Friday, February 24, 2012

[G] Follow in Darwin's footsteps with the iNaturalist mobile app

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Google Lat Long: Follow in Darwin's footsteps with the iNaturalist mobile app

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest author is Dr. Scott Loarie, a fellow at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford and co-director of, a biodiversity citizen-science website. Pepperwood Preserve was the recipient of a Google Earth Outreach Developer Grant, funded through the Google Inc. Charitable Giving Fund at the Tides Foundation. We’re excited to share how the iNaturalist Android application developed as a result of this grant is being used in action at Pepperwood Preserve.

Last weekend, as I rolled back a piece of bark at Pepperwood Preserve to reveal a big black beetle, I was reminded of a great story about Charles Darwin. Out collecting beetles, Darwin already had a beetle in each hand when he spotted a third. To free up a hand, he popped one of the beetles in his mouth. No sooner had he done this when it excreted some sort of burning liquid onto his tongue forcing him to spit it out, drop the second, and miss his chance for the third.

Now in 2012, all I had to do was point my phone at the beetle and snap its picture with the iNaturalist app (available on iOS and Android). Beetle mishaps aside, following in Darwin's footsteps wasn't really something non-scientists could participate in until recently. Specimens had to be collected, stuffed and shipped to museums where they were identified, labeled and catalogued. But with new technologies like Google Maps and smartphones, contributing data to museums now only takes a single click.

Pepperwood Research Specialist Morgan Kennedy demonstrates how to use the iNaturalist app to observe a native grass at Pepperwood Preserve.

Last Saturday, Morgan Kennedy introduced the Pepperwood Vital Signs project on, a citizen-science website I help direct, to a group of about 20 community members at Pepperwood Preserve. The project aims to map the distribution of plants and animals across the preserve with geo-referenced photos contributed by community members. The community members participating in the project often don't know the name of the species they are photographing, but by passing the contributions on to international museum consortiums and conservation organizations, iNaturalist photos are usually identified by scientists and experts within a few days.

Over the last year, community members have documented more than 400 distinct species by uploading more than 900 geo-referenced photos from Pepperwood. As the pilot preserve participating in the new Bay Area Open Space Council BioAtlas initiative, Pepperwood is developing ways to use iNaturalist to assemble the contributed data into digital education materials that can be used by the preserves to further engage and educate their community members.

This Google Map shows the Pepperwood Boundaries and more than 900 contributions to the Pepperwood Vital Signs project on

Saturday's training was especially exciting because Morgan demoed the new Android App that iNaturalist developed with the support of a Google Earth Outreach Developer Grant to Pepperwood. By making the contribution of data to museums easy and fun, the Android app clears a major barrier towards recruiting non-scientists to participate.

These reinforcements couldn't have arrived sooner. Plants and animals are disappearing about 1,000 times faster than normal with ongoing climate and land-use change, and one of the most difficult hurdles towards addressing these challenges has been the basic scarcity of information about where plants and animals persist and where they do not. Without the help of non-scientists, the handfuls of museums and graduate students tasked with providing this information simply can't scale to meet these challenges.

Want to get involved? Download the app (on iOS or Android), get outdoors, and start documenting nature from wherever you are in the world! If you want to start your own regional project, like the Pepperwood Vital Signs project, you can do that here. You'll be following in Darwin's footsteps - just don't be tempted to put any beetles in your mouth!

Posted by Scott Loarie, co-director

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