Two young brothers were thrilled to find tadpoles swimming in the pond at the Fred and Ila Rose Fife Wetland Preserve in Salt Lake City. They scrambled to take a picture with their tablet camera and upload the photo to an app called iNaturalist. It was a family outing—the boys along with their mother and grandparents took the day to participate in the City Nature Challenge.
“The City Nature Challenge was a nationwide effort between April 14-18 to document as much urban biodiversity in the United States as possible,” said Lisa Thompson, exhibit developer at the Natural History Museum of Utah and leader of the museum’s citizen science program, which includes the City Nature Challenge.
“Documenting biodiversity is not something that scientists can do by themselves. There is just too much information that’s needed,” she said. “So, in order to really begin to understand the biodiversity on the planet, we need lots of people out there making observations that scientists can then analyze. It will be imperative for citizen scientists to be involved if we are to tackle some of these big challenges around sustaining the biodiversity of our planet.”
Citizen scientists are volunteers who contribute to scientific research. Those participating in the City Nature Challenge ranged from families with young children, to university students, to scientists. They used the iNaturalist app to document biodiversity. Tim Magnuson, a first time user of the app, explained how simple it was. He was documenting some green scum attached to a log along the shore of a pond.
“I took a picture of it through iNaturalist,” he said, “and then I clicked on the box that said, ‘What did you see?’ You can look up pretty much anything.”
Magnuson, a microbiologist, was pretty sure that green, slimy scum was cyanobacteria.
“I typed in cyanobacteria and sure enough it came up in the app. I clicked on that to identify it,” Magnuson said. “I also typed some notes saying I found the cyanobacteria on wood in the pond. I then clicked ‘share’ and that information was uploaded.”
Christy Bills, the invertebrate zoology collections manager at the Natural History Museum of Utah said the app is a wonderful tool for satisfying personal curiosity.
“It helps people get in touch with the nature in their area. I feel very passionately that when you know the names of things, you’re more at home in nature,” she said. “It’s a really fun thing to be able to have a library of your own observations.”
In fact, if you don’t know what you are looking at, a plant for instance, people within the iNaturalist community will help you identify it.
The app also has substantial implications for scientific research, even right here in Utah. It can help improve the management of green spaces and monitor invasive species like firebugs.
“They are these cute little bugs that look almost like a box elder bug—those red and black bugs. They are easy to identify, because they have two black circles on their back,” Thompson said. “It’s a fascinating story, because they were introduced somehow into Salt Lake County. This was the first record of their occurrence in North America. Scientists are really interested in how they are going to disperse. We are encouraging people to take photos of firebugs wherever they see them and submit them, so we can track the dispersal of this species. We imagine they will spread throughout Utah—who knows how far they will go.”
While Thompson encourages people to make observations with the iNaturalist app all year round, she was very excited about the results of City Nature Challenge. Sixteen cities across the United States participated—over 120,000 observations were logged and more than 8,500 different species identified.
"To me it’s wonderful and delightful to think about all this nature that we can encounter on a daily basis in our lives in the cities,” she said.
Additional information: Tutorials for iNaturalist on iPhone and Android are available, and information on iNaturalist events with Salt Lake City Neighborhood Naturalists can be found at the Natural History Museum of Utah website.