I have been writing blog posts for Maryland Grows on a regular basis for a while. To do this, I usually meet with Christa, the blog manager, every 6 months and plan on the topics I will cover over the next few months. When we do this, we seek to cover the needs we see from readers, but sometimes the topics come to us as a result of our discussions. This is exactly what happened for today’s topic. Today, let me tell you the story of how this came to be, and at the same time show you a great free tool available at our (literal) fingertips!
Picture myself and Christa on Zoom, planning dates and topics for the next few months. It is February and it is cold outside. We have been making our way through the upcoming months, thinking of what each one will look and feel like, and what will be growing and buzzing around in each of them. August comes. How is August in Maryland? What do we usually see around? What issues are common in green spaces in August?
I think of August and in my very pollination-biologist-biased way start thinking of the pollinators we see in August… And what comes to me is “butterflies!” I remember writing about butterflies in the past, so maybe butterflies are a bit redundant as a blog topic. However, I don’t remember writing about a specific group of butterflies called “skippers,” which are common in Maryland. So, sure, let’s write about skippers, but what skippers are around in August? As we discuss and try to narrow down the topic, I open this incredible tool I use very regularly to learn about local species, report observations I make, and do research in my lab. This magical incredible tool is called iNaturalist.
So, there I am, opening iNaturalist’s website, and doing a quick search to find out the most common and most abundant skippers we find in Maryland in August. I am doing this, and Christa is intrigued; what am I doing? How am I figuring this out? I decide to share my screen to show her what I’m doing. Christa is amazed. You can do all that with iNaturalist?! The world needs to know! So, there we have it. Our blog topic showed itself to us. Today’s blog will be about what iNaturalist is, how to use it, and what type of information we can share with and learn from it. I hope that this blog will motivate you to start using it as well, and, like me, every time learn something new about species here and elsewhere in the world.
iNaturalist; ever heard of it?
We live in the times of social networks, like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook… And as it turns out, social networks are really useful to science too! iNaturalist is one of those networks!
iNaturalist is a global social network that allows people to submit, find, and explore biodiversity observations from around the world. What does this mean? This means that through this network, every time a person observes an organism anywhere in the world, they can take a picture of it, upload it to iNaturalist, and then have the network help them identify what it is through its picture (using image recognition software), its location, its date, and the input of other members. This information is then stored in a public database, which can then be explored easily by anybody, including scientists, you, me, kids, conservation agencies, and more! At the end of the day and using all these data, the network can output maps and other information of any species ever added, allowing for the reported localities to be found, and, if the user wants to, visited to try to see the organism in question. Today, iNaturalist has over 5 million users worldwide, with over 109 billion observations of over 380,000 species!
OK. But how does iNaturalist work?
To explain this, let’s come back to my skippers story. I am talking to Christa and want to know what the most abundant skipper in Maryland may be, and whether it is present in August. To do this, I first go to the iNaturalist website (if on a computer; otherwise, I would open the app on my phone). This is what the page looks like.
Once I get to that page, I click on “Explore” on the top left, which will open a search box, where I can type “Skippers” under species, and “Maryland” under location.
And here is where the fun starts. When I do this, I start accessing all the data that all people who ever submitted data have provided, allowing me as a citizen and as a potential blog writer to benefit from the power of what we call “citizen science”. But let’s come back to the story. At this point, I have my first list of results, which looks something like this:
Here, I can see that there are several thousand observations of skippers in Maryland and that 48 species are recorded. If I select “SPECIES” I can see each species, their names, and the number of observations submitted for each. And bingo! This is one of the things I was after! I now can know what are the likely most common species, since those that have been seen many times are likely also the most abundant and common. Here, three species are kind of at the top with over 2000 observations each: Sachems, Zabulon, and Silver-spotted skippers.
Cool. I have a species selection now, but are they abundant in August? Let’s see that for Sachems and you can check the other ones yourself 😊. If I click on Sachems, the following opens up:
This is the page that gives ALL information on Sachems. Here, I can see that skippers have been observed a lot and recently by specific people, but most importantly, I can see a little figure that shows when most observations happened, an indication of when the species is the most and least abundant throughout the year. If I filter this page by location (using the tool on the top right) and for MD, it seems that in August we are likely to see these skippers, but that we may see them more at the end of August than at the beginning of the month. So, maybe skippers are a good species to talk about.
But instead of telling that myself, let’s have iNaturalist tell you about it. How? Click on the “About” tab right below the picture! This is (the beginning of) what will appear:
Want to know if the species is protected or rare here or elsewhere? Click on “Status” and you will have the most updated information!
Great, so now we can learn so much about the species. However, how do I find where to find it in Maryland? Simple! If you click on “Map”, a map of all observations will appear, with regions that have the most observations shown with boxes of darker color shades.
This map can be zoomed into your town, neighborhood, or whatever region you would like to focus on, and, once you’re ready, you can even hover over the red boxes to select specific observations you may want to look at. Doing so will tell you where, when, and by whom the observation was made, and you will be able to see a picture of the observed organism. If one clicks on “View” on this observation, all its details will come up in a new window.
Wow. I can have so much information here… including access to open access and lovely pictures of the species I am looking for (the small CC mark on the picture means that this picture is in the public domain).
And one more thing. Did you notice the green flag “Research Grade” that appears by the name? This flag indicates that the observation identification has been confirmed by many users, and for that reason can be trusted so much that it has a quality level that makes it appropriate for research purposes (these are the types of data we use in my lab). Isn’t that cool?
Anyways, a blog is supposed to be short and this one is getting long, so I will not go into how to submit observations to iNaturalist. However, know the following: you can do it from your phone or computer, and this is very easily explained in a couple of super neat and short how-to tutorials here.
Oh, and last but not least! iNaturalist is global! This means that you can submit and consult observations anywhere in the world. Are you on vacation and want to know what species are there? No problem, check the app and it will help you with that! Did you just move to a new place and wished you were more knowledgeable of the species in that new place? Great, iNaturalist can give you a hand with it!
I can speak about the wonders of this network for hours, but really the best way to realize it is by using it! So, go ahead and take a look at it and I hope you will find it as useful and easy-to-use as I do. And who knows, maybe after doing it, it will also inspire you to write about something you learned as it did for me and Christa! 😊
By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.
Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. ¡Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!
Wow! Like Christa, I had no idea you could find all as this data in iNaturist. I primarily use it to help identify invasives or find the names for native wildflowers. It’s neat to know that my casual observations might actually be useful to a scientist. Thanks!
I routinely reach for iNaturalist to ID plants, but had not used it for insects. Thank you for focusing on this function of the app!