Name that fish! The power of social networking to scientific discovery

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I just love this story.  In today’s Science is a short little piece about a group of Ichthyologists (Fish researchers) who set out to survey the Cuyuni River which flows through Guyana and Venezuela.  Although remote, the river’s wildlife is threatened by pollution from mining and the researchers wanted to document which fish currently occur in the river.  After two weeks of surveying over 200 km of the river the scientists had collected 5000 specimens.  The problem:   they only had one week to identify all of those specimens by genus and species to be able to secure an export permit to continue their research back in the US and Canada.

Knowing they would need some help, they uploaded images of the collected fish onto a Facebook site asking for help with identifications and while some playfully witty “friends” weighed in with comments like, “They look like fish to me” and others commented by identifying anchovy as “pizza topping” - within 24 hours scientists from all over had quickly helped them identify over 90% of their collection.

The story balances out another letter to the editor in the same edition of the journal that says we need to be investing greater resources into enhancing our abillity to efficiently identify species.  While the number of classically trained taxonomists is indeed on the decline, infromation sharing may be able to spread that limited knowledge further than it has ever gone before.

Check out some of the fish images here.


Photo:  Brian Sidlauskas