Our oceans are massive and are home to some massive creatures. These are the seeds of myth: sea dragons, Leviathan, the Kraken. Such creatures may seem unreasonable now, but exaggerating the size of our planet’s largest beasts is not just a thing of the past.
For years, scientists have worked with a very small pool of data when estimating the maximum and average sizes of marine megafauna. That is, until now.
A research paper published in the journal PeerJ, compiled and analyzed hundreds of measurements for twenty-four sea creatures ranging from barrel sponges to blue whales, giant clams to great white sharks. The motivation for the study was that the scientific literature simply did not contain a decent range of sizes for some of our planet’s biggest animals. In fact, it seems as though the literature was biased towards larger individuals. This is like drawing conclusions about the height of all humans based on NBA players like Yao Ming (7 ft 6 in), Michael Jordan (6 ft 6 in), Shaquielle O’Neal (7 ft 1 in) and LeBron James (6 ft 8 in).
People may wonder why we should know about the sizes of sea creatures. Some of the more academic uses relate to estimating energy and oxygen requirements of a population. From a more anthropogenic perspective, humans are changing the marine environment in a lot of ways, harvesting of marine creatures and climate change being just two of them. If we have a base-line of historical numbers, we can get a better sense of how animal sizes have changed, and consequently how things will change if we continue our actions.
The sixteen authors of this paper, including graduate and undergraduate students, searched scientific literature, fisheries data, whaling commissions, museum collections, online auctions and more. The data sources were nearly as diverse as the creatures examined. While the information wasn’t exactly “crowd sourced”, scientists from outside of the project were encouraged to chime in and chat on social media platforms.
That brings me to the project’s scientific communication. As the team gathered and analyzed their data they posted findings online as articles on the project’s website: The Story of Size. Here they outline not only the sizes of animals they were studying, but the way documented sizes are changing and why that matters. In fact, on the About page, the tagline reads: “1 part undergraduate research, 1 part social media outreach, and 4 parts massive ocean animals”. Doing science and science outreach concurrently is an interesting strategy.
Maybe this kind of research is the future. Not necessarily “crowd sourcing” but certainly obtaining data from unconventional and diverse (but obviously reputable) sources. Some of these animals are rarely seen in the wild, often because of human activity. So getting these data points from sensitive species is a challenge, but historical records might be an answer.
Is this attempt at achieving a balance between doing science and doing science outreach a model for future research? Mind you, I can understand researchers’ hesitation to talk about their work outside of academia, especially while it’s still in progress. Things might go wrong, assumptions may be challenged, and frankly people may just not get it. Few scientists are trained to engage non-academics in their work. But for a project like this, where the data is already there it just needs to be mined and analyzed and for a question that is arguable quite concrete, (How big are the biggest marine animals?), I think the model works.
2015) Sizing ocean giants: patterns of intraspecific size variation in marine megafauna. PeerJ 2:e715 http://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.715(