidlauskas said, with a laugh. “But many of the people who responded were among the leading experts in the world and we did in 24 hours what would have taken our team weeks to accomplish on our own.”

Time was of the essence because the researchers had to properly identify the specimens in order to get export permits from the Guyanese government.

OSU graduate student Whitcomb Bronaugh, a professional photographer, had excellent photos of the fish and another student, Devin Bloom of the University of Toronto, came up with the idea of using Facebook to help identify them. The team will reassemble later this month to double-check the identifications using traditional scientific methodology, which involves lots of literature review and painstaking analysis of distinctive anatomical traits.

The work is important, the scientists say, because accelerated gold mining in the region has dumped vast amounts of sediments into the region’s rivers and many fish species appear to be disappearing.

“Without historical records, it’s hard to tell the complete extent of the mining’s impact, but there were numerous species – even entire families of fish – we thought should be there that weren’t,” said Sidlauskas, who is a research collaborator for the Smithsonian Institution, which funded the trip through its Biological Diversity of the Guiana Shield program. “Virtually all of the plant-eating fish were gone, and most of the detritus-eaters.”

Word of the Facebook assist has spread and Sidlauskas and his colleagues have been featured on the Smithsonian Institution website as well as making the story-of-the-week on Facebook.

“I’ll need to repay my colleagues in the future for their rapid response,” Sidlauskas said, “but some of the posters also reaped the benefits. We may have discovered a new species that a few of them want to study. This also helps illustrate the importance of conservation and learning more about ecology and impacts on the environment.”

And so far, Sidlauskas says with a grin, no one has “unfriended” him.