Eye witness: iNaturalist grows a network for nature lovers

Northern Cricket Frog. Photo: Ezra Staengl Northern Cricket Frog. Photo: Ezra Staengl

Albemarle County’s natural beauty and biodiversity attracts plenty of explorers, and lots of them like to keep track of what they find. iNaturalist.org, an online site (and mobile app) developed by UC Berkeley graduate students in 2008, links scientists and naturalists who want to learn more and share what they know, and plenty of observers from the Charlottesville area are in the mix.

“iNaturalist fits into my naturalist experience the same way that eBird [a birdwatcher site] enhances my birding experience,” says 14-year-old local nature enthusiast Ezra Staengl. “You can see what and where other people are observing nature of any kind, help people identify their sightings, and submit your own. It’s a great way to keep track of your sightings.”

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle. Photo: Ezra Staengl

The iNaturalist website describes itself as a social network whose primary goal is to connect people with nature. Free registration allows members to record observations of plants, trees, insects, birds, and animals in the wild, whether discovered in remote locations or in their own backyard. Observers can include a photo and as much detail and species information as they wish, and their logged sightings are shared and compared with others in the region and across the globe.

Charlottesville 10th-grader Tucker Beamer says the site is inspiring. “The great thing about making observations for yourself is you have somewhere to put just about anything and everything you see, which really gives me an incentive to photograph, identify, and seek out new species of fauna I never knew existed.”

A bit more scientifically oriented than other social media sites, iNaturalist’s social network platform connects like-minded nature lovers who are there to learn. “I think the social aspect of iNaturalist is one of the things that sets it apart from other biodiversity tracking websites like Odonata Central, Butterflies and Moths of North America, and eBird,” says Staengl. “Using iNaturalist, I was able to discuss camera equipment with another young birder, even though he lived in Illinois.”

Bird’s-eye Speedwell. Photo: Ezra Staengl

What if you don’t know what you’ve found? iNaturalist can help there, too, functioning as a crowdsourced species identification system. A member can post a photo labeled simply “bird” or “plant,” and other users can submit an ID for the observation, eventually leveling it up to “research grade.” “It’s really interesting to go in and show people why what they saw is what it is,” says Beamer.

Members can also create specialized lists and projects to organize their findings, and can map their observations. “When I was studying for my birding trip to Ecuador, I could search observations by place and see what Ecuadorian birds I was able to identify from photos,” says Staengl. “I can even search a random country and try to learn a little bit about their biodiversity.”

On the local level, it’s simply fun. “It’s awesome to have all this community activity about nature, something that I’m passionate about,” says Beamer.