The smartphone has probably done more to connect people than any other invention in history, making instant communication with family, friends and colleagues across the globe a piece of cake.
Take a quick count of the number of heads bowed over gadgets when you are next outside, however – if you can tear yourself away from your own phone, that is – and you will see it has done just as much to disconnect people from their immediate reality and the joys it can bring.
But a growing global movement is harnessing the best of both worlds, using tech to connect people to the natural world and each other, and boost global conservation efforts in the process.
iNaturalist is a thriving online community driven by an army of smartphone-toting naturalists and biologists. These professionals and amateurs sally forth into the world, heads-up and eyes open, to take pictures of the flora and fauna they encounter, be it in urban environments or in the wild. They then use the iNaturalist app to upload their observations, as they are known, for their peers to identify.
“We started iNaturalist to explore how technology could be used to connect people to nature,” says Scott Loarie, one of the founders of the community. “But we also found that the observations and identifications people were sharing were an exciting new source of data for science and conservation.”
The numbers are already impressive after just six years of operation. The site has just short of 400,000 registered users, who have clocked up 4.8 million verifiable observations across 100,000 species. With such rich data available, and so many great brains sifting the treasure trove, it’s little wonder that iNaturalist has led to the discovery of completely new species, and rediscoveries of others.
In 2011, Luis Mazariegos, from Colombia, uploaded a picture of a cute, if rather toxic, red and black frog. The photograph caught the eye of Ted Kahn, a scientist who is part of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Amphibian Specialist group. Two years’ later, they published research identifying the little critter as a previously unknown species of Andean poison frog.
Another picture, this one snapped in Vietnam, turned out to be the first-ever documented photograph of a snail described on one of Captain Cook’s voyages in the 18th century. This snail, Myxostoma petiverianum, had not been seen in over a hundred years.
Even youngsters are getting in on the act.
“One story that made me very proud was when an iNaturalist observation marked the discovery of a new species of snake not previously known from a National Park,” says Loarie. “It turned out the observation was made by a 4th grader. It’s so cool to think that even young kids can play active roles in making real scientific discoveries.”
But the real power of iNaturalist doesn’t lie in such discoveries, thrilling as they may be.
“A single observation may not be incredibly informative by itself, but when it’s united with thousands of other data points, a beautiful picture emerges,” says Sam Kieschnick, an Urban Wildlife Biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife.
Kieschnick – who has clocked up over 25,000 observations and over 100,000 identifications, and is the proud holder of a master’s degree in the genetics of pocket gophers – believes iNaturalist is a powerful tool for conservation, particularly as human development changes the distribution of species.
“As urbanization continues, as the climate changes, new and different species come into areas and some species are pushed out,” he says. “With iNaturalist, we can actively document these changes. Not only does this provide data … it shows policy makers that there's an active constituency of people that seek out this diversity. This is a big deal. It's a policy-changing sort of thing.”
The community is only going to become more influential. iNaturalist has teamed up with UN Environment and Canada for a global Bioblitz to celebrate World Environment Day – the world’s largest celebration of the environment, which takes place on 5 June every year.
Everybody with a phone is being encouraged to download the app and post their pictures between June 1 and 12. The hope is to boost a community that is already seeing huge growth. And to deal with the expected expansion, and ease the burden on the experts who identify species, plans are afoot to improve an automated approach to species recognition.
The current system can instantly identify 20,000 species. But it needs at least 20 different photographs of the same species to be uploaded and identified/tagged to make reasonable suggestions. The goal is for people to point their phone at any species and find out what it is on the spot.
For Loarie, growing the numbers and getting the new technology online will mean a massive, and welcome, boost for conservation.
“If we can maintain iNaturalist's growth for the next ten years … we will have enough data to drive ongoing annual assessments of the global health of hundreds of thousands of species,” he says.
“Imagine a global scientific instrument bringing the health of the world’s ecosystems into focus like never before, one that’s powered by the explorations of millions of people sharing and teaching one another about nature at the grass-roots level. That’s our vision for iNaturalist.”
Image: Andinobates, a news species of Andean poison frog identified through iNaturalist, ©Luis Mazariegos