When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, lots of people hit their local nature trails. Many hikers brought the iNaturalist app with them. This handy app makes it easy to identify and learn about your local flora and fauna. But iNaturalist does more than identify the plants and animals you see; with iNaturalist, you can also participate in the scientific process as a citizen scientist.
iNaturalist is a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. It started as a graduate project by students at UC Berkeley’s School of Information in 2008 and grew and grew. It now connects scientists and naturalists to users or “observers” throughout the world.
Although many apps focus on providing useful information about a specific type of creature or plant, iNaturalist attempts to identify any plant or animal — making it a one-stop shop for field identification.
Connecting Observers, Identifiers, and Scientists
Naturalists of all levels can enjoy and benefit from the iNaturalist app, but these are the three main target audiences.
Observers: Everyday users, or observers, use the app to identify and learn about the flora and fauna they encounter when out enjoying nature. Their observations can provide valuable data for scientific studies.
Identifiers: These individuals know the taxa well and recognize flora and fauna in different seasons and settings. By confirming the observations provided by everyday users, they help ensure accurate data for scientists.
Scientists: Scientists use the data collected by the observers and identifiers (and often also act as identifiers themselves). Instead of having to do their own time-consuming (although often enjoyable) surveys in the field, they can mine iNaturalist for data that relates to their scientific interests.
How to Use iNaturalist if You’re Not a Scientist
First, create a username and password to set up your account. Your account helps you track your observations in iNaturalist. Then, download and set up the app over a Wi-Fi network before you head out in the field.
Use iNaturalist as an electronic photo journal to identify and catalog the plants and animals you see on hikes or whenever you’re exploring nature. When you record an observation, take more than one photo from different vantage points. Once you make an observation, the app’s artificial intelligence (AI) will make a guess about what you observed based on similar species found in the area. Just confirm or correct the AI’s guess to complete your observation. You can also add a note about your observation.
Another user or identifier must confirm the species before your observation and photo are considered valid research data. It may take a few days and you will be notified via email in the app when your observation is confirmed. With two positive identifications, the observation is deemed “research-grade” and can be used by scientists. Sometimes, poor quality will prevent the photo from earning research-grade status.
Once you’ve made your first observation and another user has confirmed it, you may just be hooked! You’ll want to learn the names of all the plants, bugs, mushrooms, lichen, flowers, and everything around you.
If possible, take photos of the same species throughout the year. This will help you get to know your subject better and also help scientists better understand it. Each photo you take catalogs your subject at a specific time and place, so taking more photos in a different season provides scientists with more information.
Studies are always happening concerning dates surrounding leaf out, bud break, flower bloom, flower fall, leaf wilting, and more. Scientists want to know this information and you can help them find out while learning more yourself.
Seek: For the Kids
iNaturalist is pretty kid-friendly as it is, but for a kid-specific app, iNaturalist offers Seek. This app automatically tries to identify the subject before the user has even taken a photo. That means there are fewer steps for the kiddos before they get the information they’re looking for.
Seek also has challenges and badges to motivate kids to make more observations. Additionally, the app is not connected to the online database, so parents don’t need to worry about unknown people connecting with their children or knowing their location. But if desired, you can link a Seek account to an existing iNaturalist account so your child can upload images.
Feature image by Hoàng Chương from Pexels. Originally published on October 5, 2020, this article was updated in September 2022.