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Help Scientists Classify Plankton, from the comfort of your Computer

Help Scientists Classify Plankton, from the comfort of your Computer

An online “citizen-science” project called “Plankton Portal” has been created by researchers at the University of Miami in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Plankton Portal lets you explore the open ocean from your own home. You can dive hundreds of feet deep, and observe the unperturbed ocean and the myriad animals that inhabit the earth’s last frontier. The Plankton Portal is at http://www.planktonportal.org/.


The goal of the site is to enlist volunteers to classify millions of underwater images to study plankton diversity, distribution and behavior in the open ocean. Millions of plankton images are taken by the In Situ Ichthyoplankton Imaging System (ISIIS), a unique underwater robot. ISIIS operates as an ocean scanner that casts the shadow of tiny and transparent oceanic creatures onto a very high resolution digital sensor at very high frequency. So far, ISIIS has been used in several oceans around the world to detect the presence of larval fish, small crustaceans and jellyfish in ways never before possible. This new technology can help answer important questions ranging from how do plankton disperse, interact and survive in the marine environment, to predicting the physical and biological factors could influence the plankton community.

According to Jessica Luo who is involved in the project, “in three days, we collected data that would take us more than three years to analyse.” It is impossible to individually classify every image by hand, which is why they have turned to crowd-sourcing.

“A computer will probably be able to tell the difference between major classes of organisms, such as a shrimp versus a jellyfish,” explains Luo, “but to distinguish different species within an order or family, that is still best done by the human eye.”

To help with the project go to http://www.planktonportal.org/. A field guide is provided together with a simple tutorial. You just need to drag lines to measure the plankton in the picture, and match to a shape. A science team are there to answer any questions about the classifications.

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