Sunday, March 30, 2014

Dreaming of Online Plants

This lupine in Santa Barbara County has been immortalized as iNat Observation 569966.
What if you were a nature geek planning a vacation, and you found a website about the wildflowers of your destination area with photos, dates of observation, places to see them, and even an app for identification?  How cool would that be?!!
Plants of Santa Barbara County, California; arrow points to location of lupine in top photo.
[Click on all images to view details.]
It would be very cool, and in fact such websites are already out there.  Problem is -- the data are sparse, even in California where I went a few weeks ago.  But there are things we can do to change that.

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I used to dream of compiling a book about the native plants of my home territory, with keys and photos for identification.  But devoting huge amounts of time, effort, and attention to detail before seeing any results isn't for me, and lining up and financing publication always seemed daunting.  However now that I'm living in the digital age, the dream has been resurrected.  Online I can “publish” as I go, instead of waiting until I’ve addressed many hundreds of species.  Others can help by contributing observations.  And it will cost almost nothing.  Sounds doable!

In fact, I’ve already started.  Right now I’m checking out websites and apps (if you have recommendations, I'd love to hear).  I read about iNaturalist several weeks ago in a post at The Dipper Ranch.  It looked promising so I gave it a test during my vacation on the Central California Coast.  Before I left home, I searched for plant observations in Santa Barbara County (above).  Then I entered my own from a hike on the Point Sal Road.
We used to drive the family station wagon to Point Sal on this road!
Point Sal beach from near "the pass" -- about halfway to the beach (5 miles one-way).
First I created an iNaturalist account.  I was able to sign in with my Google account; Twitter, Facebook and others work too.  Next I entered observations -- plant name, location, date, photos, description and more.  It all seemed intuitive and easy.
Fuschia-flowered gooseberry, Ribes speciosum (iNat observation).
Description:  "Low shrub growing with Toxicodendron diversilobum on slope just below road."
Identification can be to any level -- family, genus, species, common name, or even just “plant”.  Accepted names are available from drop-down lists, and there’s a box to check if you’d like some help:
Request for identification assistance, highlighted in yellow (iNat Observation).
Location can be as precise as you like.  You can enter coordinates or click on a Google Map.  For this outing, I mapped all observations to a single location about halfway between the trailhead and “the pass” (they were all north of the pass).
The "trail" to Point Sal beach is a narrow winding old road that's now closed to vehicles.
Photos can be uploaded directly, or you can link to other image hosting sites.  You can include multiple images per observation.
Flowers of poison oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum (iNat observation) ...
... and the despised leaves that cause itching and inflammation in most people.
It was easy to enter multiple observations for a single location with the Copy option.  It’s also possible to Batch-process and Import.  By the time I was done, I had added six observations from California to my single observation from Wyoming (the tree I’m following):
My first iNaturalist observations.


iNaturalist has good search tools for investigating the natural history of an area.  You can use text fields or a map.  Results are displayed as photos, text, or even hierarchically for those who are taxonomically-inclined.
iNaturalist search fields.


One thing that really excites me is the Projects option.  “Projects are a way to pool your observations with other people on iNat. Whether you're interested in starting a citizen science project or just keeping tabs on the birds in a nearby park with your local birding club, Projects are the way to go.”  Here's a nice example -- the More Mesa Natural Resources project near Santa Barbara, California.
More Mesa home page.
Output from the More Mesa project.  It currently includes 369 observations.

I hope there will be a "Plants of the Laramie Mountains" project soon, where anyone can share their observations.  We'll be able to see what's blooming, what's new, and of course debate identification -- a popular sport among botanists.  Folks new to the area can get to know our local plants, once we’ve added enough observations.
The only iNat plant observation in southeast Wyoming currently is my cottonwood (green arrow).
This caveat applies not just to iNaturalist but to citizen science in general -- scientific research conducted by amateur or nonprofessional scientists as well as professionals, often by crowdsourcing.  The usefulness of citizen science projects depends on participation; many are still in their infancy so data are sparse.  But surely at least some will grow to maturity, for why wouldn't naturalists want to contribute?  It's great to be able to share, debate, modify and continually update information ... to “record what [we] see in nature, meet other nature lovers, and learn about the natural world” (iNaturalist).

Here's a video featuring one such nature lover, Sonny Riddell, who demonstrates moth-collecting and citizen science.  I’m very glad to have “met” Sonny.  He's a great role model. His enthusiasm is contagious, and he reminds me how much fun it is when we really focus on what we enjoy.  You can learn more at SPRING AND MOTHS WHEN YOU ARE EIGHT YEARS OLD

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How about you?  Do you use iNaturalist?  What do you think of it?

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