by Ronnie Ovando (a 2016 Adler Astro-Journalist)
When stepping through the Zooniverse citizen science project “Jungle Rhythms,” it feels as if one is playing a Nancy Drew or Sherlock video game. The project contains a bunch of old documents relating to tree life cycles between the 1930’s – 1950’s. The goal is to be able to interpret the hand written documents that have lost their color due to old age. The documents are designed to be like calendars, to be labeled according to what happened that particular year to the tree. The video game-like challenge comes from having to be detail-oriented in order to understand and catch the little markings with the documents.
The African rainforest is said to “store up to 66 Pg (Picograms) of carbon,” according to the project’s home page. Scientists at Jungle Rhythms are concerned for how this will affect or effect climate change, and how exactly weather conditions can alter the forest. For example, droughts can severely affect structure and function. By using the documents and knowledge of the rainforest’s weather history, the participants can possibly figure out how trees react to weather.
How did the Jungle Rhythms scientists collect this documented history of tree cycles? Between 1937 and 1958, researchers at Yangambi research station studied over 2000 trees. They all recorded data that dealt with life cycles (also known as phenology) such as fruit development, leaf growing, etc. The data was organized in calendar-like tables, which have sections that are separated into years. The original copies were made digital in order to translate without ruining the hand written documents.
Transcribing the documents seems like a job only for scientists, but the skills needed for this task are common. The home page states “The human eye and brain is finely tuned to finding patterns and picking up these slight nuances in shading.” Essentially, our brains are wired to do this! In order be a successful citizen scientist, one also must have a good base in knowledge of the trees in the African rainforest in order to understand the context of the data.
The picture above is an example of how the documents look and are organized. It’s almost calendar-like, expect with listing years instead of just months. Each section listed is divided by 6 months, and at the far left are the names of the trees being recorded. Within those sections, data is represented by lines, crosses, or other types of marks. Very few words are used.
Here’s a good example of writing within one of the tables. The writing above reads “Tombe,” which according to Google Translate, means “falls” in French. It can be concluded then that the tree fell sometimes this year. The time when is hard to interpret. For me, I assume that the fact that no month is emphasized in the picture, that the scientists did not know the exact month the tree fell, but concluded that it fell between March – August.
For people who are interested in both science and history, this Zooniverse project does a great job and attending to those two fields. Jungle Rhythms is hoping to discover new data concerning African trees, and the interpretation of the documents.