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Rubber ducks aren’t just good for some bath time fun, they’ve also helped scientists learn about the world!

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When you think of rubber ducks, you probably think of bubble baths, those huge adorable sculptures, or debugging — if you’re into programming. Or maybe you heard about that study that found over 9.5 million bacterial cells per square centimeter living inside the average toy...

The point is: they don’t seem all that useful for much outside the tub. But it turns out that rubber ducks have been used by scientists in at least three ways — examining everything from ocean currents and glacial runoff to better wildlife counting methods. To start, let’s go back to 1992.

On January 10th, a cargo ship on its way from China to the US lost some containers with 29,000 rubber ducks and other bath toys. These plastic critters, called “Friendly Floatees,” spent at least 10 years drifting in the open ocean, pushed and pulled along with currents. Some ended up thousands of kilometers from the original spill site as far north as Sitka, Alaska or washing up in Scotland nearly 12 years later.

Tracking and reporting Floatee sightings became a worldwide citizen science project. The oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer took the lead in tracing systems of ocean currents called gyres as they swirled between North America, Asia, and Europe. These oval-shaped vortexes are driven by wind patterns and the Coriolis forces generated by the Earth’s rotation.

Now, how many of the ducks were found where, and when, helped Ebbesmeyer and his team learn about the rotation speed and size of two gyres in the Pacific Ocean. The researchers found that ducks in the North Pacific Subpolar Gyre took around three years to do a full spin in the waters between eastern Siberia and southern Alaska. Its neighbor, the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, includes roughly 20 million square kilometers of ocean between.

Japan and the west coast of the U. S — all North of the equator. Understanding the rotation of these gyres isn’t just cool information.

It’s important because the vortexes collect junk like plastic debris in the center, kind of like the bubbles in the center of your morning coffee as you stir in sugar. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is infamous for this very reason, boasting a Texas-sized plot of pollution called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. And by understanding gyres better and the movement of plastics that get trapped by them we might get better at targeting our ocean cleanup efforts.

Now, nearly 20 years after the Friendly Floatees went overboard, scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory intentionally threw 90 rubber ducks into a hole on Greenland’s Jakobshavn glacier. Specifically, it was a moulin — a hole up to 10 meters wide that lets melting water seep into and below the glacier. These intrepid duckies were labeled with the NASA scientists’ contact information in three languages, along with a promise of a $100 reward, in the hopes that citizen scientists would find and report their locations.

And these cheap, trackable, floating markers were supposed to help researchers learn more about where and how the water flows beneath the ice. Understanding glacial runoff is important, because melting glaciers contribute to sea level rise, which will eventually threaten coastal cities with floods. Chunks of glaciers breaking off and glacial runoff amounts may change seasonally, which we hope to learn more about.

Researchers targeted the Jakobshavn glacier specifically because it’s where nearly 7% of the ice that’s breaking off of Greenland comes from. Unfortunately, not a single member of this duck expedition, or the GPS probe dispatched along with them, was ever seen again. More recently, scientists used life-size rubber replicas of generic ducks not the yellow bath toys — to create a wildlife-counting competition that they called the #epicduckchallenge.

In Adelaide, Australia, researchers placed thousands of duck decoys in 10 colonies on a local beach meant to simulate breeding colonies of the greater crested tern. And then it was time to count. Trained wildlife spotters used more traditional counting methods, like binoculars or scopes on tripods, from around 37.5 meters away to mimic a normal distance that wouldn’t scare birds away.

And they took about 5 to 10 minutes to count, on average. Other study volunteers, who mostly weren’t trained ecologists tallied rubber ducks using drone photos instead. These pictures were taken from heights of 30, 60, 90, or 120 meters, and some of them turned out blurry because of the wind and vibrations.

The researchers also tested an algorithm to count the birds in these photos, which required some human input to pick the right area and isolate the ducks from the background. And turns out, both kinds of counting with drone photos were 43-96% more accurate than counts taken from the ground with kinda blurry photos and between 92-98% more accurate with high-quality photos. So if we can develop a computer algorithm to count the wildlife in the photos without our help, that seems like a really efficient way to take animal census data.

And that can help conservationists step in sooner to help threatened species. And just like a drone and a well-designed algorithm can count birds much more accurately than I can, I also rely on computer science to organize my passwords and keep my work and privacy secure. Dashlane is a convenient, but also robust and safe password manager.

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