Pasama Cole-Kweli, an assistantship in Shedd’s Teen Learning Lab, works with high school students on an international shark conservation project. She’s shown with Shedd’s shark researcher Steve Kessel, left, and Global FinPrint scientist Dr. Demian Chapman.
The “FinPrint Captain’s Corner” in Shedd Aquarium’s Teen Learning Lab is a dedicated workspace for the world’s largest shark and ray survey, Global FinPrint. Staffed primarily by volunteers around the world, Global FinPrint aims to investigate the rapidly decreasing populations of these apex predators, which are crucial to the health of coral reef ecosystems.
As an assistantship, my primary role is to work with two After School Matters (ASM) interns per season on a set of seasonal research projects. Last fall, Shedd Aquarium joined a network of organizations and volunteers assisting with Global FinPrint data analysis. Currently, the interns are at the free Teen Learning Lab after school and on weekends, stationed at a computer and 67-inch screen to review raw footage filmed last summer in Chub Cay, one of 30 small sandy coral outcrops that make up the Berry Islands cluster in the Bahamas.
To collect this footage, biologists, including Steve Kessel, Shedd’s director of marine research, used baited remote underwater video surveys (also known as BRUVs) to document how shark and ray population densities change on different reefs. Each BRUV is strategically positioned in an area of a reef with wide viewing ranges. The device is equipped with a camera at its base and a long pole that connects to a crate enclosing a block of oily fish bait.
Although the bait is intended to catch the attention of focal species, other interesting sea critters, such as the yellowtail snappers pictured above, also come by to check it out.
A typical video will begin with the field researcher swimming down to position the device on the reef. Our teen volunteers love when the device travels through the water, creating rushing streams of bubbles, and the point of view allows you to feel like you are there experiencing it. Especially when watching the footage on a big screen, a lot of teens often report that they feel like they are “actually there.” Occasionally the researcher will wave at the camera, allowing viewers to feel even more connected.
Once the researcher has reached the reef, the BRUV is positioned. Sometimes this takes a few attempts to find a clear and stable spot, so it may need to be moved. Once it is stable and no longer moving around, data collection begins.
Teen Learning Lab
Our job as volunteers is to review each video in our designated set and record observations for exactly 60 minutes. Using Global FinPrint’s annotator software, we can indicate the exact time and location different focal species swim into the frame. When a key species appears, we can pause the video and draw a digital box around the animal, which translates to a time-stamped label. We identify the species and make note of any unusual behavior or special circumstances.
Our FinPrint binder, which is kept at the Captain’s Corner, contains images of common species found and a key with descriptions of their features and names. Sometimes distinguishing between species can be difficult, but with practice you find a rhythm. Although the focus is sharks and rays, we also look for other animals such as eels, sea turtles and marine mammals. They also tell us a great deal about ecosystems.
Global FinPrint provides a great opportunity for community science, because although our teens may not be marine science professionals, they can review data from around the world right here in our lab. So far, we have submitted 15 videos for review, which is almost half of our designated set. Our ASM teens have been working on this project since December 2017.
Now that the season has ended, the next group of interns will pick up where the last left off and continue teaching any interested high school students at the Teen Learning Lab. No matter what a teen’s experience level is, he or she can stop by the lab and help us make identifications that will further real research. As one regular attendee puts it, “Even as teens, we can become scientists and researchers.”
Editor's note: At the time of writing, Pasama is the first school-year-long assistantship for the Teen Learning Lab. Before this position, she took part in a several of Shedd’s high school programs, including Teen Work-Study, High School Lake Ecology and High School Marine Biology. She will start a doctoral program in cultural anthropology at the University of Kentucky in the fall.