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A snap away from nature knowledge

September 3, 2018
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Experts on iNaturalist.org can help identify user-uploaded photos, such as this California prionus beetle.

I have yet to meet a person who is not curious when they see an interesting beetle, or a gorgeous black-and-white snake, a colorful butterfly or a kind of flower they have not seen before. Curiosity and wonder are hallmarks of being human and the basic instincts of a naturalist. We wonder what things are, what they do and why. Why is it here? What is it doing? But one of the first things we often ask is: What is it?

We want to put a name on it. This is not just an intellectual exercise. It allows us to communicate with others about what we observed. It allows us to remember what we observed — behavior, size, color, location — with a name. It is a way to catalogue and communicate our experiences and memories. And I think it is worthwhile to be informed about the other species with which we share this planet.

But the vast number of species of plants and animals are certainly too numerous for anyone to learn. Which is why certain people are plant people, or maybe only wildflower people. Others are bug people, or maybe just butterfly people. Others focus their interest on birds, or reptiles or amphibians.

Don’t you just wish that sometimes you could show someone a photo you took with your cell phone and find out what it is? iNaturalist.org is a website developed to connect those who are interested in nature and wish to share their observations, or just find out what something is.

After a simple signup with email address and user name, visitors can upload photos of things (or recordings of sounds), and make as accurate an identification as they can. At first, this may only be “flowering plant,” or “insect,” but these broad names help funnel the as-yet-to-be-identified observation to those with more experience who can help determine more specifically what it is.

I have been using iNaturalist for only a year and a half, and I’m hooked. I submit observations of trees, shrubs, beetles, dragonflies, birds, voles, mammal tracks, horse hair worms, parasitic wasps, salamanders, lizards, snakes and all kinds of other things.

I learn so much from the vast community of people on iNaturalist, whether just getting an ID for my observation or asking a question about the critter I observed. Many in the iNat community are brand new naturalists, while others are world-renowned experts in their fields, and then there are the rest of the people like me, somewhere in the middle.

Here’s a day in the life of an iNatter: I go to a park for a barbecue with family. While there, I see an interesting moth on the picnic table. I take a photo with my cell phone. I may upload it right then and there with my iNaturalist app, or I might upload it later on my home computer from the iNaturalist.org website with all my other observation for the day or week.

I also brought my digital camera, and I photograph a woodpecker working on a tree nearby. Later that night I put all my photos on my laptop and upload them to iNaturalist — making sure they have the correct time, date and location — and give my best understanding as to what I observed (e.g. moths, woodpeckers), and submit my observations.

Sometime in the next few days I’ll check my “dashboard” to see if someone has suggested an ID for my observation or made any comments. Sometimes an observation can be identified right down to species. Others, particularly many insects, may only be identifiable to order, family, or genus, but even then, I will have learned something.

Having used iNat for over a year now, I notice that some of the same species show up at nearly the same time of year, and that gives me another chance to learn about them and document their occurrence.

Are you curious? Give it a try. Share what you see on your outdoor adventures. Learn from others. Share your knowledge on things you are familiar with that others may not have seen before.

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