Facebook Friends of Social Networking Scientists Help Identify Fish

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Facebook friends provide a variety of uses in ones life—some relationships are beneficial, while others are trivial. At times, their posts can elicit responses from you in a way that no actual conversation with them ever has—amusement, chagrin, surprise, rancor, and even, as a group of scientists recently found out, game-changing gratitude.

Last month, a team of scientists conducting a fish survey in the Cuyuni River Basin in Guyana ran into a problem. After collecting 5,000 fish specimens from the river, the ichthyologists had to identify them all in less than a week in order to obtain a permit to export the specimens back to the United States. Only, they had no idea how they could complete this Herculean task in time.

"We didn't have really the time or resources to the way that we would traditionally do it," says Brian Sidlauskas, assistant professor at Oregon State University and research collaborator at the Smithsonian who led the expedition of three graduate students and four boatmen. And so, they found themselves at a crossroads.

"You sort of have a moral quandary," says Richard Vari, curator in the Department of Vertebrate Zoology at the National Museum of Natural History and expedition collaborator who helped raise the money to fund the survey. "Do you lie, in a sense, and put down your best guess, knowing that it's probably wrong, or do you leave the material behind? There is no good answer."

So, Sidlauskas and his small team came up with a better one. They decided to post photographs of the fish on Facebook and ask their friends to help them identify the species.

"It was really ad hoc. I was sitting there with myself and two other colleagues, my student Whit Bronaugh and a student from the University of Toronto named Devin Bloom, and actually the original idea was Devin's," says Sidlauskas. "Whit was actually the one who took all the photographs, Devin was helping with the IDs and it was his idea to ask friends for help," Sidlauskas says.

The response was overwhelming and within 24 hours, 90 percent of the specimens had been identified. "I was surprised," said Sidlauskas, "it worked far better than I ever would have guessed."

Later on this month, the team will reassemble to double check a number of the identifications to make sure that there weren't any mistakes on the photographs, says Sidlauskas. This time, they will use the traditional method, which involves looking at various scientific publications and papers, called revisions, and working sequentially through the key to narrow down each fish, until the species is identified.

Sidlauskas hopes that the popularity of this story, first reported by Smithsonian Science and highlighted as the Facebook "Story of the Week,"will get people more interested in science, "not just in fish identification, but knowing more about the ecology or the evolution and conservation of the area we're going to," he says, areas like Guyana.

This was the first comprehensive survey conducted in the Cuyuni River basin, located up towards the Venezuelan border, which is being polluted by gold mining in the area. The result is that the fish are disappearing and the indigenous community living in the area is also being negatively impacted.

"It's a very valuable trip because the way things are going, there may not be a lot of fish left there in upcoming years," said Vari. "This gave us a nice snapshot, at least, of what's there right now."

"We didn't really expect the level of these problems to be as pronounced as they were, but they are quite dramatic," Vari says. And now, he says, the original report from the expedition is being used by Conservation International in Guayna as a basis to address some of these concerns. Similar problems exist in many places around the world these days, says Vari, particularly in South America, which boasts the richest fresh water fauna in the world.

Both Vari and Sidlauskas hope that their study, sponsored in part by the Biodiversity of the Guyanas Program at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, will have long-lasting effects on the way people view conservation and, even, how they see scientists.

"We're people as well as scientists," says Sidlauskas. "We have social networks just like everyone else does, but, because I'm a scientist, my social network has a lot of other scientists in it." And in this case, that network helped make a literal world of difference.

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