With Colby’s emphasis on undergraduate research, fieldwork, and exploration of Maine’s natural resources, it’s no surprise to find two dozen biology students combing the intertidal zone in Acadia National Park in October, identifying plant and animal species. But finding an exotic tropical fish they initially mistook for a cartoon character? And then publishing its photo online and catching the attention of a select and far-flung group of ichthyologists interested in fish habitat and ecological change?
One observation of a little, orange fish highlights how Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology Seabird McKeon and his Principals of Ecology class are taking part in a brave new world—one where social media meets scientific observation and where powerful wiki-style sharing accumulates real-time data that can help track the effects of climate change on species and their habitats.
McKeon assigns each student the task of posting 100 species observations on the website of iNaturalist, a phone app that allows citizen scientists to record observations, share them with fellow naturalists, and then discuss findings. The trip to Mt. Desert Island provides some of those observations.
Corin Balan ’18, a biology major originally from Romania, recalls the sequence of events on the Maine coast. “I see a fish in a pool of water. A small fish, it was about two or three centimeters. Bright orange. And I say to myself, ‘This looks like Nemo! This is not something you generally find in Maine.’ I pick it up, take a photo, a few others take photos of it, and I put it right back where I found it.”
That’s where Andy Li ’18, from Salt Lake City, came in. After a quick search that didn’t turn up any common fish in the Gulf of Maine that are bright orange, Li posted a photo—along with other geo-tagged photos of crabs, seaweed, etc.—on iNaturalist.org. Next day he looked at his phone and there were 10 comments on his post. “From all these people I’d never met before. It was kind of a shock,” Li said.
Overnight, experts were weighing in to identify the fish or to reach out to more-expert colleagues for help. The consensus? It was a short bigeye, a tropical fish normally found in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and waters off the southeast U.S. coast. “I keep reading and it says this is the second-most-northern sighting of that fish,” Li said. “It was fascinating—all within twenty hours or so.”
McKeon, who grew up exploring nature on Cape Cod, said the fish is occasionally found there in the late summer. “That, in and of itself, is rare,” he said. But, “It’s October in Maine? That was something special.” He had believed the Cape was “the last subway stop” for individual tropical fish swept northward with the Gulf Stream.
So the students’ discovery in the Gulf of Maine raises a host of questions. Is the short bigeye an anomaly or are there others? Is the fish’s habitat expanding northward as a result of climate change? By having the students log it on iNaturalist as a “research grade” find, it becomes a data point scientists can use.
It just so happens that McKeon, who is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, is one of those scientists. “I work on range expansions because of climate change,” he said. “Now we’re going to be able to specifically search for this and other species of tropical fishes and see if there is a pattern.”
“Maybe this is the edge of a wave?” McKeon said, noting that a one-degree average temperature increase can unlock the door to new species entering a habitat.
He described iNaturalist as the broadest citizen-scientist site for logging precisely located observations of a wide range of species. There are more focused platforms: “Birders are way into eBird right now,” he said, mentioning other sites for bug enthusiasts.
The remarkable thing is the power of online networks to advance science in a changing world. Speaking as a researcher, McKeon said, “We’ve always been able to publish something [in a print journal] and say, ‘novel sighting.’ That might mean six months from now this one sighting of one fish would come out in some obscure little journal and the other three people interested in short bigeyes could find it.”
iNaturalist, though, exposes the discovery instantly and to anyone who wants to search, or perhaps has an alert set, for online information about bigeyes. Founded in 2008, iNaturalist had logged more than three million observations by Nov. 1.
While the students were unabashedly excited about the ripple their little fish had caused, McKeon was equally animated discussing the synergy between what iNaturalist and Colby both do—using disparate data points to reveal a bigger picture. In his first year teaching in Colby’s Biology Department, he said he was impressed at how specialized and effective the College is at answering the question, “How do we take local impact and put it into a global framework?”
McKeon’s students’ observations can be seen at inaturalist.org/projects/colby-college-ecology.