Documenting natural history sightings is important and thanks to numerous citizen science platforms, these days it’s easier than ever. If you take photos of plants, animals and fungi, make videos of nocturnal animals, or record frog calls, there’s an app for you.
One of the more popular and user-friendly sites for recording images and audio is iNaturalist, which describes itself as ‘a community for naturalists’ and is a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. Though it may be based in the US, it’s appeal is global – iNaturalist has nearly 5 M members word-wide, nearly 350,000 species identified and over 91 M records … and growing. More importantly for us here in Australia, iNaturalist collaborates with the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), as well as the Golobal Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), so that scientists and the community using those platforms can see all the collected data.
SNAP! has been around for a few years now. It started as a framework for collating ad hoc species distribution information from the Strathbogie Tableland, then coordinating annual bird lists from several local properties and eventually included longer-term, targeted surveys at multiple sites, for example the Strathbogie forest Citizen Science Project. Most of this more formally collected data has been submitted to the Victorian Biodiversity Atlas, but it’s always bothered me that there was no way of tapping into what all the other nature nerds out there were finding. The advent of iNaturalist has unleashed an enormously powerful on-line too that does just this – allows anyone with a smart phone (or camera & computer) to share their discoveries.
Adding observations to the iNaturalist database using your phone is the easiest way to begin: download the app, create an account, then tap the ‘+’ icon at the bottom of the screen to take/select a photo. Add your ID, or let iNaturalist make a suggestion, then submit. Make sure ‘gps/location’ on the phone is on when taking the photo – this will automate putting the observation in the right location on the map. All observations require either an image (preferable several to show the complete specimen), or an audio recording, to be accepted.
Uploading images/observations from a camera or computer requires a bit more practice, but also gives you much more flexibility. Go to the webpage, create an account (if needed), hit the green upload button and follow the prompts. For more complex tasks and any question you may have, there’s a comprehensive Help page.
iNaturalist has two incredibly useful features. First, you don’t need to know exactly, or even remotely, what you’re looking at – as long as the images are OK, you’ll get help from an army of identifiers, often within minutes! I’m convinced that making iNaturalist IDs has become some people’s raison d’être!
The other powerful iNaturalist feature is its machine learning algorithm, which is surprisingly accurate and will improve over time. The better your photos, the more accurate the suggested ID – it’s a good reason to take several good photos (showing different features and from angles) for each observation.
Records submitted to iNaturalist can be automatically grouped into projects (geographic areas) and SNAP! is one of these. Whenever a geo-tagged record from within the Strathbogie Ranges is submitted to iNaturalist, it automatically becomes part of SNAP!, so it’s easy to see what’s being documents in the area and by who. In the two years since I created SNAP! in iNaturalist it has collected 2265 observations, of 917 different species, from 120 different observers (at 15 March, 2022).
iNaturalist can provide all sorts of other interesting stats for example, which is the most observed species (currently, Koala), but it’s the maps that I find most useful. In the above example, each icon represents an observation of a particular species group (taxon), for example vertebrates (birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians) are blue, plants are green, fungi are pink, insects are orange.
It may seem that there are lots of records on this map already, but there are still plenty of gaps. Whether you use iNaturalist, the ALA, VBA Go, or another citizen science app, it all helps to connect people with a common interest in nature and build powerful networks – amateur and expert alike – to improve knowledge of our natural world.