iNaturalist is a free, easy-to-use citizen science (or community science) app and website that allows users to upload photos of the wild plants and animals around them to an online platform. Once a photo has been uploaded to iNaturalist, a community of over a million scientists and naturalists—along with the machine learning technology they power—can help identify and share information about the species. Uploaded observations can result in high-quality data verified by researchers around the world to better understand and protect the natural world. For more family-friendly or casual exploring, iNaturalist created Seek—a free app that provides real-time species identifications and allows curious new naturalists of all ages to connect with the natural world. iNaturalist is a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society.
More than 1.3 million iNaturalist users have connected with nature while providing invaluable biodiversity data for scientists
SAN FRANCISCO (September 21, 2020) — The world’s most powerful (and most popular) citizen science app, iNaturalist—a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society—has officially surpassed 50 million observations of wild plants and animals. These observations come from over a million users—more than any other biodiversity-focused citizen science platform—and every country in the world. From Komodo dragons to common dandelions, every photo uploaded to iNaturalist informs researchers about the environmental health of our planet and the diverse array of life it supports.
“It’s truly exciting to see the iNaturalist community continue to grow,” says Scott Loarie, iNaturalist co-director. “Particularly now, with all of the challenges brought on by the pandemic, it has been heartening to see people from all over the world connecting with nature and each other while contributing high-quality data that helps us understand and protect the natural world.”
To celebrate this milestone, here are just a few examples of the rapidly growing impact of iNaturalist.
Developing data on mass migratory bird die-off
Over the past month, people across the American Southwest have started noticing an unprecedented number of dead or dying migratory birds. While both the cause and scale of the event are currently unknown, Allison Salas—a graduate student at New Mexico State University—is hoping the iNaturalist project she has set up to track the deaths will provide scientists with important data on the extent of the mass die-off.
As of this morning, just eight days after Salas created the project, 681 observations have been uploaded by nearly 500 iNaturalist users.
Returning to the tide in Mumbai
In one of the world’s most populous cities, a marine conservation organization is using iNaturalist to document intertidal biodiversity and reconnect people with the coastline.
“When we started Marine Life of Mumbai a year and a half ago, we had a very open-ended idea,” says Shaunak Modi, founder of the organization’s eponymous iNaturalist project, in a blog post. “Our aim was to re-introduce the citizens of Mumbai to their largely forgotten heritage—the city's shores—through its marine life.”
The project has now identified nearly 400 species along Mumbai’s beaches, providing an important biodiversity baseline that Marine Life of Mumbai hopes will inspire future conservation efforts.
Cicadas not seen in a century
This July, while picking blueberries in the garden of her home near Placerville, Lucinda Collings Parker stumbled upon a thumb-sized cicada. Having recently attended an iNaturalist class in hopes of becoming more familiar with California’s wildlife, Parker promptly uploaded the photo.
What she didn’t know at the time—but was quickly alerted to by cicada researchers in the iNaturalist community—was that her photo was the first known observation of Okanagana arctostaphylae to be recorded since 1915.
The scientist who identified the photo—and his collaborators—have since collected a specimen of O. arctostaphylae from the observation site for their research looking into the evolutionary relationships between different species in the genus.
Gecko identification leads to international collaboration
While studying the distribution of Hemidactylus frenatus, a widespread species of house gecko, Australia-based iNaturalist user Yingyod Lapwong noticed that a recent house gecko observation in Colombia was misidentified.
His interest piqued, Lapwong started looking through all of the house gecko observations in Colombia and noticed many of those identified as H. frenatus were actually Hemidactylus garnotii, an introduced species new to the country. In order to confirm his findings, Lapwong reached out to Juan Daniel Vásquez-Restrepo, the iNaturalist user whose post inspired the research.
After some back-and-forth, the two herpetologists decided to collaborate on the project. In August 2018—after months of research that involved capturing live specimens and researching museum collections—they published a paper together in the biodiversity-focused journal Check List, officially confirming the presence of a new non-native species of house gecko in Colombia.
The above stories embody the ability of iNaturalist to inspire conservation, fuel discovery, and spark collaboration. Some of the platform’s biggest impacts, however, come from the massive amounts of data used in aggregate. Verified observations are shared with data repositories like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), where researchers can measure the real-time effects of environmental changes on biodiversity. Currently, iNaturalist is the most-cited GBIF dataset with over 804 citations (and counting).
“A single observation can foster your relationship with nature and contribute to a global scientific conservation effort at the same time,” Loarie says. “That’s the real power of iNaturalist.”
The Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences is at the forefront of efforts to understand two of the most important topics of our time: the nature and sustainability of life on Earth. Based in San Francisco, the Institute is home to more than 100 world-class scientists, state-of-the-art facilities, and nearly 46 million scientific specimens from around the world. The Institute also leverages the expertise and efforts of more than 100 international Associates and 450 distinguished Fellows. Through expeditions around the globe, investigations in the lab, and analysis of vast biological datasets, the Institute’s scientists work to understand the evolution and interconnectedness of organisms and ecosystems, the threats they face around the world, and the most effective strategies for sustaining them into the future. Through innovative partnerships and public engagement initiatives, they also guide critical sustainability and conservation decisions worldwide, inspire and mentor the next generation of scientists, and foster responsible stewardship of our planet.
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