More than 100,000 people around the globe took part in the Great Backyard Bird Count this past weekend, spending at least 15 minutes of their day sitting, watching, identifying, and counting birds. The annual survey provides biologists with the most comprehensive data about where avian species are present or absent, and about their changing demographic patterns.
This is citizen science on a macro scale — harnessing the power of bird lovers everywhere for the benefit of bird professionals. Biology is hardly the only discipline that enlists the mob in the name of science. Even if birding isn’t really your thing, there’s definitely a citizen science project out there for you. Here are some of our favorites:
The world’s telescopes collect a lot more information than professional astronomers can comb through in their lifetimes. That’s where you come in. With Asteroid Zoo, you click through images of the night sky from the Catalina Sky Survey, searching for moving dots of light that may indicate the presence of an asteroid. It’s genuinely fun to go on an asteroid hunt, and surprising exciting when you come across a promising piece of space dust flickering across the screen. If this sort of thing is your bag, there are several similar space projects available on the Zooniverse, where you can help astronomers explore supermassive black holes, baby planets, galaxies, and the surface of Mars.
There’s a parasitic fly that is colonizing the brains of honeybees and turning them into zombies. Biologist John Hafernik made the discovery a few years ago, and he’s since enlisted an army of “zombee” hunters to collect better data about the parasite’s reach and impact. ZomBee Watch describes how to build a zombee trap and send in samples for testing. The great thing about this project is that it asks citizen scientists to go out and get their hands a little dirty while interacting with their environment. Another cool project like this one is the GMO Corn Experiment, where people can test GMO versus non-GMO cobs of corn to see whether squirrels prefer one over the other.
We’re learning more and more about how important our unique microbiome of gut bacteria is for our health. Poo transplants cure tough infections, and diets only work if they match up with what’s going on in your gut. For every human cell in your body, you’re carrying around about nine microbial cells — which sort of makes you wonder about what really counts as you.
The potential for future medical treatments and interventions based on your microbes is enormous, but to get there we need a lot more information. So for $99, American Gut will send you a swab for your mouth, skin, or feces, and then they’ll process that information and send you a full report about your unique little snowflake of a microbe colony. It’s like personal DNA analysis, but for your other DNA. You’ll be empowering the science of the future, and maybe your data will one day help you get weight-loss advice that actually works.
Like astronomy, biology is cursed with a wealth of visual information and a dearth of eyeballs to process it. So if you like exploring the home planet, instead of the stars, you might want to start with Snapshot Serengeti. You’ll be presented with images taken by motion-triggered cameras in Tanzania, and asked to find and identify any animals that appear in them. It’s almost as fun as an actual safari, but way easier on your pocketbook and the planet. If you’re into spying on animals doing their thing, the Serengeti is just the beginning. You can also count penguins in Antarctica, watch chimps hang out in West and Central Africa, and classify bats by sounds and sight around the world.
Maybe you’re not really motivated by making meaningful contributions to human knowledge, but you still enjoy puzzles and games. Fortunately, there’s an area of citizen science just for you. Eterna is a game based on the principles of folding strands of RNA, but you don’t have to know anything about microbiology to play. Some Eterna players just contributed in a big way to real research, getting their findings on the relative difficulty of RNA shape design published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. How’s that for citizen science? If you like playing games for science, you might also like Nanocrafter and Eyewire.