The Local Climate: An ode to iNaturalist

Featured The Local Climate

Our appreciation for the natural world is limited by our understanding thereof. That’s been my mantra for the better part of a decade now and research has since vindicated me, demonstrating that an individual’s concern for local biodiversity is directly proportional to the amount of time they spend exploring and understanding it. Go figure.

While I’ve known this for some time now, only recently have I been empowered to do something about it. Sure, I’ve always been outdoorsy, and as the years roll by I’m increasingly willing to sacrifice comfort and security in my pursuit of wilderness, but actually learning the names of its individual species and the relationships between them was always too difficult. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve purchased a suite of guidebooks and marched into the woods determined to become fluent in all things natural, and every single time I’ve failed, giving up in a fit of exhausted frustration. But no longer.

At this very moment, anyone with internet access can download the free smartphone app iNaturalist. Instead of scrolling through a few hundred tree pictures trying to find a match for the one growing in your yard, you simply photograph your tree and upload it to the app. The moment you do so, a few things happen. First, the app will let you try to identify the tree yourself, and, if you have no ideas, it will suggest some, using its built-in AI and extensive database to give you a top ten list, based on your picture. Speaking from experience, the first or second option tends to be correct.

Once your observation is up and you’ve made your best guess, then other iNaturalist users (iNatters) will take a look at your observation and either agree with your ID or disagree, suggesting another in its place. These people tend to be field naturalists, botanists, entomologists, ornithologists, foresters or else authoritative enthusiasts, bringing decades of experience to that tree in your yard. You’ll hear from a very nice researcher in New Brunswick patiently explaining that you’ve probably not discovered a giant redwood behind your house, instead suggesting that you’ve found an Eastern hemlock. Then maybe some Swedish professor will curtly agree. If three people concur on the ID of your tree, your observation becomes “research grade,” meaning it has been added to an enormous, open source database of global biodiversity, at the disposal of natural scientists the world over for both research and conservation.

More than once the findings of this app have been used to make discoveries or carry out research which would otherwise have been impossible. As well its users have identified species previously unknown to science, sometimes entirely by accident. This is citizen science at its finest, benefiting absolutely everyone involved.

My first year using this app I successfully identified 147 species of bird, and last year tackled trees, developing a lasting understanding of my surroundings which allows me to appreciate regional biodiversity in ways once beyond my comprehension. Our primitive primate brains are well equipped to catalog our environment, and this app does away with the guidebooks once necessary just to get started. Even in the depths of winter there’s enough to explore, and at any rate, you’ll need practice for this spring, when the flowers bloom and the birds chirp. Happy iNatting.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.

Shown above is an American pipit which the photographer inaccurately identified as a Water pipit on iNaturalist. A grumpy Vancouver resident set him straight.  (Zack Metcalfe photo)