iNaturalist: New tools to link local experience with global community of science and nature lovers

by Matt Muir

Signs of spring are here, but the weather sure doens’t feel like it! I was at the Arboretum on March 1 and hurried into the forest to seek cover from the bitterly cold wind. ImageImmediately on the Upland Trail, I was greeted with a sound I haven’t heard in months: frogs! Tens of frogs were visible, floating on the surface of a vernal pool, and a huge smile spread across my face at this unexpected but unmistakable sign of spring. I took several photos, but I’m not an amphibian expert and none of the frogs were close enough for me to immediately know what species I was looking at. Previously, these photos would have been buried among the thousands of other photos on my hard drive, unidentified and inaccessible to everyone but me.

Now, however, I share my observations on a website called iNaturalist.org, a public online forum where my local experience can be cross-checked by a community of fellow enthusiasts and global experts. (Brief interlude: I’m giving a free talk and training on iNaturalist on Sunday, March 10, at Adkins Arboretum, and I hope you’ll join me.) Conceptually similar to eBird, iNaturalist users can keep a list of all forms of biodiversity that they see and where they see it. You can check which species occurs where (screenshot below of the species that occur in Maryland – in order of observation frequency), browse photos and Wikipedia descriptions, and filter the iNaturalist database by location (e.g., all the observations that have occurred in Caroline County) and/or species group (e.g., all the dragonfly observations in Caroline County). Once the identification is confirmed (more on that below), the observations are available globally for science, including two major players: the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

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I think the richest experience available through iNaturalist is the community and ongoing conversation between amateur naturalists and professional experts. The community helps confirm my identifications (essentially, crowdsourcing data quality control), suggests new identifications when I’m unsure of (or mistaken about) what I saw, and converts my photos into publicly available data for science and conservation. Not only can I keep track of my own observations, but I can peruse thousands of other people’s sightings, submitted in real time from Akron to Afghanistan.

So, what happened to that early spring frog that I photographed and posted to iNaturalist?  Eleven minutes after I posted the observation, a Vermont naturalist confirmed my tentative identification of a wood frog (Lithobates sylvaticus), and an hour later, a DC-based naturalist reported seeing a wood frog the day before in a stream. I checked the frog species that are expected to occur in the county based on range data (screenshot above), looked at the entire continental distribution of wood frogs (screenshot below) and provided a link to a fantastic calendar of frog calls that I found by the Maryland Amphibian and Reptile Atlas. All signs point to wood frog, my first 2013 amphibian! Again, I hope you will be able to join me to learn more about iNaturalist at Adkins Arboretum on Sunday, March 10, and to consider a new tool that links your local experience in nature to a global community of enthusiasts and experts.

Matt Muir is a wildlife biologist and has recorded 1578 species on iNaturalist (and counting!). He can be reached at muirmatthewj@gmail.com.

 

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