Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Studying the phytoplankton with citizen science

The phytoplankton in the sea, and the plankton food web they support, underpin the rest of the marine food chain (seeThe importance of plankton). Living at the surface of the sea the plankton are particularly sensitive to changes in sea surface temperature, both directly through the effects of temperature upon their physiology, and indirectly through the effects of temperature upon the physics of the water column. As sea surface temperatures increase due to current global warming evidence is mounting that the phytoplankton are reacting to this change in their habitat, and this calls for more research to understand (see: What’s happening to the oceans’ phytoplankton?).
Phytoplankton: These microscopic cells begin the marine food chain. They are so numerous they account for 50% of photosynthesis on Earth.
One new project that is specifically designed to enable you to help add to our knowledge of the Oceans’ phytoplankton is the citizen science Secchi Disk study This study combines a 150 year-old piece of equipment invented by the Pope’s astronomer with modern smartphone technology to help collect data on the phytoplankton from oceans around the world. So, what is a Secchi Disk and how does the project work, and most importantly, how can you take part?
The Secchi Disk is a plain white, 30cm diameter disk attached to a tape measure and weighted from below. It is one of the simplest and oldest pieces of marine scientific equipment.
Firstly, just what is a Secchi Disk ? Long before modern navigational aids, when sailors just had a compass, the sun and the stars to rely upon, they knew that either the colour of the water or its clarity could provide information about their location, for example the Sargasso Sea is particularly clear while neighbouring waters are less so. To help sailors determine water clarity they would lower a white object, often a disk, over the side of the ship and watch it disappear from sight; the quicker it disappeared from sight the lower was the water clarity. Until 1865 this technique was relatively, informal. In 1865 Pope Pius IX tasked Alessandro Cialdi the commander of the Papal navy to determine the currents in the Mediterranean Sea. Cialdi asked the Pope’s Astronomer Pietro Angelo Secchi, to formalize the method of using a white disk to help determine the currents by measuring their changing clarity. A scientific paper on the currents in the Mediterranean sea was written and from then on the white disk became known as a Secchi Disk, and it has been used as a standard and simple way to measure water clarity ever since. Unchanged for decades, a Secchi Disk is a plain white disk 30 cm in diameter that is attached to a tape measure and weighted from below. When the disk is lowered into the water from the side of a boat the depth at which it just disappears from sight is noted and is called the Secchi Depth.
When lowered vertically into the water the depth below the surface at which the Secchi Disk disappears is called the Secchi Depth and this measures water clarity. In water over 25m deep and over 1km from shore, the main determinant of water clarity is the phytoplankton. 
Away from estuaries and coasts the main determinant of water clarity is the amount of phytoplankton in the water column. Consequently, marine biologists have used the Secchi Depth to measure phytoplankton since the Secchi Disk’s ‘invention’ in 1865. Now, with evidence to suggest the phytoplankton in the world’s oceans are changing due to climate change, and because of their important role in the marine food chain and the Earth’s carbon cycle, we need to know if, how and why they are changing. Even though we can now obtain remote estimates of phytoplankton from satellite measurements of ocean colour, in situ measurements are still fundamental and scientists still use Secchi Disks. However, there are simply too few scientists to survey the world's oceans as well as we would wish. This is where sailors, acting as citizen scientists, can help science by making and using a Secchi Disk. By collecting Secchi Depths from around the world, from now and into the indefinite future, any seafarer can help grow the database of Secchi Depth measurements to give a much bigger time series in terms of its temporal and spatial extent.
Dr Richard R Kirby created the citizen science Secchi Disk study in 2013 to enable any seafarer to help collect data to understand the affect of climate change on the phytoplankton.
So how can citizen scientists get involved ? Anyone who goes to sea can take part, whether you are a sailor with your own yacht, a crew-member, or are on a charter sailing holiday, or you are an angler, a diver or a fisherman. All you need is a Secchi Disk and the free Secchi app installed onto your smartphone or tablet. The Secchi app is available as a native app for iOS and Android phones and also as a Web app (Secchi Web) for Windows devices (Secchi Web also runs on iOS and Android). The Secchi Disk is a DIY element to the project. A Secchi disk can be made from any material, such as a white plastic bucket lid or a piece of plywood painted white. Offcuts of 3-5 mm white Foamex that you can often obtain from printers work very well. Attached to an inexpensive fibreglass tape measure with a weight hanging below, the Secchi Disk is lowered vertically into the seawater (you need to use sufficient weight to make the disk sink vertically, which will depend upon the disk material), and the Secchi Depth is noted. The quicker the Secchi Disk disappears from sight the smaller the Secchi Depth and the more phytoplankton there is in the water. Simple!

Once the Secchi Depth is determined, you use your smartphone and the free Secchi app to obtain the GPS location and to enter the Secchi depth - a network connection isn’t required for this. The Secchi App will store the data on the phone and the Secchi Disk project receives the data as soon as network connectivity is regained. Anyone can follow the data collected on the project map. The aim of the project is to chart the seasonal and annual changes of the phytoplankton from now and into the future. It is a long-term project that carries on indefinitely. Seafarers may measure the Secchi depth at the same place regularly, or occasionally, or they may take measurements from different places as they travel. The more sailors that take part the better the coverage of the oceans, and the more remarkable and useful the citizen science Secchi Depth database will become.

I’ll now reveal my vested interest in this blog since I am the leader of the Secchi Disk project. Often, we look back and wish we had already started monitoring something about the natural world - if only we had started measuring 'x' some years ago. In terms of the phytoplankton there really is no time like the present to start growing the Secchi Depth database and this is why I created the Secchi App and this citizen science project. Since its launch in 2013 the project has gone from strength to strength. Already it is the world’s largest marine citizen science study with data from every ocean. In 2014 there was a Secchi Disk 'first' when Jimmy Cornell’s grand-daughter Nera measured a Secchi depth from the Northwest Passage, which has only recently become navigable due to global warming. Whether sailing in coastal waters or cruising across oceans, families find the project particularly useful as an educational addition to being on the water. This year small boat fishermen joined the study, as they are fully aware of the importance of understanding the phytoplankton that underpins all fisheries.

So, if you go to sea, why not take part in this study to help improve our understanding of the oceans’ phytoplankton, or alternatively, share this blog, so that more citizen scientists can find out about the project.

You can find the Secchi Disk project at, on Facebook and on Twitter @secchiapp.

Dr Richard Kirby is a British plankton expert, scientist, author and speaker. Follow Richard @planktonpundit on Twitter. Richard’s book “Ocean Drifters, a secret world beneath the waves” is available on Amazon and as an iBook

Friday, 1 April 2016

Conserving the Falkland Islands' natural environment

Falklands Conservation is a non-governmental organisation working to protect the wildlife in the Falkland Islands for future generations. It undertakes practical conservation projects, surveys and scientific studies, conducts annual monitoring of seabird populations, rehabilitates oiled penguins, publishes guides and information on many aspects of the Falkland Islands environment, and involves islanders of all ages in its activities, including running a Watch Group for children. It relies on donations and public support to carry out its work.

The Annual Seabird Monitoring Programme 

The Falkland Islands support seabird populations that are of global importance both numerically, and in terms of conservation status. An estimated 72% of the global population of Black-browed Albatross breeds in the Islands which are also home to the majority of the world’s population of Southern Rockhopper Penguin, Gentoo Penguin and Southern Giant Petrel. The Southern Rockhopper Penguin is classified as 'Vulnerable' (IUCN Redlist), due to large decreases in its population over the last century. Whilst the Black-browed Albatross has recently made positive moves from 'Endangered' to 'Near Threatened', it shares this status with the Gentoo Penguin which moved from 'Least Concern' in the early 90s. The Southern Giant Petrel moved from 'Vulnerable' to 'Least Concern' in the early 2000s. 
Teaching a local volunteer how to ring young black-browed albatrosses on Steeple Jason in March 2015.
The changing fortunes of these important Falkland Islands species demonstrates how critical it is to monitor such populations, and, given the proportions of the global populations in the Islands, it is easy to understand how further changes in local populations could readily impact the global conservation status of these species, just as they have before. Falklands Conservation initiated the Falkland Islands Seabird Monitoring Programme (FISMP) in 1989/90. Since then, population monitoring has continued on an almost annual basis. 

Currently the FISMP monitors breeding population trends and breeding success in Gentoo Penguin, Southern Rockhopper Penguin, King Penguin, Black-browed Albatross, Southern Giant Petrel and Imperial Shag, visiting remote survey sites and islands by 4 x 4, plane and boat. Monitoring a range of species with differing ecologies has additional benefits as they also serve as indicators of potential change in other Falkland Islands seabird populations or oceanographic conditions.
Counting gentoo penguins for the Falkland Islands Seabird Monitoring Project.

Building Capacity for Habitat Restoration 

This Darwin Plus funded project trials the use of native plants for restoring eroded land on farms and nature reserves. Soil erosion from fire, climate change and grazing is a significant problem across the Falkland Islands and threatens important habitats including coastal tussac and its ecosystem with penguins and sea lions. There is currently no supply of native plant seed for landowners wishing to restore their land with native plants and this project aims to provide start up quantities of seed and growing information.
A variety of seeds collected.
To do this a Native Seed Growing Hub has been established, providing seeds for trials on a range of eroded soils across the Falklands. Fourteen native plant species have been tested and a number, including tussac grass and fuegian couch grass, have grown very successfully.
Assessing the habitat restoration plots.

Oiled Seabird Rehabilitation Facility 

The Oiled Seabird Rehabilitation Facility cares for oiled and injured seabirds, mostly penguins, which are brought in by the public to be cleaned of oil, and then rehabilitated until they are ready to be released.
First, vegetable oil is massaged into the feathers. This thins out the heavy crude oil. Then washing up liquid and water remove all trace of the oil.
This involves an intensive programme of washing, hand feeding and husbandry, conducted by staff and volunteers. This includes the generous donation of fish from local fishing companies. The facility was formally opened in March 2015, and is also providing capacity for the offshore oil industry’s Oil Spill Response Plans.
The penguins are given time to swim and preen, ensuring they are fully waterproof before they are released back into the wild.
The penguins are then taken to a remote beach to be released.

Watch Group 

Our efforts to build appreciation and understanding of wildlife and conservation continue through the Watch Group. The junior membership of Falklands Conservation has 55 members ranging in age from 8 years old to 15.
Looking at a sample aboard the expedition vessel Hans Hansson.
With the support of the Standard Chartered Bank, we are able to take children to many of the more remote parts of the Falklands, and to maintain a programme of activities throughout the year. These incorporate our main strategic focus; strengthening biosecurity and managing invasive species, terrestrial habitat restoration, and enhancing marine management.
Children explore rock pools during a camp to Elephant Beach Farm.
The children are educated and enthused about these topics through activities such as tussac planting, beach cleans, and exploring marine ecosystems through rock pooling and collaboration with the Shallow Marine Survey Group. Plans for the future are to incorporate an education centre into our new building.
A group takes a closer look at the pond life at Hawks Nest Pond, West Falkland.

Lower Plants Project 

The Lower Plants Project is a two year project surveying the bryophytes and lichens of the Falkland Islands undertaken and run by Falklands Conservation between 2014–2016. Funded by the UK Government through DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and the Darwin Initiative, this project was set to fill the ‘critical knowledge gap’ in bryophytes and lichens that was identified in the Falkland Islands Biodiversity Strategy 2008–2018, and to increase local awareness.
A workshop run to increase awareness of the different species.
The project is addressing this knowledge gap, and is providing data essential for effective conservation planning and enhancement of the ‘Important Plant Areas’ of the Islands. The main objective is to create an up to date species list for the three taxonomic groups we know as mosses, liverworts and lichens and to create a capacity and legacy for future research on this area of botany.
A selection of mosses, liverworts and lichens.
The legacy would be in the form of a laboratory, a herbarium, and an increased awareness among the public of the Falkland Islands regarding bryophytes and lichens. To date, the project has discovered 40 new moss records, 8 new liverwort records and 80 new lichen records for the Falklands, which include approximately 15 species new to science. 

If you would like to become a member of Falklands Conservation, adopt a penguin, or donate towards our Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, the education centre for the Watch Group, or any other of our conservation activities, please visit, our Just Giving Site at or follow us on Twitter @FI_Conservation or Facebook