Many people don’t think about cities as great places to observe wildlife, and most people have no idea what plants and animals live in the city with us! Say you’re walking around in the city and you see an interesting plant or animal that you want to identify. Without a guidebook or nature expert, it’s likely you’ll have a difficult time. The solution to your problem lies in an app (or Website) called iNaturalist, where anyone can be a wildlife biologist, if only for a few moments.
The app is simple to use: Just take a photo of whatever organism you’re interested in, ensuring the animal is in focus. Perhaps include a ruler for scale, if you’re a nerd like me (see image left). The app does the rest – it will automatically assign GPS coordinates to your photo, and even suggest identifications based on similar photos.
Another cool feature is that you can open the map on your phone or visit the website on your computer and see what plants and animals have been observed near you (or anywhere in the world).
But the real power of the app comes via the interaction of scientists and identifiers with observers. Once your observation is uploaded, other people – wildlife biologists, scientists, or simply aficionados can identify it. If many people agree on an identification of your species, your observation becomes “Research Grade” and therefore verified. The app also includes a comments section for each observation, which can lead to informal but valuable conversations about the specimen. For example, I got into a great conversation with a wildlife biologist in Puerto Rico about the distribution of the invasive species Boa constrictor – all through the app!
iNaturalist is a good way for anyone to get involved in science, and is the backbone of several citizen science projects, such as BioBlitzes, which are events where people get together to assay biodiversity in an area. More formally, iNaturalist data has allowed scientists to get data that can be hard to obtain (as described in a previous post here), and is being increasingly used in research, for example to document invasions or get better estimates of a species range. For urban research in particular this is a valuable resource as it allows researchers to determine where they are likely to find animals in urban environments and even analyze habitat use.
So what are you waiting for? Let’s go outside!