How to Use iNaturalist

Bird observations on iNaturalist, like this one of a Lazuli Bunting, are most often confirmed within 10 minutes. Plant confirmations take much longer! If you’re interested in community science projects for birding, be sure to check out eBird, too! (Photo by Craig Martin)

By Craig Martin

Imagine the amount of biodiversity information you could amass if you sent 1,000 observers out into the field to record their observations. Imagine the depth of that information if they could use a handheld device to add photos and location data and then transmit that information to a central location!

It’s real. It’s called iNaturalist. Data is collected, you guessed it, with your cell phone with the iNaturalist app. After you set up an account, go for a hike and start contributing to one of the world’s most popular citizen science projects.

How It Works

This screenshot shows part of the process of submitting an observation on iNaturalist.

First, create an account and download the app on an Apple or Android device for easiest access.

Then, head outside! Find something interesting — a flower, bird, bug, fungi, spider, snake, anything — and take out your phone and power up the app. Look for the plus sign in the lower right corner to add an observation. Take a photo and tell the app it looks okay.

The next screen displays date and time, location, and more, but most importantly it has “What did you see?” with “View Suggestions.” If you touch that box, iNaturalist will provide you with some pretty good suggestions on the identity of your observation. You can disagree and type in your own ID, but the app is accurate about 70 percent of the time for plants and is almost always right for birds and mammals.

Your observation will have a “Needs ID” tag until another iNaturalist user confirms your identification. With a confirmation, the tag becomes “Research Grade.” Other users may disagree with your ID, and hopefully they will tell you why. It’s not foolproof, but at least it is a good indication that you are on the right track. I see an increasing number of scientific papers that use Research Grade iNaturalist observations to track trends in plant and animal populations.

Your observations will be listed on your phone, but they look better on a computer screen. Log into your account at www.inaturalist.org and they all will be displayed. iNaturalist has cool ways to display your observations on a map, in a list, with photos, by date, and sorted taxonomically.

Although there is no formal structure on who reviews observations, there are a lot of users who keep an eye on specific locations, plant families, birds, butterflies, or mammals. For example, I get notified of and review all plant observations from Bandelier National Monument, the Valles Caldera National Preserve, and Los Alamos County. I know if I post an unknown member of the Phlox family, Polemoniaceae, a botanist iNaturalist user at the University of Illinois will help me out.

A Few Pointers

Details of this Bluebowls wildflower observation can be found on iNaturalist here. (Photo by Craig Martin)

Bird observations almost always get confirmed within minutes, plants and insects may take days or weeks. You can edit an observation and put in more photos, and those always help. (For instance, I won’t confirm most sunflower family members without a photo of the underside of the flower head or the leaves).

Confirmation of observations in New Mexico take longer than those in Arizona and California because there are fewer users here. Although your observations are automatically placed in any project that is focused on a certain area, it helps if you “join” the project.

Be patient with the learning curve, iNaturalist takes some practice. But the amount of information is rather amazing: as of August 10, 2020, the Los Alamos iNaturalist location has more than 4,300 observations of more than 1,000 species!

How to Get Involved in Citizen Science

A group of birders gathered for a PEEC program on January 1, 2020 to get a jumpstart on their eBird lists for the year. (Photo by Rozelle Wright)

This week on Take It Outside, we’re exploring some of the many citizen science projects that you can get involved in. In citizen science, also known as community science, the public participates in scientific investigations in collaboration with professional scientists.

Now that we’re back from our break, we’re formatting things a bit differently. We’ll post new ways to connect with nature and outdoor challenges once week. You can complete these challenges and explore the topic throughout the week. Be sure to check our Facebook and Instagram pages during the week for additional updates and content from us.

We’d still love to hear what kind of online content you’d like to see from PEEC and hear your opinions on how Take It Outside should continue. If you haven’t already, please fill out this survey.

And look for a special summer outdoor challenge coming soon!

Blog Post:

In today’s blog post, Craig Martin explains why he participates in citizen science. Check it out here!

Look for another post from Craig later this week specifically about using iNaturalist.

Outdoor Challenges:

A student on PEEC’s 2019 Weekend Horseback Outdoor Adventure program closely observes a fence lizard. (Photo by Beth Cortright)

We’re posting three outdoor challenges today that you can enjoy throughout the week! Head out in your backyard or on a local trail and observe the wildlife that you see around you. Then, report it to the citizen science project of your choice!

 

1) Observe

Citizen science efforts begin with personal observations. Go outside and find a plant, animal or other object to examine closely. What do you see, hear, smell or feel?

Get out your nature journal or a piece of paper and write or draw what you notice! Or, take a picture of your subject and tell PEEC about it! Send your observation to us at takeitoutside@peecnature.org or tag us on social media (@peecnature on Facebook and Instagram).

 

2) Quantify

Observations start with our senses, but sometimes, patterns emerge when we start to count, measure, or otherwise classify what we notice. Here are some ideas:

  • Count the number of birds you see outside your window.
  • Measure the growth of a plant every day, or measure how much rain falls into a straight-sided container.
  • Estimate the percentage of the sky covered by clouds at different times during the day.
  • Sort rocks into groups by color or luster (shininess).

3) Report

Participate in a citizen science project by reporting your observations to an ongoing project! There are many to choose from that are suitable for all interests. Here are a few options:

Want to Learn More?

  • This TED talk from Caren Cooper explores how everyday people are changing the face of discovery by participating in citizen science. Watch it here!
  • Why do kids make great citizen scientists? Find out in this article!
  • This past winter, some of PEEC’s field trips participated in the NASA SnowEx project to measure snowpack in the Valles Caldera. Find out more about the project here.
  • PEEC also participated in a National Solar Observatory project, Citizen CATE, to photograph the sun’s inner corona during the August 21, 2017 solar eclipse. See some of the results of this project here.
  • The Audubon Society has started using the term community science instead of citizen science. Find out why here. Do you prefer the term “citizen science” or “community science”? Tell us why!

Share Your Experience:

Tell us about your outdoor experiences! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside..

Why I Participate In Citizen Science

Details of this Bluebowls observation can be found on iNaturalist here. (Photo by Craig Martin)

By Craig Martin

I always wanted to use my biology degree to participate in scientific research, but I got sidetracked along the way. That is until I learned about online citizen science projects that allow anyone who can make a careful observation of the natural world the opportunity to contribute to real science.

Citizen science is a relatively new phrase that, in the realm of natural history, allows public participation and collaboration in science research to increase the number of observations of natural phenomena. It is crowdsourcing scientific observations about birds, plants, weather, bugs, auroras, and more.

The concept is not new, just the phrase. The most famous example is the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which has surveyed bird populations every year since 1900. The internet made it far easier to share observation data with a central repository, and smartphones made documenting field data with photos and geographic coordinates a snap. In the past 10 years, citizen science has really taken off.

It works like this: make an observation, record it with your phone or at home with the computer, and send it to the central database through an app or a website. Usually there is a professional or a skilled amateur on the other end that watches over observations and accepts them or asks for clarification. This confirmation step helps the data quality stay reasonably high.

eBird will let you know if a bird, like this Lazuli Bunting, is out-of-place or time, and on iNaturalist bird observations are most often confirmed within 10 minutes. Plant confirmations take much longer. (Photo by Craig Martin)

The internet has dozens of citizen science projects from which to choose. eBird is the most popular and the most user friendly natural history citizen science project going. Bird observations from millions of participants from all over the world has contributed to better knowledge of bird migration patterns and population adjustments due to climate change.

iNaturalist is more general, offering a place for observations of bugs, fungi, plants, mammals, and more. It’s not as easy to use as eBird, but iNaturalist has recorded 39 million observations and has over a million participants.

A nice list of citizen science projects for all interest areas can be found here.

Data from citizen science projects is regularly published in the scientific literature. Some recent examples are quantifying the ecological risk in cities, the discovery of new species, the re-discovery of a species not seen in 40 years and thought extinct, and documenting changes in plant flowering times.

What does a citizen scientist get out of participating? First, you get a great, visual database to keep track of your own observations. In the old days, I put a check mark and maybe the date of my first sighting next to the entry for a bird species in my copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds. Later, I created my own clunky database to keep track of bird observations. Now with eBird, I can recall every sighting ever documented, complete with my notes, photos, and recordings.

And, because any citizen science project is collaborative, you have access to experts. On iNaturalist, I have a rangeland ecologist in British Columbia who comments on my amateur attempts to identify grasses, and a college professor in New Jersey who checks my fern observations. I didn’t ask for their help, they are just interested in the flora of New Mexico and watch for my observations.

Citizen science not only allows me to help document the ranges and life histories of plants I see in my travels, it connects me with people from around the country with similar interests. It has expanded my collaborative network and helped me learn much more about the characteristics of the flora I love.

Jemez Mountain Herbarium Reaches Milestone

By Chick Keller

 
In 2005 I was given several boxes of professionally mounted and labeled plants that were collected in the Santa Fe National Forest by a student from University of Wyoming, which had been given to the Office of the Santa Fe National Forest. There were some 1,100 sheets — some 750 from the Jemez Mountains. In addition, I had my own informal herbarium at home. On advice from people at UNM herbarium, I purchased a herbarium cabinet and a binocular, zoom microscope. The Native Plant Society of NM reimbursed me for the cost of the cabinet ($1,000) and people in town for the microscope (~$2,000) — the major part donated by The Animal Clinic in Los Alamos. The Forest Service also included some herbarium equipment. LANL was closing down its 15-year effort to collect plants and sent me three more cabinets full of plants as well as a wealth of herbarium paper supplies — folders, mounting sheets, and more. PEEC paid for a set of flower identification books and I added my own. And so, the Jemez Mountain Herbarium was formed.
 
At the time, there were about 650 species of plants known in Los Alamos County. I asked Dorothy Hoard how many she thought were in the county. She replied with the optimistic number of 1,000. I thought not. How could people have been collecting plants for so many years and missed 350 species and varieties? We bet a pizza.
 
Sadly Dorothy is gone, but this summer we indeed surpassed the 1,000 mark!
 
This was the work of many people. Perhaps the most active were Terry Foxx, Craig Martin, and Roy Greiner, but there were some 15 or so others who have brought in plants that are now in the herbarium.
 
In addition to finding so many plants not previously known in Los Alamos County, we have been concentrating on the entire Jemez Mountain region — from San Ysidro to Ghost Ranch, Cuba to White Rock Canyon. This past year we published in a scientific botanical journal a list of 161 species previously not known for that area, seven of which had never before been seen in New Mexico! We have found a few more since then.
 
A herbarium is important to the knowledge of plants.  It is a repository of the real specimens that can be used for a variety of reasons — extending knowledge of the range of plants, writing plant identification books, such as the ones Terry and Craig are working on, helping beginners learn plants, and finally proving that indeed the plants named were correctly identified.
 
In addition, it is great fun — the search and discovery, recording their beauty (we have started including photographs), and helping others know and appreciate our natural surroundings.
 
Read more about Dorothy Hoard in the March 2014 edition of PEEC’s Nature Notes.