Thousands of citizen scientists help uncover new species in crowdsourced research effort

CHICAGO — You don't need a Ph.D to contribute to science, as a group of citizen scientists — one as young as four years old — showed when they helped identify a tiny new species as part of a crowdsourced research project.

Botanist Matt von Konrat has spent a lifetime staring down a microscope at tiny plants. He says his latest project analyzing the stems of liver worts could uncover new information about climate change. Because they're so small, he says they respond more quickly to changes than bigger plants and animals, like a canary in a coal mine. However, the task of analyzing and filing over 10,000 slides holding specimens the size of an eyelash seemed next to impossible.

"There's a whole microscopic world in there!" von Konrat said. "It would've taken literally a lifetime."

That's where 16-year-old Kalman Strauss comes in. Strauss was one of the first volunteers to help go through the thousands of slides stored in the Field Museum's deep vaults.

"They're kind of overlooked, since they're not as showy or beautiful as flowering plants, but I find them to be incredibly complex, beautiful and ecologically important," Strauss said.

That got von Konrat to thinking: if a 16-year-old would dig this stuff, why not see who else would bite? They uploaded the images on the slides to a website called Zooniverse — and waited. Sure enough, citizen scientists began logging on. Within months, they had over 10,000 people pitching in with their analysis and measurements. Even four-year-old Eve contributed, writing "this is a new species" on one.

"There's nothing better than seeing a kids eyes light up when you tell them they're making a real contribution to real science," Strauss said.

With the help of thousands of non-scientists, the liver wort research paper has officially been published, with co-authors including a 16-year-old high school student and a retired businesswoman. And von Konrat's quiet world just got a lot bigger.

"If you asked me a couple years ago that we could get this project focused on liver worts and over 11,000 people actively contributing, I would say, 'no way!' But it's just amazing what we can achieve," von Konrat said.

Because of the success of this project, the Feld Museum plans to reinstate digital kiosks where visitors can analyze other plant species, and hopefully inspire another generation of young scientists.