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Citizens of the (natural) world

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Posted on: August 15, 2022

By Rick Borchelt

Rick Borchelt is a naturalist and science writer living in College Park.

Conservationists say it so often that it may seem trite, but it is entirely true that if you don’t know what biodiversity you have, you can’t know if it’s in trouble — and you won’t know how to save it. Citizen science — activities and reporting done by regular community members — helps researchers and the rest of us understand and appreciate the natural world we live in. And we have a host of great apps at our fingertips that can let anyone record the wild right here at home.

Want to know if coyotes have been documented in the city? There’s an app for that! (Coyotes have been reported in nearby Beltsville and Greenbelt.)

Want to know if that spider lurking in your wood pile is a venomous black widow or a harmless common house spider? There’s an app for that! (Black widows are definitely in the area!)

Want to know if that plant that popped up along your drive and gave your kids a rash is poison oak? There’s an app for that! (The answer is likely no; we have poison ivy all over the place — but poison oak? Not so much.)

The iNaturalist app (available at inaturalist.org) offers up all this information — and a whole lot more. And the app’s a terrific way for all of us of all ages to get involved in identifying, appreciating and conserving the wild in our area.

This handy app was the brainchild of master’s students at UC Berkeley and launched in 2008; it’s now a joint initiative of the National Geographic Society and the California Academy of Sciences. More than a million natural history observers worldwide have logged in and recorded their observations; all you need is a mobile phone to use the app, which is free.

In nearby College Park alone, there are more than a thousand iNat observers, and they’ve collectively added almost 15,000 reports of some 2,000 species of plants, animals, fungi and other life forms. In June alone, iNat users there documented Halloween pennant dragonflies, DeKay’s brownsnake, zebra swallowtail butterflies, fox grape, virile crayfish and the enticingly named dog vomit slime mold — along with some 150 other species. 

We have some real iNat super achievers in the area, and College Park’s Vera Wiest tops the chart, having logged almost 50 observations of 38 different species, ranging from plants to birds to butterflies to fungi. 

You could be the next Vera Wiest.

iNat is a Swiss army knife of a mobile app. If you don’t know what a plant or insect or other critter is, snap a (halfway decent) picture with your cell phone (or with a regular camera and download it to your mobile or computer) and log it on iNat. Answer a few quick questions about when and where you found the specimen (if your mobile doesn’t automatically provide that information with the photo), and voila! — up pops a menu of possible IDs for your mystery life form. You can use iNat’s information feature to see pictures and read about each candidate species, and then select the one that best fits the species you found. When you think you’ve identified your species, share your sighting to create a temporary report. Experts will review your finding and may even offer their two cents about what the species is. If they endorse your identification and the picture is good enough, your report will be rated research grade and become part of a scientific database of verified worldwide observations. 

Or let’s say you want to know where to find a pugnacious leafcutter bee (yes, it’s a thing). You could go to iNat and click on the explore feature. Type in the thing you want to see (pugnacious leafcutter bee) and where you want to see it (let’s say College Park, Md., as a test run), and you’ll find that the legendary Vera Wiest saw one July 1 along the Paint Branch Trail on the University of Maryland campus and snapped a picture of it collecting pollen and nectar from a thistle. 

There are plenty of other apps for sharing observations from nature, too, of course — eBird, LeafSnap, Merlin, HerpMapper are also popular — and there’s even one to identify objects in the night sky called SkyView. And iNat has a bare-bones version of the app called Seek. 

Whatever app you choose to use, you can get to know a lot about the wildlife around you, and you can help scientists and conservationists build a better and more complete picture of the non-human world around us, too. Biodiversity in our area is likely richer than most of us can imagine. So while you are out and about, consider doing your part to identify what you can, so we can protect what we actually do know. 

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Have questions for Rick about the world of nature in and around the area? Drop him a note at rb*******@gm***.com.

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