Making the Most of your Observations and Photographs: iNaturalist and Citizen Science

Peter Bryant, Past President, Newport Bay Conservancy and Nathan Taxel, Resource Specialist, Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve, OC Parks

Do you have a collection of photographs of local plants or animals, are you not sure how to make them available to other interested naturalists?iNaturalist is the answer!It is a project that allows contributions of photos and data from naturalists and photographers of all skill levels, helping to improve citizen science, community awareness of biodiversity and to promote further exploration of local environments.

Here are some examples from the 343 observations that have already been posted on iNaturalist for Upper Newport Bay:

There have been other ways to post your observations, including my web site on the Natural History of Orange County, California, as well as Bugguide and Calflora.But iNaturalist takes this concept much further, allowing users to immediately post gps-tagged images directly from their cell phones.It is a joint initiative by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. It allows you to connect with a community of over 400,000 scientists and naturalists all over the world so you can compare and map observations, as well as get help with identification of species and help others with identification.You can restrict your observations, records and interactions to a single place, like Upper Newport Bay or add observations from anywhere on the planet. You can compile your own Life List, get to know experts all over the world in your favorite taxon, get help with identification, correct and improve identifications, explore other peoplesí observations, become a site curator, identify a new geographic area to compile observations, and much more.Data can be plotted on a map, or on a seasonality or historical graph. The program allows collection and analysis of data on plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal and long-term variations in climate, as well as habitat factors such as elevation.It makes it easy for naturalists to contribute to data on spread or removal of invasive species, and the success or failure of restoration projects.

I must confess that I long resisted using iNaturalist, having invested so much effort into macrophotography using bulky cameras and lenses, and into developing the Natural History of Orange County web site.But those older photos can also be easily posted to iNaturalist, even if they are not gps-tagged; you can add multiple shots of the same specimen and add the location with whatever degree of accuracy you have for the photo.

Cell phones have improved to the point where the photos they take can be useful, and unlike many older photos, they are automatically gps-tagged and can be instantly uploaded.It is still a major challenge to use cell phones for telephoto shots and for smaller and especially microscopic subjects, but accessory lenses and software applications are quickly closing the gap.

For more information and to see how to improve your skill as a citizen scientist, check out and read the Getting Started guide to tour some of the site's features.

Here are ten reasons why you should be using iNaturalist: