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Calling all Baltimoreans to citizen science

Researchers out of Indiana University broke the Internet this month. They crunched some big numbers and concluded that, "based on universal scaling laws applied to large data sets," there are now an estimated 1 trillion species on Earth. That's trillion — with a T.

And of that behemoth number — calling STEM enthusiasts everywhere — "only one-thousandth of 1 percent" of the species are "now identified." Clutch your biology textbook to your chest! Hug a science teacher! Get our your old kit microscope as I have done, the one with the preserved bee wing!

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Most of these unknown species are microbes — tiny and invisible to the naked eye. Our Earth, which seems big to us, is a microbiome. We're rare, us, and the other charismatic megafauna like the polar bear and the octopus. Mostly life is an abundance of very, very small things. The tree of life is being redrawn.

This should fill our hearts with pride and humble us. Even as we change the planet's climate, and live into the Anthropocene (a new geological era caused by our messing about), life on Earth is mysterious as ever. Here there be dragons.

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Even with my rudimentary math (fractions make me scratch my head, unless it's the division of dessert), I can confirm, as others have written, that the analysis suggests "99.999 percent of species" are "still unknown to us" and "still left for use to find and classify" and "it seems pretty unlikely that we'll ever be able to catalog them all."

That last part is a call to arms for citizen science. Together we can gather big data. And we need to, for our children's sake and the sake of the state of Maryland, parts of which climatologists say will be under water because of sea level rise in the coming years. If we don't know 99.999 percent of what we have, how will we know what might be lost?

We might never be able to catalog them all, all the species on Earth, but — here's the deal — we can try. We can be citizen scientists. It is a movement gaining momentum. The first-ever Citizen Science Day was held last month in D.C. Citizen science is "the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge." It's a collection of birders and weather bugs, amateur scientists, school kids and you and me.

For a list of projects in the Baltimore area check out the SciStarter.org website. There are many ways to get involved. I just counted tadpoles in Baltimore County vernal pools with my kids for Science Friday's hashtag on Twitter: #takeasample. If I — suburban mother of two — can do it, so can you. Maybe if we feel more awe and wonderment, we'll take better care of the world. Besides, I found it fun to go out with my rain boots on. I felt like a field researcher. I felt like the Jane Goodall of frog spawn.

An upcoming opportunity to get involved with other species on Earth is BioBlitz 2016. What is BioBlitz? According to The National Geographic, "a BioBlitz is an event that focuses on finding and identifying as many species as possible in a specific area over a short period of time. At a BioBlitz, scientists, families, students, teachers and other community members work together to get an overall count of the plants, animals, fungi, and other organisms that live in a place."

It's May 20-21st and coincides with Washington D.C.'s Biodiversity Festival. I hope to see you there. I will be there with my boots on. And the words "one trillion" in my mind. We — the intelligent upright ape Baltimoreans — are simply one species among many.

Elizabeth Bastos is a freelance writer; her email is elizabeth.bastos@gmail.com.

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