Growing community of iNaturalist users—and the artificial intelligence they help power—help observe and monitor more than 165,000 species around the world
Nature enthusiasts everywhere have a new reason to celebrate summer — rain or shine — in the great outdoors. The California Academy of Sciences (the Academy) and the National Geographic Society have joined forces to enhance iNaturalist — one of the world’s most powerful citizen science platforms, which connects people to nature through free, cutting-edge technology. With new partner National Geographic, iNaturalist inspires users around the world to explore nature and experience the delight of contributing to a larger scientific movement. Crowdsourced “observations” of the natural world logged into iNaturalist’s free-to-use mobile platform — from photos of the rarest butterflies to the most common backyard weeds — help scientists track nature’s response to environmental change and search for solutions on a global scale.
“iNaturalist is celebrating more than 10.5 million user-submitted ‘observations’ of wild plants and animals from around the world, covering areas on a scale that scientists alone could never hope to monitor and providing high-resolution insights into what lives where across our ever-changing planet,” says Dr. Shannon Bennett, Academy Chief of Science. “We need everybody to help discover, map, and preserve our precious biodiversity. Partnering with National Geographic means the iNaturalist community can grow — and make a real-world impact — in inspiring new ways.”
“National Geographic is harnessing technology and innovation to drive new ways of exploring and understanding the world,” says Jonathan Baillie, National Geographic Society’s chief scientist and executive vice president, science and exploration. “Through our partnership with the California Academy of Sciences on iNaturalist, we’re striving to democratize science, working with the platform’s millions of users to inspire action to secure a planet in balance.”
Whip-smart artificial intelligence (AI) for nature
iNaturalist offers one of the world’s most powerful artificial intelligence tools to help identify the wild plants, animals and fungi people observe on local strolls, vacation hikes or time spent outdoors. Once users snap and submit a wildlife photo, the platform’s AI can quickly review and suggest possible identifications for said plant or critter — a digital, on-demand field guide for the nature-curious of all ages.
iNaturalist’s AI has learned to recognize more than 24,000 plants and animals by analyzing over 6.5 million photographs uploaded by non-scientists all around the world. Every photograph is accessible by the entire community, which includes experts across a range of organizations, expertise and disciplines. The platform capitalizes on the significant effort and contributions of hundreds of thousands of motivated users — and will only improve with time. As this growing online community helps verify observations, scientists and conservation managers can track global changes (including the spread of invasive species or climate-related impacts) and make better-informed conservation decisions.
“It’s incredible that people are using their cell phones to help take a living census of the world’s plants and animals,” says Dr. Scott Loarie, iNaturalist co-director. “The iNaturalist community churns out a high-quality stream of data for science, but we knew we needed help verifying the data that pours in every day. The AI now available to everyone, everywhere helps break through the backlog — people can delight in what they might be seeing right away, and the data becomes stronger, faster.”
A data goldmine for scientists
Verified iNaturalist photos generate a massive amount of valuable scientific data, providing scientists and conservation managers with much-needed, real-time insight on how the distributions of plants and animals are changing with shifting climate and intensifying land use. The network shares user findings with scientific data repositories like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) to help scientists find and use relevant, verified data. To date, iNaturalist records have been cited in at least 100 scientific publications via GBIF.
Global users log surprising discoveries from around the world:
- In 2011, Colombian iNaturalist user Luiz Mazariegos (@lumaz) uploaded a photo of a red-and-black frog on rainforest land he’d recently purchased, only to discover it was a brand new species previously unknown to science. Mazariegos and the quick-thinking iNaturalist frog expert Ted Kahn went on to publish a scientific paper describing the new amphibian.
- In 2014, photographer Scott Trageser (@naturestills) uploaded a photo of a snail he encountered in Vietnam. Some time later, an iNaturalist expert helped reveal its identity — Myxostoma petiverianum — a never-before-photographed species only known from the drawings of English explorers in the 1700s.
- In 2016, a Bay Area high school student and her mother uploaded a photo of a local nudibranch — or colorful sea slug — which turned out to be the first-ever record of the Dendronotus orientalis species outside Asia. The young student later authored a peer-reviewed scientific paper first documenting the invasive marine resident.
Through the efforts of a growing, engaged community and new partners like National Geographic, iNaturalist can continue to contribute to larger global projects. A recent win: Organized by the California Academy of Sciences and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLA), this spring’s City Nature Challenge mobilized 64 cities and communities around the globe to help document their local biodiversity on iNaturalist as part of a friendly competition with exciting results.
Join the movement
Becoming a citizen scientist is simple: download the free iNaturalist app from the Apple App or Google Play stores and snap photos of wild plants and animals you observe while out and about. Geo-tagged images uploaded to iNaturalist can be identified and verified as “research-grade” by an enthusiastic online community and the powerful artificial intelligence tools they help power.
Looking to reboot or launch your outdoor exploration? iNaturalist recently released the new app “Seek” — a free, family-friendly way for people (especially kids) to explore nature, discover more about their surroundings and celebrate curiosity. Children can “collect” wild plants and animals on local treasure hunts by taking photos, earning online badges and connecting with their inner-explorer. Loarie calls “Seek” a “great way to jumpstart your excitement about the outdoors.”“There’s a huge, growing community of people who help one another explore the natural world and have fun while doing it,” says Loarie. “No matter who or where you are, you’re invited to get outside and explore.”