Imagine the first time you went bird-watching with binoculars. Perhaps you can recall the first time that you looked at pond water under the microscope. Maybe you have recently seen a child look at some bugs with a magnifying glass. These tools amplify our enjoyment of nature. Without them, we can still enjoy nature, of course, but by utilizing them, we can see and appreciate so much more.
About 5 years ago, I was introduced to the citizen science app iNaturalist at a workshop led by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department urban biologists. I must admit, I played with it for a few days but became quite bored. As with most apps on my phone, I deleted it in almost the exact time it took to download it! A few months later, I was reminded about iNaturalist and went to the website and looked at my data. The “dots” that I submitted were joined with many other dots and an interesting picture of distribution was created. I re-downloaded the app, used my camera, and continued to make some data points of observations. After a little more time, I realized that iNaturalist isn’t just an app; it is a community, a database, and most importantly, a tool. It is a tool that helps me see things that I didn’t notice before. With it, I’ve gained so much more appreciation for all of the organisms that I share the planet with. I’ve learned the names of my natural neighbors!
iNaturalist started in 2008 as a masters project at Berkeley and now has over 7 million observations of 125,000 species from 175,000 global participants. With this tool, you can photograph or record an organism’s presence in space and time, and that digital voucher is uploaded to the iNaturalist network to be identified, verified, and appreciated by naturalists and scientists around the world. If you don’t know what the organism is, the community provides guidance with comments and identifications. Finding the name of the species is like learning a password. So much more knowledge is gained when you find out the identity of something. On the iNaturalist website, you can see what others have seen around you, print out local field guides, check out projects, and so much more.
Now that I am an urban biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife, I actively use the data generated on iNaturalist by citizen scientists. I use these photographs and information to show policy makers and public land managers that not only does biodiversity exist in the urban area, but also that there is an active constituency of folks that seek out these areas! This has substantial management and policy implications, and I’ve been fortunate to see action generated by this citizen science movement.
As a matter of fact, urban areas around the world are “competing” to see which area has the most diversity and greatest amount of citizen scientists that want to document it! The third annual city nature challenge will occur on April 27 – 30, and in Texas, we have 7 urban areas competing (Amarillo, Austin, Dallas/Fort Worth, El Paso, Houston, Lower Rio Grande Valley, and San Antonio). If you’re able to, please help us document nature in these urban areas! More information at www.citynaturechallenge.com.
I thoroughly enjoy using iNaturalist. I’ve met such an amazing group of naturalists online and in person. I’ve been able to learn the names of so many plants and animals that I share the planet with. I use the digital and filterable field guide and calendar as my field notes. It truly is a tool that helps me engage with and appreciate nature.