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What's That in Your Pocket? iNaturalist and the City Nature Challenge

by Jenny Meyer, MFMN Class of 2022

In 2012, a nervous young post-doctoral fellow – fresh off the plane from California and overdressed in a brand-new business suit – stepped up to a podium in the offices of the World Wildlife Fund in downtown Washington, D.C.

“Can Social Networks Save Biodiversity?” was the title of Scott Loarie’s talk. The iPhone was five years old, the photo-sharing site Instagram was two, and Loarie was introducing the iNaturalist app to a friendly but somewhat skeptical audience of scientists and conservation professionals. The answer to his (rhetorical) question was unclear at the time and, more than a decade later, the planet’s biodiversity still needs saving. But iNaturalist is firmly established as a valuable tool in conservation science, and every Master Naturalist – indeed, anyone with even a casual interest in nature – should have it in their back pocket.

I heard Dr. Loarie speak and downloaded my first observation – a green tree frog in my driveway – that same month, but it took me many years to become a regular user. And being an occasional user is okay! Even a random observation from unqualified amateurs can yield big discoveries – like when some kids noticed an Australian fish washed up on a California beach:

The story illustrates several of the unique features of iNaturalist. One is the participation of scientific experts around the globe, who often collaborate with humble amateurs to make sure observations are correct. Another is the power of having a million people collecting and sharing data.

While spotting a rare species is exciting, the millions of mundane, everyday observations posted by iNaturalist users are even more important. Those giant biodiversity datasets are being used by scientists and natural resource managers, and iNaturalist is one of the fastest-growing contributors of usable scientific data to giant databases like the IUCN Red List and Global Biodiversity Information Facility.

On the personal level, iNaturalist is a great tool for learning your local flora and fauna, using the built-in artificial intelligence function that analyzes your photos and suggests an identification. Its suggestions, while not foolproof (in the early days, it claimed my cat was a gerbil), have gotten increasingly accurate over the years.

The City Nature Challenge

The iNaturalist website has lots of video tutorials on how to use the app, linked here:

But the best way to learn the app is to try it out in the field! And there’s no better opportunity to do that than the City Nature Challenge, a fun but spirited competition that pits different metropolitan areas across the globe against each other to see who can observe the largest number of species over one a long weekend.

Begun in 2016 with only two cities, the City Nature Challenge exploded into an international event with tens of thousands of participants, many of whom participate in intensive “bioblitzes.” Our area is part of the Washington, D.C. team, which is always one of the top-ranking U.S. competitors. This year’s competition, which has two phases, is set for April 28 to May 1 for observations and May 2 to 7 for identifications.

See a short introduction to the City Nature Challenge here:

Merrimac Farm Virginia Master Naturalists plans to support the 2023 City Nature Challenge, both in the field and in identifying and validating observations. Look to the Better Impact calendar for the final details.


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