Scientists aren't the only ones out there tracking what's happening in the natural world. From serious naturalists to weekend warriors, there are armies of regular people taking note of the environment all the time. Harnessing the power of these "citizen scientists" has been a challenge for researchers, but a new effort aims to make contributing to science as easy as using your cell phone.
On a recent day at Jasper Ridge, a nature preserve near the Stanford campus, a group of naturalists were out looking for signs of life.
“Oh! You almost stepped on the whatzit!”
Our leader, Scott Loarie, a post-doctoral fellow at the Carnegie Institution has just had a close call with… a mushroom. As it turns out, that’s just the kind of find he’s looking for. Loarie stops, and then he does just what you’d expect a young Bay Area hiker to do when he sees something cool. He pulls out his iPhone.
“I don’t know what this mushroom is, but someone might,” he said. “So what I’m going to do is, I’m going to take a picture of this thing, and I’m just going to call it a puffball, and I’m going to upload it. And now it’s on the website, it’s on iNaturalist.org.”
iNaturalist.org is kind of like Facebook, for nature geeks; a place online where people can share photos and field notes about what they’ve seen out on the trail. And now it’s got its very own iPhone app, which automatically geo-tags the photos, and makes sharing observations really easy.
It takes just few seconds to upload a photo, longer if you want to enter field notes. Once the photo is on the iNaturalist site, any member of the online community can help you identify exactly what you’ve captured.
“You don’t even have to know what you’re looking at,” said Ken-ichi Ueda, one of the creators of iNaturalist.
“You can be like, 'Oh sweet, a tree. There are trees in my yard,'” Ueda said. “That’s good to think about. Yeah, anyone can do it.”
Underneath all the technology, the “citizen science” behind iNaturalist isn’t new. The Audubon Society’s Christmas Day Bird count has been going on for more than a century, and now has more than 60,000 participants each year. Other, lesser-known projects, have volunteers tracking frogs and mushrooms. And roadkill.
For example, last month I was out on a boat in the San Francisco Bay, braving wind, rain and rough seas as part of my reporting on extremely high tides, called "king tides."
Jason Flanders of the San Francisco Bay Keeper organized that trip to help document what the Bay Area shoreline may look like as sea levels rise in coming decades.
“As you can see, we’re the only ones out here,” he said. “If we don’t take pictures of it, we’re not going to get a clear understanding of the impacts to the shoreline.”
What we saw was fairly dramatic: swells washing over the sea wall flooding San Francisco’s Embarcadero and waves creeping up to the parking lot at the beach just inside the Golden Gate Bridge. Later, we uploaded our photos to a website called King Tide Photo Initiative, which aims to raise awareness about sea level rise.
But at Jasper Ridge, Loarie wants to take citizen science a step further.
“One of the things that’s most pressing about conservation is that species are going extinct about a thousand times faster than they ever have before,” he said.
According to Loarie, a tool like iNaturalist can not only raise awareness about the natural world -- it can also help fuel serious science -- by providing valuable on-the-ground data for scientists studying climate change.
“The scale of this problem is just incredible. And it’s way too difficult for a handful of museums and graduate students to keep on top of,” said Loarie.
Loarie is hoping to enlist a bunch of the preserve’s docents in a pilot program that will use iNaturalist to map the biodiversity of the preserve.
One of the docents, Ross Bright, forsees some challenges ahead for the iPhone app.
“I think the idea has a lot of merit,” said Bright. “Whether it’s workable and doable is the problem. Most docents are not necessarily literate in the high tech gadgetry that’s involved in this.”
But those who catch on could potentially be doing a real service for science.
About 100 miles north of Stanford, at Pepperwood Preserve in Sonoma County, Lisa Micheli heads up another pilot project, similar to the one at Jasper Ridge. Volunteers will be using iNaturalist to map the biodiversity of the 3,000-acre preserve. Ultimately, Micheli hopes, the ecosystems of the entire Bay Area could be mapped this way.
“We’ve always been seeking biological monitoring data to make better decisions in real time, but it’s even more important now because climate change is happening and it could have a very big effect on the distribution of species in the Bay Area,” said Micheli.
The effect of climate change is very difficult to track without field data says Healy Hamilton, director of the Center for Applied Biodiversity Informatics at the California Academy of Sciences. She studies the impact of climate change on biodiversity.
“Applications such as iNaturalist are going to increase the biodiversity data that scientists have to work with,” said Hamilton. “Any help we can get observing what is happening in nature, where it’s happening, and who it’s happening to, is going to help scientists understand the pace of how climate change is affecting species and ecosystems.”
Apple approved and released the iNaturalist iPhone app last week, as a free download on iTunes. A version for Android phones is in the works.