Democratizing biology

Democratizing biology

Ecologist M. Alex Smith is urging the public to get up close with nature
June 6, 2012

For three years, people from around the world have been combing high-resolution panoramic images of the University of Guelph’s Dairy Bush, a nine-hectare wooded area located on the campus’s western boundary, to help identify its plants and the animals and insects hidden within the foliage. By accessing M. Alex Smith’s GigaPan profile, visitors with little to no biology expertise can help analyze these images. Smith, a molecular ecologist, has set out to democratize biology and contribute to the comeback of the hobby biologist by providing vast amounts of publicly available data.

To do this, he mounts his camera on a robot called a GigaPan, which he places at the same spot in the bush every week. He programs it to take 640 pictures that he later digitally stitches together to create a high-resolution 360-degree panoramic image of the landscape. The University of Guelph professor then uploads the images onto the Internet so that visitors can zoom in close enough to observe and identify even tiny insects and see the Dairy Bush change over time. “It’s almost like taking people into the landscape,” he says.

Smith’s goal is to inspire an appreciation for wild areas like the Dairy Bush and the life they contain, which frequently goes unnoticed.

“Most of life is less than a gram, less than a centimetre, and we don’t always see it,” says Smith, “so we have to find ways to acknowledge it.” Combining DNA bar-coding, which identifies organisms at the species level using a short standardized sequence of DNA, and the GigaPan, Smith measures the complexity of the environment, with the goal of giving it a true value.

“Part of the reason we have a hard time valuing the ecosystem services provided by other forms of life on the planet,” he says, “particularly in an economic environment, is because we are not good at enumerating most of the things that are here.”

Smith is also DNA bar-coding the insect population in the Dairy Bush, in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park and in the Área de Conservación Guanacaste in Costa Rica to learn more about the environmental impact of resource extraction on these ecosystems.

The field of biology was once open to the hobbyist, much like astronomy is today. But the more scientists delved into the field, the less accessible it became to the general public. Smith hopes to change this through his CFI-funded biodiversity project, a long-term ecological study aimed at understanding the spatial population dynamics of threatened and understudied species.

“We need to teach the general public how to interpret scientific information,” says Smith, who believes that participating in projects like his will help create a bioliterate Canadian population that could make informed decisions about the environment.

When members of Smith’s team discover an unpublished bar code, they share it with the public, and the specimens they trap are made available to any academic who wishes to study them. “I was given public money, so I consider my data public data,” says Smith. “Whether it’s the GigaPans or the publicly available bar codes or the bycatch from the traps, transparency gives the data more value.”

Smith’s CFI award is enabling him to acquire more insect traps and GigaPans as well as a truck that will allow him and his team to access research sites with ease. He hopes to have an estimate of the habitat diversity of the insect population in Algonquin Park by the end of this summer.

As for the GigaPan, Smith has been using it to take stunning panoramic pictures in Costa Rica and wants to reproduce the Dairy Bush project in the Amazon, enabling Canadians to experience remote areas in a detailed and interactive way. He also curates the website Nearby Nature Gigablitz, which features the best nature GigaPan images submitted by participants from around the world.

The Dairy Bush project has gone beyond the realm of science, having attracted attention from an unlikely source. In November 2010, a representative from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts contacted Smith to inquire about using one of his images as a backdrop for the orchestra during a fundraising concert. The orchestra, fittingly, was giving a rendition of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.