The Importance of Citizen Scientists: Using iNaturalist to Create an Inventory of Natural Resources

By Louis Harrell

The recent City Nature Challenge, held 27-30 April 2018, exemplifies the important role that the general public plays by providing professional scientists with valuable data on biodiversity. Anyone can become a “citizen scientist” by going out and collecting data related to the natural world – made even easier today with the iNaturalist app. All you need to get started is a computer or a mobile smart phone and a desire to enjoy the great outdoors!

How does it work? The free iNaturalist app maps observations by different levels of geography, taxonomy, and type of observation. It can record and show all of the observations collected around the world, in the Washington DC area, or only those observations in a specific neighborhood. The 2018 City Nature Challenge provides an interesting and current source of data that can be used to demonstrate the power of the mapping capability of iNaturalist. Over 10,000 research-grade observations were collected providing insight into the distribution of natural resources in the D.C. metropolitan area. Research-grade observations are defined as identifications that have been confirmed by a second reviewer. Thanks to the capability of the app and the crowd-sourced second level review, citizen scientists can have fun collecting data and making material contributions toward understanding our environment.

Why would citizen scientists want to collect observations of various living things and map them? Collections of observations or inventories are a widely recognized technique used to identify long-term trends in biodiversity, the incidence of invasive plants, and the locations of other ecologically important species. For example, the data collected through iNaturalist allows a citizen scientist to document exactly when that garlic mustard appeared in the corner of a yard and if observations are collected over time, one can then observe the progression of the plant’s life. Since all data is collected with a standard method via iNaturalist, research-grade observations can automatically be integrated into larger files.

Inventories can be improved through well-known survey methodologies. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has published information that shows how sampling, careful data collection protocols, and appropriate collection technology can influence the quality of information and its utility for research, affect distribution of resources used to manage lands, and improve public understanding of natural resources. While the FWS document focuses on invasive species, its guidelines for research can be used for documenting any species in an area. For those interested in learning more, the FWS training can be found at: https://www.fws.gov/invasives/staffTrainingModule/assessing/inventory.html.

Citizen scientists of all ages can implement another inventory technique, the “Biocube,” which facilitates study of a very small space. The Smithsonian Institution developed Biocubes, which are hollow one foot cubic frames, that can be placed almost anywhere to show differences among living communities from different continents, different habitats, and wild versus domesticated land. The Smithsonian has published procedures to measure species diversity in a cubic foot. The method has been successfully used in marine and land environments and uses iNaturalist for reporting results. The strength of the approach comes from its use of a standard cubic foot sample size allowing comparison of results. The Smithsonian has published an introduction to Biocubes and a video that shows the history and significance of the technique at: http://ocean.si.edu/ocean-news/biocubes-life-one-cubic-foot.

How would a citizen scientist create a neighborhood data map?  The iNaturalist app is simple to use on a computer or a mobile phone. First, select the “Observations” option on the home page of the iNaturalist app, and then click “Explore.” This will display a map of the world. Next, click the filter button located in the upper right corner. Enter the desired options and the app will produce the specified neighborhood map. The example below shows how easy it is to display all research-grade observations from the City Nature Challenge:

Photo 1

These research-grade observations were collected in the Arlington and Alexandria areas during the Challenge:

Photo 2

In addition, iNaturalist has a “zoom in” feature that displays detail for individual sites.  Check out the results from Dora Kelley Park in Alexandria!

Photo 3

Download iNaturalist and get involved collecting observations individually or mark your calendar for the next big collaborative citizen science project: the Arlington Bioblitz to be held on Saturday 15 September 2018!

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