iNaturalist: The Instagram of biology is revolutionising citizen science

It's National Insect Week, and it's never been easier to contribute to global conservation efforts from the comfort of your iPhone

Education is conservation’s most powerful tool. We need only to look at the impact of the BBC’s Planet Earth and Blue Planet to see how tapping in to the collective consciousness can result in real environmental policy change at a political level. Technological innovation, and society’s access to scientific information, play a huge part of this education. So this National Insect Week, I’d like to introduce you to an app that combines both in a very modern effort to bolster citizen science. It’s called iNaturalist.

iNaturalist was founded in 2008 by students at the University of California, and over the last decade, it’s developed into an Instagram-like app for the conservationally curious.

The social network allows users (currently around 10 million) to upload photos of plants and animals from their mobile devices that are then identified through a combination of artificial intelligence (using the catalogue of more than 10 million images already uploaded by users) and crowdsourcing the expertise of other users. It’s a social networking dream for biologists, but it’s just as powerful in the hands of citizen scientists, students, and just about anyone who’s keen on observing wildlife.

It’s a far cry from lugging a textbook about tree species with you on hikes

Species of plants and animals can be identified in seconds, and ‘projects’ can be set up by users so organisations and groups can monitor, discuss, and comment on one another’s findings. For example, iNaturalist is right now being used to power the Global Amphibian and Global Reptile ‘BioBlitzes’—worldwide projects helping researchers better learn how to conserve population numbers.

It’s a far cry from lugging a textbook about tree species with you on hikes, and for many users, it’s that ease-of-use in your pocket combined with the familiarity of social networking apps that makes iNaturalist so successful. I’ve been using the app for a couple of weeks now, and have already identified numerous animal and plant species, awaiting comments from other users to more accurately determine the species I’m not so sure on.

iNaturalist’s software determined this snake I snapped a photo of was a harmless Natrix natrix, commonly known as a grass snake. The app’s determination was then backed up by a fellow user’s own identification. Image: Ben Sullivan
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iNaturalist’s software determined this snake I snapped a photo of was a harmless Natrix natrix, commonly known as a grass snake. The app’s determination was then backed up by a fellow user’s own identification. Image: Ben Sullivan

Fernando Mateos-González, a Spanish biologist who runs the Bioblogia.net biology blog, is a huge fan. For Fernando, the allure of iNaturalist lies in the app’s simple power to educate. “Names are powerful things. You can find a cool bug whilst traveling abroad and just say ‘Hey! That’s cool’ and continue with your day,” he told me. “Or you can take a pic of the bug, upload it to iNaturalist and discover, for example, that the cool bug is a female firefly from the genus Photuris. And, if you place it carefully in your hands, making it dark there, it might start flashing that magical light from fairy tales.”

Fernando said that knowing more about the life that surrounds us doesn’t just provide us with fun facts to share at the dinner table. Rather, knowing is the cure for those unfounded fears that so greatly hamper conservation efforts. Learning an animal’s name is the first step to transform fear into curiosity, then fascination.

“Not so long ago, a friend of mine confessed to having a crippling arachnophobia, despite loving other animals and, generally, being outdoors. I suggested her to Google videos of Maratus, which is the genus of the adorable peacock spiders,” he told me. “It worked like a vaccine! She might not yet get a pet tarantula, but now she doesn’t jump on a chair when she sees spiders at home. Now she sends me photos of them, asking questions.”

As many conservation and environmental efforts continue to be thwarted worldwide, either by short-sighted political eco-disasters or gradual but grave extinction events, apps like iNaturalist stand out as beacons of ingenuity and education that can transform how we, and our children, view and treat nature.

“iNaturalist provides a mechanism that we just never had before to engage citizen scientists and volunteers. It is also opening a new door to research into species presence, distribution and abundance that we simply could never do in the past,” remarks one user on the iNaturalist forums, responding to a question on how iNaturalist changed people’s lives. “Personally, iNaturalist makes me pay closer attention and notice organisms in which I never took much notice in the past. It is like a constant scavenger hunt.”

So this National Insect Week, I implore you, download the app and go out and hunt!

Image: The last fight. Tiger beetle and weaver ant, by Ripan Biswas