4 min read
The marble bowl artwork.

Millions of people are awaiting the start of college football season. While many storied rivalries exist, few are more eagerly anticipated than the annual Auburn University–University of Alabama game dubbed the Iron Bowl. But why stop with sports? The Marble Bowl is a competition that pits Alabama and Auburn fans against each other in a citizen-science matchup.

Why the Marble Bowl?

The name Marble Bowl is a riff on the Iron Bowl. Why marble? Turning to the natural resources world, incorporating different state symbols into the name and logo of this competition was key. Marble is Alabama’s state rock. This rock, from in and around Sylacauga, is renowned for its beauty and has been used in the construction of iconic buildings around the country.

While the competition may be fierce, cooperation is important. The Marble Bowl is a collaboration between the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Alabama Museum of Natural HistoryAuburn University Museum of Natural History, and Auburn University College of Forestry, Wildlife, and Environment. To represent a couple of Alabama’s features, the state bird–the northern flicker–is shown on a branch of the state tree, the longleaf pine.

Alabama is blessed with incredible biodiversity—amongst the highest in the nation. There are more species of crayfish, freshwater fishes, mussels, freshwater snails, and turtles within Alabama’s borders than anywhere else in the country. The tree diversity is also spectacular. This has led some to refer to Alabama as America’s Amazon. Unfortunately, there is also a high number of endangered species and a high rate of extinction. With these facts in mind, the increased need for documenting biodiversity around the state is more clear.

Citizen science can be defined as public participation in research. It’s a common misconception that only those with advanced degrees can help make meaningful contributions to science–in this case biology and conservation. In reality, most anyone can help collect valuable data to further knowledge of biodiversity. Everyone is welcome. Also, it isn’t just observations of rare species that are valuable. The world is changing rapidly and a biodiversity baseline must be established. Down the road, assessments and decisions can be made based on this data to determine what to do about it.

Getting Started

From the opening weekend of football through the weekend of the Iron Bowl, everyone has the opportunity to participate by submitting observations of wild plants, animals, and fungi to one of two projects on iNaturalist. iNaturalist is an online platform that crowdsources biodiversity observations and identifications. Starting off is as simple as going to www.inaturalist.org and signing up for a free account. There’s never any charge to participate.

iNaturalist is available as a mobile app and through a web browser. Whichever the preference, join the The Marble Bowl project to keep up with the current scores. You may join either the Marble Bowl 2023 – Auburn University or Marble Bowl 2023 – University of Alabama project to ensure your observations count and you are contributing to the fun. Be sure to only join one of the two projects. Otherwise, your observations will cancel each other out.

Making an observation is as simple as taking a photo of a wild organism with your phone. Because phone photographs are automatically timestamped and geotagged, all the necessary information is already with the photograph. If you prefer to take photos with a digital camera, note the location and include it with your observation if the camera doesn’t geotag it for you. Of course, observations can be uploaded to iNaturalist through a browser, as well.

As you submit observations, the platform’s artificial intelligence will suggest an identification based off what is in the photo along with similar species that have already been observed nearby. You can suggest a different ID if you are confident about what you saw. Select an identification then hit submit. That’s all that is required to add an observation. Any iNaturalist user can then view your observations and either agree with the identification you selected or suggest a different one. More information on recording observations and the iNaturalist platform in general can be found on the observations page.

The 2022 Results

2022 marked the inaugural Marble Bowl competition, and it was fierce. Between the two projects, an astounding 33,177 observations of Alabama’s biodiversity were made across all 67 of its counties. Over 4,800 species were observed by 359 participants. These included 171 species that are considered rare or imperiled.

Auburn led throughout the competition. A late push by the Alabama team almost turned the tide, but Auburn held onto the lead and because the Marble Bowl’s first winner with a score of 100 to 80. But it’s a new year. The scoreboard has been wiped clean and it’s anybody’s competition to win. The number of people who choose to participate from each team factors heavily into the final score (more on that below) so get friends and family involved, too!

The Rules

Like any good competition, there are some rules to make sure it is fun and fair for all involved. The rules are as follows:

  • The Winner – The winner of this competition will be the project that has the highest score out of 100 points from a combination of unique observers (40 percent of total score), unique observations (30 percent), and unique species (30 percent) as determined by the iNaturalist platform. For example, if the Alabama project has 1,000 unique observers and the Auburn project has 900, Alabama gets the full 40 points while Auburn earns 36.
  • Location – Observations must occur within the state of Alabama.
  • Date and Time – Observations must occur between kickoff weekend (12 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 2) and the end of Iron Bowl weekend (11:59 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 26). No photographs taken before this time can be used.
  • No Captive/Cultivated Observations – As much as people may love their pets, they aren’t suitable subjects for iNaturalist observations. The goal of this project is to record observations of wild plants, animals, fungi, and other organisms across the state. Pets, along with other domesticated animals like horses, chickens, and goats should not be added to the project. Observations of cultivated plants are not allowed either.
  • Quality Grade – To be counted in the competition, observations must meet the criteria for Research Grade or Needs ID. Read more about those classifications on the iNaturalist website.

Get involved and help bring this great rivalry to the realm of citizen science. While observations can be made anywhere across Alabama, you don’t need to be at the top of Mount Cheaha or deep inside the Mobile-Tensaw Delta to participate. There’s a good chance you can make worthwhile observations from your favorite tailgate spot or in your backyard during halftime. So get outside—and may the best team win!