People passionate about nature

iNaturalist App Helping Scientists and Nature-lovers

by Chris Friesen

It will likely come as no surprise to you that naturalists like to keep track of what they see in their wanderings. Many birders keep a ‘life list’ - a list of all the bird species they’ve ever seen, and there’s often friendly competition among birders to see who has the longer list. In fact, I’m guessing that many birders also keep lists of the birds they observe each year, or in Manitoba, or perhaps even in their yard.

Similar records are also kept by the smaller, but no less avid, crowds of butterfly enthusiasts and orchid fanatics. Taking photos of our finds is also popular, and made increasingly convenient with the cameras we always carry with us (ie: our cell phones).

Above: Six-plume moth by Chris Friesen

Keen observation and meticulous record keeping are hallmarks of naturalists, amateur and professional alike, as is curiosity - that force which keeps drawing us to new places, new creatures, and closer observation. Our curiosity is what stops us in our tracks while hiking to frantically pull out our cameras or binoculars (and in the process test the patience of our fellow trekkers who have to wait while we flip the pages of our field guides or take that perfect picture). As naturalists, we like to learn new things.

Traditionally, only those records thought most noteworthy travelled beyond the pages of one’s own notebook, and learning was often limited to the information found in whatever field guides were available or the expertise of those who happened to live nearby. Today, the internet, especially in combination with cell phones and their cameras, provides naturalists with a multitude of new tools for both learning and record keeping.

Above: Golden-eye lichen by Chris Friesen

Some of these tools are focussed on certain critters (eg: eBird is for the birds); others are limited to certain areas (eg: BugGuide is limited to North America). Each tool has its own strengths and limitations, in terms of both coverage and functionality. My personal favorite among the tools available is iNaturalist, which can be used on a computer or via an app on a cell phone.

The scope of iNaturalist is global and includes all forms of life. This means I don’t need separate apps or programs for the different things I see or the different places I go. A photo of a bird in Brazil, an ant in Australia, a flower in Florence, or a butterfly in my backyard – they can all be recorded in iNaturalist! iNaturalist automatically keeps a life list for me, and I can create other types of lists or use the search function to easily find the observations of interest (eg: all the beetles I recorded last year in Manitoba).

Above: Nuttall's blister beetle by Chris Friesen

Perhaps the greatest strength of iNaturalist is the community of naturalists that use it. No longer is my learning limited to what I find in a field guide or whom I know. Now naturalists (including many experts) from all over the world can see my records/photos since they are no longer confined to my notebook. Other naturalists can help me identify what I have seen, and I can do the same for them.

iNaturalist also comes with some handy functionality, such as the artificial intelligence that analyzes your picture and provides identification suggestions – at first I was skeptical about its accuracy, but now find it helpful more often than not! iNaturalist also recognizes that sometimes it’s best not to share the specific locations of what we find, so it allows users to ‘hide’ an observation from other users or obscure its precise location. It also allows users to upload sounds for those times when you can hear the bird but can’t see the darn thing!

The Manitoba Conservation Data Centre (MBCDC; part of the provincial Wildlife and Fisheries Branch), is active on iNaturalist (username manitoba_cdc) where we do our bit to help identify the things people find in Manitoba and manage several projects to help organize observations (eg: All Manitoba Nature). The MBCDC also uses iNaturalist data to inform our environmental reviews and assessments for rare species like the Prairie Skink. MBCDC staff can’t be everywhere and see everything, and use the data on iNaturalist to help fill the gaps. iNaturalist data has also been used by researchers to describe species new to science, assess the range of species, or monitor changes in the timing of certain events (eg: flowering of a plant species or migration of a bird species). iNaturalist data can also be used to monitor the spread of invasive species like Zebra Mussels.

Above: Prairie Skink courtesy of Manitoba Conservation Data Centre

To date, nearly 3,000 people have contributed over 80,000 observations of more than 4,400 species in Manitoba, including at least two species (Abbott’s Sphinx Moth and Neighbor Moth) that had not been recorded here until iNaturalist users spotted them!

All these things are only possible because naturalists like you are out there observing, recording, and learning about the wonderful world around us. Have fun, stay safe, and keep up the great work!

Chris Friesen is Coordinator at the Manitoba Conservation Data Centre. Hie username on iNaturalist is friesen5000