WHAT IS iNATURALIST?
Updated: Feb 17
When I was introduced to iNaturalist in 2018, like the traditionalist that I am, I chose not to use the technology. Sure, I created an account during the workshop, but I didn’t see its importance. After all, what was I supposed to do with the new field guidebooks which I had just bought? But earlier this year, I found myself working with aquatic plants - a new experience for me. After exhausting the few resources I had at hand, I decided to give iNaturalist a try. I soon realised that iNaturalist is not just an easy way to learn about nature and build knowledge but that anyone, anywhere can contribute to the safe keeping of our biodiversity by using the latest technology to document and map it.
iNaturalist (www.inaturalist.org) is a social network of nature-lovers, citizen scientists and biologists mapping and sharing observations of biodiversity across the globe. But unlike social networks where you post pictures of your family and friends from your cell phone, here you post pictures of the animals, birds, insects, reptiles or plants you find around you wherever you are. You can share observations of species you know as well as those you don’t because the platform has experts from various backgrounds who will assist in identification. I took a picture of the aquatic plant in front of me and uploaded it to the iNaturalist mobile App on my phone.
The mystery plant was quickly identified as ‘Ludwigia adscendens subsp. diffusa (African Willow-herb), a perennial creeping herb, rooting at the nodes, sometimes a floating aquatic’. This was very useful because I needed to accurately identify it so that I could evaluate its risk and take the appropriate action. But iNaturalist is not only used by ordinary citizens like you and me, but also by conservation organisations that are responsible for the management and monitoring of our biodiversity like the Custodian of Rare and Endangered Wildflower (CREW) programme run by the South African National Biodiversity Institution (SANBI). CREW does not have adequate resources to survey every piece of land in South Africa, so iNaturalist provides the people-power to serve as an up-to-date data platform for CREW to tap into.
There are also interesting projects in iNaturalist to join, depending on your interests and location. Because I am affiliated with the Botanical Society of South Africa (BotSoc), I have joined that specific iNaturalist project. I am also part of ‘Grasses of South Africa’, ‘South Africa Red List: Plants and animals’, ‘Trees of Southern Africa’, ‘Invasives’, and ‘Western Soutpanberg Biodiversity'. There are plenty of projects to choose from and, if there are none in your area, you can always create one. The projects can also be interactive and competitive, such as the ‘City Nature Challenge’ (CNC) and ‘Bioblitz’. Both of these initiatives aim to record as many species within a specific location and time as possible. It is also a great way to encourage ordinary people to connect to their environment while generating useful data for science and conservation. In South Africa, these projects are run by CREW and BotSoc so keep your eye on the next CNC and BioBlitz!
Get started with www.inaturalist.org According to their website, at the time of compiling this article, iNaturalist had
108,290,368 Observations to date
387,293 Species observed
5,450,225 People signed up
Make your contribution! When posting a photo of your mystery fauna and flora on iNaturalist, remember the following:
The quality of your observation matters, as it makes it easier for experts to identify what you have posted. In my spare time, I enjoy identifying grasses for people on iNaturalist, and at times I am confused as to what I am looking at if the subject is too far away or the photo is very dark.
It is crucial that you record the location of your observation on iNaturalist to inform the accurate mapping of our biodiversity but you can also choose to obscure the location if you are posting rare and endangered species and worried people might target them.