April was citizen science month, May is Older American’s. 

So it only seems right we feature a story about both. 

While studying the small, harmless turtle-headed sea snake off the coast of  New Caledonia, two researchers spotted an unnerving sight: several greater sea snakes. 

They decided to shift their focus to documenting the local population of these much larger, potentially lethal snakes. However, the serpents proved elusive and the team was only able to identify about 30 individuals over three years. 

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One day, a group of seven women all in their 60s and 70s who frequently snorkeled in the snake’s habitat approached the research team. 

They called themselves “The Fantastic Grandmothers” and informed the scientists that they had seen a number of the sea snakes on their dives. They offered to help by using their underwater cameras to document the sea snakes. 

Who on Earth could turn down a group called the Fantastic Grandmothers?

The snorkeling seniors got to work immediately and the results were astounding. 

“As soon as the grandmothers set to work, we realized that we had massively underestimated the abundance of greater sea snakes in the bay,” said Dr. Gorian, one half of the research team. 

Thankfully, greater sea snakes have very distinctive markings that vary from snake to snake. This allows individuals to be easily identified from photos.

In a paper just published in the journal Ecosphere, the scientists reveal that thanks to the Fantastic Grandmothers they now know that there are more than 249 greater sea snakes living in the bustling bay (known as Baie des citrons). 

The photography project has also revealed crucial new information about the snakes’ breeding patterns, and numbers of young — more information, says Dr. Goiran, than has ever been recorded for any other related species worldwide.

Despite the extremely venomous nature of greater sea snakes, all seven Grandmothers swam away from the study unscathed.

 In fact, there’s never been a recorded incident of a greater sea snake biting someone in the area, which Goiran believes implies much about the relatively unknown snake’s disposition. 

These fantastic women are a powerful example of how members of the broader public can enrich scientific discoveries.

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