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Eyes under the water: Volunteers help Great Lakes scientists find invasives below

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Aquatic invasives
Starting at top right, clockwise: Zebra mussels, Asian carp, flowering rush, spiny waterflea, faucet snail, eurasian watermilfoil.
Photos: MPR News, AP, DNR, USGS File

Volunteers are helping scientists collect data from the bottom of the Great Lakes.

For years, researchers have been amassing hundreds of underwater videos of lake bottoms as they gather water quality data and other information from the depths.

"Having several scientists review the videos, especially when you have hundreds of videos, gets really time-consuming and costly," said Molly Wick, a research fellow for the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education who's based in Duluth.

So this summer, for the first time, they posted 700 short video clips on a research website called Zooniverse — and asked volunteers to watch the clips and help them identify invasive zebra or quagga mussels and an invasive fish called the round goby, which lives in deep water.

"And actually we got through all of those videos in just under two weeks, and had almost 500 people visit the site, which is really awesome, because I anticipated that it would take a lot longer," said Wick.

Wick is still compiling the data the volunteers recorded, but she said in preliminary tests, she's finding that volunteers did just as well as scientists in identifying invasive species in the underwater videos.

That could lead to more options for scientists studying the lakes. Research ships on the Great Lakes are increasingly using video as a water quality monitoring tool.

"All the Great Lakes research cruises that come out of the Duluth lab, we plan to try to include video on all of them, especially if we're doing anything that involves the lake bottom," said U.S Environmental Protection Agency biologist Ted Angradi, who works with Wick. "So I think the stream of data is going to increase, and is going to make these kinds of analysis tools even more relevant going forward."

Crowd-sourced video analysis could also help quantify human impacts on the Great Lakes, such as trash on the lake bottom or in connecting channels, Angradi said. Video might also be another tool for early detection of new invasive species in the Great Lakes.

And there are benefits beyond the data itself that the volunteer video-watchers collect.

"We also feel like it is an informational outreach tool that can make the public more aware of the Great Lakes, Great Lake ecology and Great Lakes ecological research," said Angradi. "So it has that sort of extra intangible benefit in addition to the research benefit."

This idea will save a lot of time next year, when researchers plan to collect hundreds of deep-water videos across the Great Lakes as part of a health check done every five years, Wick said.

Spot the invasive species

Here are a few examples of invasive species caught on camera by the EPA, so you know what to look for.

Videos and descriptions courtesy of the EPA.

This video was collected in Lake Ontario (nearshore/coastal area) in 2018, and shows the bottom completely covered with what look like mostly zebra mussels — it is hard to tell the difference between the two in the video. There are some small round gobies nestled in the mussels on the left side of the video.

This video was collected in Lake Huron (nearshore/coastal area) in 2017. There are several round gobies sitting on a rock. Round gobies have fused pelvic fins that form a circular fin that they can use to prop on or suction to rocks. They can be seen well in this video. There are a couple invasive mussels, covered in algae, on the top of this rock, too.

This video is from the upper Niagara River. You can see the strong current. There are a few gobies that swim through and invasive mussels are attached to many of the larger. Lots of bleached white dead mussel shells are scattered around in the sand and gravel as well.