I, Naturalist

It’s been a rough couple of months. Between travel restrictions, career, and a debilitating injury, it doesn’t look like I’ll be in Costa Rica again any time soon. So in my boredom and gloom, I got back into something I thought I’d sworn off years ago: a little app called iNaturalist.

It was either that or reach for something else I’d sworn off years ago.

My reasons for dropping iNat are due to a poor first impression. See, the app is designed to be a tool where users can upload photos of living things and then try to ID each other’s photos. Photos can be geotagged and date stamped, and IDs can be as specific as you like. IDs are based on current accepted taxonomy, and can be searched by scientific or common names. If multiple IDs disagree, the app displays the lowest common taxonomic level. Algorithms can automatically suggest IDs based on photos and geography.

But when it was first rolled out, the algorithms had so little data to work from that they were practically useless. There weren’t enough experts using the app to make accurate IDs. And the potential for abuse was too easy.

Years back, I TA-ed for a high school level field course when the new app was included in the curriculum. The instructors, without much foresight, decided that each student had to make 5 IDs a day. There were sixteen students over 2 weeks.

The problems were immediately obvious to me. “So are we going to have to verify 80 photos a day for two weeks?”

No, I was told. iNaturalist would verify the photos automatically.

“But how do we know that the ID is correct? More importantly, how do the students learn anything if all they’re doing is posting a photo and waiting for the app to suggest something?

Brown. Spiny. Suggested ID: hedgehog–iNaturalist, early days.

The activity was abandoned after a few days, and the experience really turned me against the app. But now I see that my initial assessment isn’t fair. Because in the years since, between new features, better code, and a growing community of users, this is quite a neat tool.

I can now, from the comfort of my temperate-latitude home, scroll through photos that are being taken in Costa Rica. I can narrow my search by taxonomy or location. I can help people identify the animals, plants, and even fungi they’re seeing, just like I did as a guide. I can even get an idea of what’s going on–a lot of amateur bird photos suggests the migratory species are showing up. A series of professional, specimen-grade insect closeups means there’s an entomological study going on at one of my old field stations. And I can even keep updated on puma activity around where I had my encounter–most likely, it’s the same cat.

And the community behind this is great. People are generally helpful and supportive. We’re all naturalists enjoying what we do best, and apart from a little bragging here and there, it’s perfectly wholesome. Sure, every now and then I’ll see someone use it to plug a business or social media account, but so far the community is niche enough that there isn’t any abuse or toxicity. Disagreements are kept professional, not mean-spirited. A true gem for the internet.

It’s like Instagram, but exclusively for nature nerds.

I’ve even used it to reconnect with people. Scrolling though CR photos, I saw a couple shots of damselflies with painted abdomens–the same technique we used back in 2016. Messaging the photographer, I asked if they ever worked with my old PI. Turns out, they were one of my coworkers on that project. They were still at it, years later, making little bugs fight for science.

Remember this? That was…wait, six years ago? Jesus!

I don’t often plug anything, especially anything app-related, but this is social media exclusively for things I like. The system isn’t perfect, and still should not be relied on for poor lesson planning, but for now it appears to be serving its purpose and then some. To me, that’s worth sacrificing a little personal metadata or whatever its taking off my phone in exchange for a little guiding-by-proxy. I’m that desperate.

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