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“Idiot-proof” citizen science results in 16 new diatom species

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Krista Langlois | Oct 25, 2013 05:00 AM

Loren Bahls is not your typical retiree. After stepping down as head of water quality management for the state of Montana in 1996 – then retiring again from private consulting in 2009 – Bahls finally found time to pursue his real passion: Tiny, glass-walled microbes called diatoms that practically cover the surface of the Earth. Colonies appear to the naked eye as an algae-like slime, but under a microscope, individual diatoms become magical, their silica walls forming symmetrical, lacy patterns that stand out starkly from the microscopic jumble around them. Bahls has been collecting diatoms since he was a grad student in 1966, but in 40 years’ time discovered only two new species.

That changed after his retirement. Now, Bahls, 69, curates the Montana Diatom Collection in Missoula and has added some 60 new species to the scientific literature. Scientists believe less than a quarter of the hundreds of thousands of unique diatoms of the world have been catalogued, and most of those awaiting discovery are endemic to high-elevation lakes and streams. But Bahls’ knees are shot, and he can no longer collect samples himself.

“Reservoirs are terrible,” he says. “Typically they just have your garden variety, cosmopolitan species. You’ve got to go upstream, you’ve got to go to the headwaters. Researchers have been negligent in sampling remote, atypical habitats that are hard to reach.”

Enter Gregg Treinish, a National Geographic grantee and the founder of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), a project that pairs climbers, paddlers, bikers and hikers with scientists who need data from remote environments. Since Treinish came up with the idea in 2011, he’s helped pair more than 1,600 adventurers with 120 scientists on all seven continents. The group has worked with famed mountaineer Conrad Anker and snowboarder Jeremy Jones as well as six-year-olds and day-hikers. The idea, Treinish says, is to make the projects “idiot-proof.”

Diatom collection
ASC volunteer Lisa White collecting diatoms at Surprise Lake, Washington. Courtesy Loren Bahls/ASC.

It works like this: Interested volunteers tell ASC where they’re going, ASC matches them with a scientist, and the scientist provides basic training and supplies. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking a photo to document a receding glacier, or packing snow into a Nalgene to measure pollutants. Other times it’s more involved: Treinish hopes to soon partner with a neuroscientist who will record images of mountain bikers’ brains as they’re making split-second decisions. But for the athletes, the projects never require a scientific background.

“There’s so many things that are really helpful to (land) managers and researchers,” Treinish says. “And there are so many people that go out every day. There’s a tremendous desire among the outdoor community to make a difference, (but) nobody’s really mobilized them before.”

Of the 60 species of diatoms Bahls has helped discover, 16 came from the 230 or so samples collected by ASC volunteers. To show his gratitude to his recreationist partners, Bahls names the species after the volunteers who find them.

The ease with which adventurers have brought forth new species of diatoms has helped Bahls and other scientists “adjust our estimates of biodiversity,” he says. Diatoms have turned out to be “incredibly diverse, beyond our wildest expectations and imaginations.” They also act as water quality indicators and provide well-preserved fossils that paint a picture of human environmental history. “You take a core from the middle of the lake and look at the layers, and you can recreate the environments that have occurred in that lake since the glaciers retreated,” he says. “Within the last 150 years, you can show when humans began to occupy the watershed and began to introduce waste and fertilizers.”

Diatoms
Cymbella blinni diatoms. Courtesy Loren Bahls.

With so much unexplored science so close at hand, it’s no wonder Bahls’ pet peeves include space research, dinosaur research and diatom researchers who travel to Antarctica looking for species. “I outgrew dinosaurs in the 6th grade,” he wrote in an email. “Let's study living organisms. We have only scratched the surface when it comes to describing the biodiversity of our own planet. There’s a lot of work to be done at home.”

If there’s any drawback to his involvement with ASC, Bahls said it’s that it keeps him too busy in his retirement. “I don’t get out enough,” he said with a laugh. “I used to at least go car camping.” As for ASC itself, Treinish hopes that the project will continue to grow, reaching 10,000 adventurers by 2016. “I’d like the science community to understand that we can mobilize a lot of people, and help them get the data they need.”

Corrections: An earlier version of this story said that citizen science had resulted in finding 12 new diatom species, but Bahls has in fact found 16. An earlier version also identified the first photograph as Surprise Lake, Idaho, but it is in fact Surprise Lake, Washington.

Krista Langlois is an editorial intern at High Country News. She Tweets @KristaLanglois2.

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