Brian Sidlauskas had just six days to identify more than 5,000 fish. He had caught them during a scientific jungle expedition in the South American country of Guyana. But the Guyanese government required detailed identifications before the Oregon State University biologist could ship them to the United States for further studies.
He had just spent the previous two weeks on the Cuyuni River, cooking over a propane stove, bathing in the muddy water, and pickling fish in formaldehyde by headlamp as he worked well into the night.
His aim was to see what was swimming in a 125-mile stretch of the river where fish had never before been cataloged. Mining is clouding the troubled water with sediment, and he wanted a snapshot of the river’s health before it is further damaged.
Back in Guyana’s capital, sweating and exhausted, Sidlauskas worked feverishly in a cramped, hot lab to identify the specimens. His plane would depart in a week. He was short-staffed. The clock was ticking. How was he going to identify all of them in time?
Devin Bloom, a graduate student, had an idea: Why not post pictures of the fish on Facebook and ask experts around the world to help identify them? Sidlauskas signed into his Facebook page and uploaded 114 photos (many of the 5,000 fish were the same species). He labeled (or “tagged” in Facebook-speak) the photos with the names of people who were authorities on the fish. These diehard fish heads were then notified of the photos via their own Facebook pages.
The next morning, when he opened up his Facebook page, it was flooded with responses, and a little humor, too. An anchovy was identified as “pizza topping.” Within 24 hours, about 10 people had accurately nailed down most of the fish. About half a dozen were species that had never before been seen and named by scientists.
Now back at OSU, rested and showered, Sidlauskas has had time to reflect on his experience with the social networking site. It’s revolutionizing the speed of the identification process, he says. It can take hours for Sidlauskas to wade through scientific literature to name an unfamiliar fish. If he posts a photo of it on Facebook, he says, he can have an answer in minutes. “The idea has caught on,” he adds. “I’m getting more requests from people who want me to identify fish.”
When the folks at Facebook learned about Sidlauskas, they asked him to be part of their campaign that features high-profile public figures to celebrate the site’s milestone achievement of 1 billion users. “It’s the only time in my life I’ll ever be compared to Alicia Keys,” he says, referring to the Grammy Award-winning singer in the promotion. “For better or worse, I seem to be becoming a public figure for science. I’ve now got about 1,900 followers on Facebook who theoretically hear what I say. I hope that will get more people interested in science.”
Right now, however, Sidlauskas is using Facebook to entice his followers to adopt a lapful of kittens he’s fostering. Lab coats aside, Facebook can show the world that scientists are people, too, he says. “We’ve got friends. We foster kittens. We go out on Friday night and have fish and chips,” he says. “If people see that scientists are human, they may more easily relate to science.”
Sidlauskas hopes to use Facebook again for a possible trip to Suriname. “If that trip comes together,” he says, “you better believe I’ll take photos of the fish and post them to Facebook.”
Check out Brian's fish, and kittens, on Brian's Facebook page.