The naturalists of today may not spend most of their time sailing the seas and looking under crude microscopes, but there is still plenty to explore in the world. With the advancement of science comes an advancement in technology – which further aids science.
While ships may not be commonplace anymore, one of the major advantages that we have today, however, is the ability to discover new things at a moment’s notice. This technology is held within the very smartphone that we tend to discount as a problem for people not paying enough attention to the environment.
It’s true that smartphone apps will never replace structured or dedicated learning. They, however, can be an excellent tool for discovering a love of nature, for learning about new species for the first time, and getting to know the ecosystem around you.
All of this without relying on paid classes, availability of mentorship, or other logistics that prevent many people from discovering the joy of the outdoors.
In this article from HerbSpeak, you’ll learn everything you need to know about iNaturalist, from what it is and how it benefits scientific research to how to use it on the go. As a quick disclaimer – nothing in this piece is paid for by iNaturalist. This is all self-curated and unsponsored HerbSpeak goodness.
What is iNaturalist and How Does it Work?
iNaturalist is an app available on iPhone or Android devices. It is one of the top choices for identifying just about any organism you find. While many other plant and animal ID apps exist, iNaturalist is perhaps one of the most cohesive and accurate.
Whether you find a cool shell while walking on the beach, if you’re trying to identify an animal while you’re backpacking, or if you want to know what kind of disease a tree is stricken with, you can get a list of suggestions from this app.
Best of all, there’s a community behind the app as well that comes together to help identify your piece, post comments, disagree or agree about the identification, and further help you identify what you’re looking at. Simply open the app, take a snapshot with your camera or add one from your camera roll, and publish!
Downloading and Interacting with the App
The app is available on both Android and Apple devices and can be downloaded from the play store, or wherever you get your apps from.
Simply search for “inaturalist” in the search bar and you’ll come across an app icon with a white background and green bird. This is the right app, and it is completely free. No up-front or in-app purchases are required to use this app.
You may also notice “Seek by iNaturalist” in the suggestions list. This is also an app from iNaturalist, and we’ll get to more information about what Seek is further in this article.
How the Desktop Version is Different
iNaturalist is more than an app; there is also a robust desktop version that you can view, but navigation can be a little different than the app version. As far as I am aware, the desktop and app version offer the same features. Fortunately, these features are all lightweight so you can easily use the app without draining battery (or data, since you’re not likely to be connected to a WiFi signal.)
Both app and desktop offer:
- Species exploration via maps and lists
- Post publishing, ID recommendation, and comparisons
- Submissions in need of ID
- (and more…)
Submitting a Sighting for ID
Once you’re ready to ID an organism, all you have to do is sign into your iNaturalist app (you will stay signed in, or you can use Seek by iNaturalist if you don’t want to use an account.)
From the iNaturalist app, select the big green plus sign (+). A menu will come up showing one of the following options:
No Media – Don’t have an image or audio recording to share, but still want to record an observation? Describe it in the notes section for potential ID from the community. Already know what you saw?
Take Photo – Take a photo of the organism in front of you using the iNaturalist app.
Choose Image – Choose an image you’ve already taken from your camera roll.
Record Sound – Record a sound happening right now with the iNaturalist app.
Choose Sound – select a sound clip you’ve already recorded using a sound recorder app.
Keep in mind that separate plants or organisms, even if they are of the same species, should be a separate observation. This helps keep reporting accurate!
Once you’ve submitted all the photos and audio clips you want to include, click “View Suggestions” under ‘What did you see?’ and type in the species name, or let iNaturalist suggest visually similar suggestions.
If you aren’t sure, you can compare close-up photos between the suggested species and the one you took a photo of. Add any other information you see, or hit the check-mark to record it! You can always edit your observation later.
Types of Organisms You Can Submit
iNaturalist can identify a wide range of organic organisms. Commonly advertised are the insects, birds, plants, and amphibians – but it can also help you identify different types of plant diseases and larvae, such as leaf miners or leaf spot disease.
To add photos of an observation, you can either select a photo that you’ve already taken, or take a photo through the iNaturalist app. To take a photo through iNaturalist, you will have to give the app permissions to access your camera.
If you have given location permissions to the app, you will see that it automatically records your location data based on where the photo was taken, so you don’t have to manually adjust this. Keep in mind that it’s always best to submit more than one photo from different angles, and try to get a clear photo. This will help in making the most accurate ID!
What a lot of people don’t know is iNaturalist can record and identify audio as well. When you first do this, you will need to give the app permission to record sound.
When adding a new observation or additional media to an observation, you can select “Record Sound” which allows you to take a sound clip right then and there – or “Choose Sound” which allows you to add a sound clip that you’ve already recorded.
Changing Your Data Settings in iNaturalist
If you have a few minutes to poke around the app while you’re at home and looking for something to do, I would highly suggest going into the Account Settings section and customizing it so that iNaturalist works in the most intuitive way for you.
For me, under “Content & Display” I have my settings so that common names come primarily from Massachusetts, but I get to see scientific names first. This can help make iNaturalist the most rewarding experience for you as you learn.
Why Does Recording This Information Help?
Citizens’ science is an incredibly important way to make data more accessible and equitable for everyone. (1) Not only is iNaturalist free, helping you learn more about your everyday ecosystem, but recording the information makes scientific data more accessible to career scientists – giving them a larger data set to work with – but makes the data equally accessible to the everyday person who may want to start their own study.
“A University of Michigan study looked at the ability of volunteers to identify critters. With some “robust protocols” in place, the overall accuracy of volunteer identifications was 97%, scientists say. […] The hope is that the study will give a boost to participatory science (helping lighten the load for research teams) and that fewer researchers will be reluctant to use volunteers because of data-quality concerns”
Citizens science opens the door to new possibilities, making it more feasible for individuals to pursue scientific research and study no matter their cultural, social, or individual circumstances. Likewise, opening the data collection up to the public reduces the chances of this data being biased in any way.
Who Owns iNaturalist?
iNaturalist originally launched as the Master’s final project of three UC Berkeley School of Information students in 2008. These students were Ken-ichi Ueda, Nate Agrin, and Jessica Kline.
The students kept updating the website after graduation, soon collaborating with many other talented people (whom you can meet on their About page.) In 2011, iNaturalist formed as a legal entity to begin expanding the site further.
In 2014, the students turned the initiative over to the California Academy of Sciences. Ken-ichi Ueda remains the Co-founder and co-director of the intiative.
Since 2017, iNaturalist has become a joint initiative, owned partially by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society.
What Is the Difference Between Seek and iNaturalist?
Seek by iNaturalist; also commonly called ‘Seek’ is another app you may see in the Appstore. These are two similar apps that seem to have a lot of overlap at first glance, so what makes one better (or different) from the other?
Comparing the two on very basic levels, these two apps have different approaches to how you identify organisms outdoors, and I’d recommend trying out both for a few weeks to see which one you like best.
iNaturalist can handle both photo and audio IDs and allows you to select from a dropdown of suggestions, and connects you to a community of IDers. There is a lot more information and data available on iNaturalist, such as profiles, species maps, projects, and more, while Seek is primarily designed as a standalone.
Seek can provide ID suggestions based on your camera, giving you a live-view experience with your camera which can be easy for quick IDs. You do not need to make an account, but if you do, you can upload into iNaturalists’ database. A lot of people suggest Seek for children who want to learn more about the outdoors, or for people who don’t like all the extra bells and whistles of iNaturalist.
- Forbes, Citizen Science Up to 97% Accurate When It comes to Identifying Wildlife: Study, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffkart/2021/05/25/citizen-science-up-to-97-accurate-when-it-comes-to-identifying-wildlife-study/?sh=3907c66246a9