Recent infrared observations of a star that once showed a pattern of weird dimming have turned up no anomalous readings, astronomers say – and that supports the view that a comet blitz rather than the construction of an alien megastructure was behind the earlier observations.

The latest evidence, laid out in a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, isn’t exactly surprising. The passing of a shattered comet was seen as the leading orthodox explanation for the star KIC 8462852’s strange behavior.

But there was also the unorthodox explanation. The readings from the star, gathered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope and analyzed by a citizen-science project known as the Planet Hunters, created a stir because of a potential alien connection.

The starlight from KIC 8462852 dimmed dramatically – by as much as 22 percent – on an erratic schedule during the 2011-2013 time frame. Last month, Penn State astronomer Jason Wright said that pattern matched what might be expected if an advanced extraterrestrial civilization were to start building an enormous energy-harvesting structure around a star. Such structures, known as Dyson spheres, have been the subject of speculation for decades.

Source: Alien megastructure? Nothing to see around formerly weird star, scientists say

We’re all used to citizen science projects that aim at education, or at producing scientific value, but the combination – especially involving groups of young children – remains incredibly difficult to pull off. The ‘Blackawton Bees’ study is a touchstone for much of my thinking, but hasn’t been replicated in the UK and required a huge investment of effort. Credit then, to the authors of the study cited in this piece who not only attempted something ambitious but also wrote clearly about both what did and what didn’t work. –CJL

Citizen scientists have helped researchers track everything from endangered plants to monarch butterfly eggs. But these amateur observers are usually adults. Could kids help out too?

In a study published in PLOS ONE, scientists tested the citizen science capabilities of 302 elementary school students in Germany. The children, enrolled at 10 schools in urban and rural areas, ranged from 8 to 10 years old. As part of their science curriculum, the kids carried out experiments with plant seeds in the spring and early summer of 2013.

Featured image: Elementary school students in Germany set up experiments with seeds as part of a study to test their citizen science capabilities. (Photo credit: Miczajka, V.L., A.-M. Klein, and G. Pufal. 2015. PLOS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0143229.)

Source: Can kids do citizen science?

Forgotten trees from long lost orchards and 20th-century city landscaping are being rediscovered in urban areas, and their fruits are proving not only largely free of urban pollutants, but more nutritious than their retail counterparts.

Scientists at Wellesley College have joined forces with the League of Urban Canners (LUrC), based in Cambridge/Somerville and greater Boston area, to collect and eventually analyze 166 samples of apples, peaches, cherries and other urban fruits and herbs, collected from remnants of historical farms, urban parkland, and residential properties. The efforts grew out of concern for a LUrC member who was found to have high levels of lead in their blood. Members of LUrC wanted to make sure that the urban fruits they were harvesting and processing were not harboring toxic metals.

“This is a story with a good ending: not much lead in these urban harvested fruit,” said Dan Brabander, Wellesley geosciences and environmental studies professor who has previously studied lead exposure risk in urban gardens and in areas impacted by historical mining activities.

The LUrC study investigated the concentrations of lead in urban fruits when they were peeled and unpeeled as well as washed and unwashed. That was intended to distinguish whether the fruits were taking up lead internally or being contaminated by dry deposition from the air or from soil dust.

“We found there was no difference between these variables,” said Ciaran Gallagher, an undergraduate researcher, who will be presenting the research at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Baltimore. Gallagher will be co-presenting with geoscience undergraduates Hannah Oettgen and Disha Okhai.

Source: Researchers Analyze Health Benefits of Urban Fruit

The saga of house dust

The dust in our homes contains an average of 9,000 different species of microbes,
a study suggests.

Researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder analysed the dust found in 1,200 households across the US.

They discovered that the types of bacteria and fungi varied depending on where the home was located, who lived there and whether pets were present. The research is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Dr Noah Fierer, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, who carried out the study, said: “This is really basic natural history we are investigating here. We have known for a long time that microbes live in our homes. What we are doing is now is old-fashioned science, to see how they vary across space.”

Source: The saga of house dust

A new project called EyesOnHives has beekeepers buzzing. Developed by Santa Barbara–based Keltronix, Inc., the technology uses video to monitor hive activity in order to keep track of its health. A rapid decline in the insects’ population in recent years has concerned and at times baffled scientists and bee enthusiasts.

EyesOnHives trains a camera-like device on a beehive, collecting video, counting incoming and outgoing bees, and monitoring environmental data. The information is uploaded to a cloud-based analytics platform and analyzed by Keltronix’s software, allowing the beekeeper to monitor the hive’s activity. Owners can also check out the activity of others’ hives in order to piece together trends in bee activity and crowdsource diagnoses and solutions for colonies that begin to show signs of failure.

“Santa Barbara is a really bee-friendly city,” said Keltronix founder Kelton Temby, “and so we have local regulations here that really support the environment and support the bees.”

Source: Saving Bees with Surveillance

This blog is a summary of a very dynamic workshop that took place at the end of the NZ Ecological Society Conference last week in Christchurch. Amazingly, around 30 scientists, students, academics, teachers, consultants and project coordinators summoned their remaining energy to discuss some key citizen science topics.

Earlier in the year, a call was put out by the organisers of NZES2015 (the annual NZ Ecological Society conference), for symposia and workshops. I thought it high time to capitalise on the gathering momentum of citizen science in New Zealand, and the initial 5 talks proposed rapidly grew to 9. Projects from NZ and Chile were presented, with Karen James and Caren Cooper beaming in from the US showcasing projects they are involved with.

The workshop was based around 4 interdependent questions that rose out of my PhD research:

  1. How can we ensure that community groups collect quality data?
  2. What can community-generated data be used for?
  3. How can community-generated data be integrated with agency data?
  4. What do we need to grow citizen science in NZ?

So when you put around 30 intelligent and inquiring people in a room after 4 long days at a conference… move them around 4 tables each facilitated by a dynamic leader (Jon Sullivan, Heidi Kikillus, Colin Meurk and Peter Handford) for some short, sharp discussions…. you get best practice for citizen science in New Zealand.

Source: Reflections on the citizen science workshop at #NZES2015

Climate change threatens more than one-fifth of the world’s birds, according to a new report published in collaboration today by BirdLife International and Audubon. Titled The Messengers, the report draws on 92 studies and reviews—including Audubon’s own Birds and Climate Change Report—to show how birds from all seven continents will be affected by global warming.

It’s tough to say exactly how many birds will suffer from climate-induced disturbances in habitat, food availability, weather, predation, and disease. Out of 570 species considered in one recent international review (cited in the report, but not yet peer-reviewed), 24 percent are responding negatively to global warming. And while 13 percent of species seem to responding positively and 14 percent of species appear unaffected, it’s still unclear how 49 percent of species will respond to the impending global changes, the review found. “What’s striking is the global nature of this problem,” Stuart Butchart, head of science at BirdLife International, says. “There’s a consistent message that climate change is causing trouble for species in [many] places.”

Birds, it seems, are the mediums of this message; they’re highly reactive to changes in their environment, and are well studied as a result. With the Conference of the Parties (COP 21) convening in Paris next week, this “increasing body of evidence” of how global warming influences species survival becomes all the more relevant, Butchart says. “We want to draw attention to the importance of people mitigating climate change and reducing these risks.”

Source: What Birds Tell Us About Climate Change’s Threats

Citizen scientists’ important contributions to biodiversity conservation are constrained by their focus on data collection and public outreach in wealthy, accessible places. Sustainable conservation actions require initiatives such as those supported by the Participatory Monitoring and Management Partnership (, in which data collected by land owners and resource users help to guide local decision-makers on conservation management.

Citizen scientists do not formulate research questions, analyse data or implement management solutions on the basis of research findings. By contrast, participatory monitoring by local and indigenous communities in tropical, Arctic and developing regions enables them to propose solutions for environmental problems, advance sustainable economic opportunities, exert management rights and contribute to global environmental data sets.

Such monitoring could benefit from the large-scale databases and knowledge integration pioneered by citizen science. Conversely, citizen science could benefit from the community-based monitoring practices used to build data-collection methods, analytical tools, communication networks and skilled workforces in culturally appropriate, place-based governance structures.

Source: Conservation management: Citizen science is not enough on its own

I thought this post significant as I personally found the idea of discovering multiple new species – even if they are flies – in a heavily urbanized area such as Los Angeles to be astonishing. – LFF


The latest buzz in the world of newly discovered insects was not in a distant jungle far away but in the bustling city of Los Angeles.  On this week’s TechKnow, Phil Torres speaks with a team of experts working at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum’s BioScan project The project uses 30 volunteers with large malaise traps to find new species of insects. This year’s BioScan project focused on flies. And at each of the sites, a new fly was discovered. It only took the first three months of the project to obtain these results

Lisa Gonzalez, Assistant Collections Manager of the BioScan project, is in charge of obtaining samples each week from the volunteers’ homes. Her field of study is the traffic and wilds of Los Angeles rather than distant jungles.

Featured image: Phil Torres with Walter Renwick and his daughter Eleanor. They are one of thirty LA families taking part in the BioScan program.

Source: Citizen lords of the flies

Citizen science has become a firm feature of established research. The University of Zurich has joined forces with ETH Zurich and the University of Geneva in a call for universally binding guidelines and principles for citizen science.

There are laypeople counting birds, characterizing galaxies, identifying invasive plants, and taking measurements of their own bodies. The help they provide to professional scientists is increasingly making them an irreplaceable part of established research at universities, and in the wake of the digital revolution this form of citizen science and participation looks to become even more important in the years to come.

This was the consensus of the hundred or so people who attended the international conference on Standards and Recommendations for Citizen Science at UZH this week.

Source: Research tapping the power of citizen science