Crowdsourcing sea lion science

The Alaska SeaLife Center has been studying Steller sea lions (SSLs) since it opened its doors. Research like the Chiswell Project, movement and behavior studies, diet studies (we heard about the importance of poop a few weeks ago!) and reproductive biology studies with our resident animals all have been working towards better understanding why populations of SSLs in the Gulf of Alaska through the Aleutians experienced dramatic population declines over the past 40 years. Some regions are beginning to show recovery, but in the case of the Western Aleutians, the declines still continue today.

So this week we want to highlight a really cool project that is also working on addressing questions about SSL biology in the Western Aleutians that isn’t being conducted at the ASLC,  but it is something you can be involved in!!!



The NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center researchers are launching their first crowdsourcing project on Zooniverse called Steller Watch. The Western Aleutians are notoriously difficult to conduct research in. Their remote location, combined with unpredictable weather and winds, means that scientists are limited to surveying the area once, sometimes twice a year. To get year-round data they began installing automated remote cameras at six sea lion sites in 2012 that photograph sites every five to 20 minutes during the day, every day. The cameras were so successful that they yielded nearly 380,000 photos last year alone!

That’s where Steller Watch comes in. The concept is really simple—it would take a very long time to process all of the photos collected (>500,000!) but the information needs to be analyzed in a timely manner to be useful for management and conservation of this species. Instead, everyday people can help by reviewing and classifying the photos and collectively do what would be nearly impossible alone.

Yep, you can contribute to this important conservation science from the comfort of your own couch!

When you open the website (after reading a bit about the background of the project and why this is important) you’ll be guided though a very short tutorial and then you’re ready to get started classifying!

The website also has great links to other features like:

1) Steller Watch Blog that highlights more of the research NOAA is doing

2) The “Sea lion of the month”  page that shares information about some the marked animals you might see when going through the photos. Even more exciting, if there is a sea lion you come across often when going through photos you can nominate that animal to be featured on the blog!!

3) You can also submit questions for biologists

So be sure to check out this awesome program.

As the lead for the Steller Watch Program, Biologist Katie Sweeny, says:

“We’re all scientists. We all live in the world and observe things.” 

Written by: Dr. Amy Bishop

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