By SONYA GURWITT/ecoRI News contributor
PROVIDENCE — During the past few weeks, a new phenomenon has brought hordes of smartphone users out from the depths of their homes. Anywhere you go, your path is sure to be dotted with Pokemon Go players wandering aimlessly, eyes glued to their phone screens, in their quests to catch a Pokemon.
If Pokemon doesn’t interest you, you can still be part of the tracking fun. With the release of an app created by researchers at Brown University, you can now record Rhode Island sightings of jellyfish.
Many other scientists and academics have already harnessed the popularity of smartphones for their research. Citizens can use apps to collect data in a wide variety of ways, such as locating invasive species, measuring the effects of light pollution, tracking marine debris, and mapping noise pollution.
In the past few years, Caroline Karp, professor of environmental studies at Brown University, has also been hoping to tap this potential for widespread data collection. She has been working on finding a way to use citizen scientists — also known as crowd-sourced science — to keep tabs on the Ocean State’s jellyfish populations.
A few years ago, Karp worked with a student on an environmental science thesis that involved looking for a type of jellyfish called Mnemiopsis — or more colloquially, the comb jelly — in Greenwich Cove. They wanted to examine the links between water-quality drivers and the comb jellyfish. However, they spotted too few of the jellyfish to make any real observations. The next year, a second student followed up on the project, gathering data from Greenwich Bay. Again, no mnemiopsis sightings.
“After those two students worked on this,” Karp said, “it struck me that it made no sense to look at this one station — why not look more broadly in the bay? And so I came up with this idea of using social media, using a telephone, to basically gather observations from all the marine waters in Rhode Island so that we could get observations over a much broader area and over much broader time frame, and get citizens involved in gathering data along with us.”
James Corbett, a rising senior at Brown, began working with Karp on this new phase of the project in fall 2014. Their goal: use the ubiquity of smartphones to allow them to gather large amounts of data on the state’s jellyfish population.
“It is relatively easy to collect dissolved oxygen, temperature, pH, salinity data,” Karp said. “But if you were to ask the question, Well, so what?’ in terms of the biology or ecology of these systems, you don’t have a clue because we’ve never collected the associated biological and ecological data. Citizen science-based, crowd-sourced ecological data in association with water-quality data will allow us to do something that’s profoundly more important. It allows us to say, ‘Well, we have some evidence now to suggest that water-quality conditions like this may support this cluster of species or induce these kinds of changes.’”
Having individual citizen scientists report their own jellyfish sightings is the most efficient, cost-effective way to combine widespread ecological data with data about water quality.
Corbett too believes that this app can help them add an “interesting ecological component” to already-existing data on water quality.
“There are still some questions regarding the seasonality and distribution of jellyfish in the bay, which is still not entirely figured out,” he said. “There’s been a lot of work done on it in Narragansett Bay, but we’re still finding some interesting observations that don’t match the literature.”
Karp said the project was driven by the hypothesis that comb jellies may be good indicators of environmental change.
Jellyfish are carnivorous, but comb jellies are close to the bottom of the food chain. They feed on zooplankton, which feed on phytoplankton, so phytoplankton blooms are often followed by increases in comb jellyfish.
“A lot of things like to eat comb jellies,” Karp said. “But many of those have been overfished, so a lot of (the comb jelly’s) natural predators have been removed from the system. In the meantime, lots of human nutrients still enter the system so we can still promote phytoplankton blooms. So in a way, we’re feeding at the bottom and removing predators at the top, which makes for a really good situation for this comb jelly.”
She noted that the comb jelly is also very tolerant of extreme water-quality conditions.
“It tolerates high temperature, it tolerates low dissolved oxygen, it seems to tolerate relatively low pH,” Karp said. “And so in that sense it might be a good sentinel of what’s happening in coastal waters.”
However, for this hypothesis to make sense, Karp said they need a lot more data. This is what motivated them to create an app, to allow a wide range of people to add their own observations.
They enlisted the help of another Brown University professor, Lynn Carlson, who manages Brown’s geographic information systems (GIS) and remote-sensing computing facility. Carlson helped them develop and manage the first iteration of their data collection app, which Corbett used last summer. He also spent that summer trying to persuade organizations and individuals to regularly record and submit data with the app.
“I’d say my biggest challenge was getting the average person you see on the fly to pick this app up and be able to use it,” Corbett said. “We kind of drove ourselves crazy with different protocols and instructions we were writing up last summer, because we needed something that had data that could be quality assured but also it needed to be somewhat legible to an ordinary person off the street who was interested.”
To get around this problem, the team has been working the past year to create two new apps to make keeping track of jellyfish sightings easier. Like the original app, one of the new apps is still based on a digital mapping server, sending the recordings directly to a GIS system that Carlson manages.
The other is a web-based application, and was developed in the spring by computer science students at Brown. This web-based app is designed to be user-friendly, and can be used by anybody, anywhere. To make it simple for people to understand and use, programmers included pictures to help people identify the jellyfish species they are looking at. It allows users to keep track of the approximate number of jellyfish, to record multiple species, and to record the presence of blooming algae, which can indicate nutrients entering the system. The app also asks for information on water usage and appearance, and it automatically includes the location, date, time, weather and tidal data.
Karp and Corbett hope that the user-friendly app will facilitate data collection from as many people and places as possible, while assuring enough quality control that the data can eventually be used.
Though they still need many more people to get involved to collect the amounts of data they are hoping for, 10 organizations do already help with data collection.
David Prescott helps collect data for one such organization, Save The Bay. Prescott is the South County coastkeeper, and is responsible for environmental advocacy and habitat restoration along the Ocean State’s southern coast. He has been doing water-quality testing on Little Narragansett Bay and the lower Pawcatuck River for the past nine years.
He said that since he spends a lot of his time monitoring water quality anyway, recording sightings — or lack thereof — of jellyfish was an easy addition to his weekly trips out on the water.
“Overall, the water’s getting warmer,” Prescott said. “I definitely feel like we’re seeing more jellyfish in our waters. Things are changing; not just with the jellyfish. A lot of colder-water species we used to see all the time, we don’t really see those as much. Taking additional data, in this case recording how many jellyfish we’re actually seeing at a given point and a given time, is really helpful in terms of seeing these changes to the environment locally.”
There are a few others like Prescott who record on a regular basis, but the challenge of getting people to make recordings still remains. For now, Corbett has been going out to various areas of Rhode Island each week to collect water-quality data and look for jellyfish. He will use this data for his senior thesis.
On an early morning in July, Corbett drove to Greenwich Bay, armed with only a sonde, a device for getting immediate water-quality readings, and his iPhone — tools that fit easily into his small backpack.
Standing almost waist-deep in the water, he entered readings from the sonde into his iPhone. Then, head bowed, he filled out his observations in the jellyfish tracking app. On this trip, he saw only one small comb jellyfish, despite checking at three different locations along the bay.
“But,” Corbett said, “what you don’t see is sometimes just as important as what you do.”