Citizen scientists and robot photographers join forces as National Science Week begins

August 8, 2013 - via ACFR

The power of citizen science will be displayed when thousands of budding marine biologists use images taken by the University of Sydney's underwater robot for a collaborative science project tracking the location of kelp and sea urchin populations.

Explore the Seafloor is part of National Science Week, 10 to 18 August, which the University of Sydney is supporting with a jam-packed calendar of events, from lectures on the psychology of gambling and on the importance of visualisation to science and medicine, to a challenging online science competition and participation in an exhibition of fascinating microscopic images at Customs House.

Commenting on Explore the Seafloor, Dr Renata Ferrari Legorreta, a postdoctoral fellow in the University's School of Biological Sciences said, "The crowd-sourcing contribution of these citizen scientists will be key to our understanding of how marine ecological dynamics work across many sites around Australia. It is only with their help that we can judge these hundreds of thousands of images."

Marine scientists used to don scuba gear to survey the seafloor but now Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUVs) have revolutionised their work.

AUVs are precisely navigated into position and provide high-resolution, overlapping images to create detailedsnapshots of the seafloor, including at depths where divers cannot operate.

An AUV called Sirius, belonging to the University of Sydney's Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR), has collected millions of seafloor images at sites around Australia. "These images are collected on an annual basis and help scientists to monitor and understand changes in habitats," said Associate Professor Stefan Williams from the ACFR.

Dr Ferrari Legorreta said, "Excitingly we can also create 3D maps by pairing images taken at the exact same time from parallel cameras positioned next to each other. I use them to look at the relationships between the structural complexity of underwater habitats and the abundance of sea urchins."

"I'm investigating issues such as what it is about kelp forests that makes them so vulnerable to long-spine sea urchins and why, if you remove all the urchins from an area, the kelp doesn't simply grow back."

Citizen scientists are invited to examine some of the AUV images to map the location of kelp and sea urchin populations and track how these organisms are responding to changes in the oceans.

Massive sea urchins are heading south on the East Australian Current, turning healthy kelp beds into marine lunar-scapes, denuded of seaweed and sea life. With the loss of the seaweed forests, biodiversity collapses, with potentially significant environmental and economic impacts to fisheries and tourism. Climate change is also affecting kelp forest around southern Australia.

Explore the Seafloor is also supported by the University of New South Wales, University of Tasmania, University of Western Australia, James Cook University, Australian Institute of Marine Science, CSIRO and ABC. It finishes on 2 September.

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