What is iNaturalist?
As a sporadically-educated plant lover, I have a lot of trouble identifying species in the wild. While there’s plenty of apps (and books) that have you leaf through carefully-worded identifier material, I’m not well-versed in how to get that working and be confident in my identifications. How do I know if these leaves are lanceolate or the other one that looks like that? A long while back, I started looking through apps to try and find a useful one. Around the same time, the profusion of use your camera to identify plants jumped up on the app store. All I really wanted, at the very least, was some way to easily narrow down the potential plant I should be looking for. If I could find a plant in the wild, snap a few photos, and have the identification narrowed down to 3 species or less (without looking through hundreds of photos), I’d be a happy camper.
iNaturalist has proved immensely useful in narrowing down the plants at any one location. I’ve tried a few other apps, but I continue coming back to iNaturalist for a few simple reasons: It’s really straightforward, it’s been quite successful in identifying plants (and birds), and the community is helpful in further identification. There have been more than a few times when one plant really seemed like it could be one species or another. All I could do was identify the genus, log my notes, and let it go. Then, days or weeks later I’d get an email about someone updating my observation, adding an identification. I’d finally have a name for the thing the next time I returned. Even more fun, some of your observations might get labeled Research Grade – a way of affirming the quality and precision in your observation. There’s a thriving community at your back, keeping an eye on nature right alongside you.
One caveat; iNaturalist is just for living things. It’s not for identifying rocks or logging waste spills. Currently, it sounds like they have no intent to expand in those directions. They also have a preference for wild plants and animals – anything that isn’t cultivated. This service works to help you identify living things while logging those observations for research. Think of how much easier it is to keep an eye on endangered species when there’s a hundred thousand people keeping watch. Or the potential for noticing invasive species. Even if these observations don’t always contribute to research, they still keep us connected to the world at large. Observation gets us working with each other to keep an eye on nature. Plus there’s some really nice plants out there!
Starting in 2008 as part of a master’s thesis at Berkeley, this service grew like a well-identified weed. By 2011 it had grown into an LLC. In 2014, iNaturalist became an initiative of the California Academy of Sciences, and a joint initiative with the National Geographic Society in 2017. Now, after all that work, it is used by hundreds of thousands of people on a regular basis, and tens of thousands join every week. There have been more than 300,000 observations in the last 7 days.
So – how does it work?
Creating an account
Making an account is easy. Just like most other services, you’ll need an email. That’s about it. Enabling location services helps with later identifications, but you can put in locations manually in your Observations anyway.
You can log in to your account via the app or website, and share observations across platforms. Your account also allows you to engage with the community in a number of ways; helping with identifications, creating collection projects, and discussing observations to name a few.
Recording an observation
An identification, or ID for short, is an assessment of the type of animal, plant, or other organism that was observed. It is typically listed with a common name and a scientific name, though some species do not have common names. When you make an observation, identify the organism as best as you can, even if that is just “plant” or “bird.”iNaturalist Help
On iNaturalist, other users are encouraged to add identifications to each other’s observations, based on the evidence provided, in order to confirm or improve the Community Identification…
Add identifications at a level that you are confident of and that is supported by the evidence provided in the observation. For example, if based on the evidence in the observation, you think it could be either a Short-tailed Weasel (Mustela erminea) or a Long-tailed Weasel (Mustela frenata), but you’re not quite sure or the evidence isn’t clear enough, you should add an identification of Weasels (genus Mustela).
The process of recording an observation is pretty straightforward once the app is set up. I’ll be looking up a plant that I encountered while hiking on the beaches of Palos Verdes. This is one I’ve seen both flowering and not, and which I’ve never known the name of. I came across this particular specimen growing very heartily in a place known for landslides. It had smooth dark bark and teeny tiny leaves spaced widely across it. There was no way they provide enough photosynthesis to keep this plant happy. And the soil must be incredibly salty, being right next to the ocean. This was an area known for rocky beaches and ocean spray. I wanted to know what this plant was, and see if it was really happy there. Or maybe it was something out of place, barely scraping by. Could this be why the leaves were so tiny and widely spaced?
I will be running through how to make an observation through the app, on an android phone. I’d imagine the Apple app must be somewhat similar. The computer gives you more options and a wider interface, plus the need to navigate your hard drive to find the photos. Uploading recent phone photos to the app just seems simpler in today’s age, and is usually how I go about it in the field.
Take some photos or record some sounds.
They recommend that photos are uploaded for each individual observation. If you see a tree one day and take some photos, then go back another day and take more – that’s two observations. The same tree at two different points in time.
Observations are also supposed to include only one taxon at a time. If you shoot a photo of two birds, they’ll each have their own posting. You can use the same photo twice for this, just make sure to make a note of which bird is being discussed in each (as explained below).
In this case, my photos were closeups (as close as I could get and still focus) of the miniature leaves, some tiny flowers, the bark, and a wider overview of the plant’s structure. I had no way to reference the size adequately… except maybe my foot, now that I think about it.
Create a new observation in the app by clicking on the green plus sign in the bottom right corner. You’ll be presented with a few options –
In my case, I’ll be using Choose Image, because I’ve already taken photos of the plant and am not next to it at the time of recording. Taking and uploading them at the time would have been tenuous, considering it was raining and I was on a muddy hillside. I can input all the relevant info on the actual observation later, as well.
Select your images.
If you click a single image, that’ll be the selection that’s made. The screen will jump to the observation screen as soon as you click. If you want to pick multiple photos at a time, hold your finger on the first photo for a few seconds. From there, the image selection will change slightly, and you’ll be able to tap on additional photos that you want to upload. Click Select in the upper corner to confirm.
I had 4 photos at a mix of distances that I hoped would make for good comparisons.
The observation page.
Just a brief look at this page (so maybe step 3a?). It has quite a few sections on it to input information. I like to leave the What did you see? section for last, because the View suggestions may be impacted by location and other data.
The app may pick up the location from your phone. I tend to crop my photos, which sometimes removes the location data. Plus, I’m sometimes in a place where there’s no service and the GPS data doesn’t come through (or is way off). I like to manually enter the GPS data.
Just click on the panel for the location, and it’ll open the map. Treat this like any other map app. The circle with the cross extensions button brings the map to your current location. From there, you can drag and drop, hitting the check mark to confirm.
Location can be crucial. Other observations that are similar will appear in the suggestions (see step 7), and some will have already been recorded as being nearby.
I selected my location as Pelican Cove, where I had hiked down to near the water. The beach is wide and rocky, and the cliff is fairly steep. The plants were actually a ways inland from the water, and I tried to reflect that on the map.
As a note, you can record your observations in the app and upload them later. This is useful if you’re looking at many different plants in the field and have no cell service. I like to get a few photos, record my notes, then finish the observation from the comfort of my home.
Enter other notes.
The time isn’t always crucial, but the date (or at least months) can be, especially in regards to flowering plants or migrating birds. Some of this data is used by research agencies, and the best help we can give them is accurate information.
You have a chance to enter information about flowering and the sex later through a selection menu, but you can include that information in your notes here as well. It’s also a good idea to include information such as where you found it, a reference to how large it is (if possible), what conditions it was growing in, and anything else you think would help identify.
What did you see?
This is what it all comes down to. Depending on how detailed your photos are and how similar other plants look, there may be many confusing options. You’ll have a chance to look through photos and information on each species, including a hotspot map of where they’re generally found.
Deciding may be difficult, so it isn’t actually crucial that you make a firm decision now. The community can help in identifying your observation later on. If you happen to select the wrong plant or animal, I’m sure someone else will comb through the photos and notes to make a correction. There’s some amazingly knowledgeable people helping out on the app.
I selected California boxthorn (Lycium californicum), mostly because I saw a photo where the leaves looked somewhat similar to mine. The flower color matches too, but the flowers on my plant seemed smaller (or shorter). I didn’t get a very good closeup look, and blowing my photos up doesn’t help much. I’ll see what other people say.
Go ahead and complete your observation by hitting the big check mark at the bottom of the main observation screen.
Check your observation, and enter whether it’s flowering and whether you know the sex.
This requires you to wait for your observation to finish uploading, so this is something you can come back to. Someone else may update it for you before you end up coming back to it, as has happened to me.
I saw a sparse selection of tiny flowers on the plant, so I selected flowering. I doesn’t know if the plant even has separate sexes, so I can’t decide that.
Updates later on, and many emails.
People are constantly looking through the observations made by others – you may find yourself doing so from time to time (especially for birds…). Someone may notice something wrong in your identification and make a correction. They may confirm your identification, and it may be upgraded to the revered Research Grade status. This means that 2/3rds of people that vote on your observation agree that it has all the relevant information (date, location, good photos or sounds) and is actually the taxon that is listed. There’s a warm feeling when it happens.
You may get added into different research projects as time goes on. There’s some California specific projects that track all sorts of flora and fauna, and may take note of your observations.
Taking photos (best practices)
First step – make sure you take relevant photos. Clear, to the point, specific on your subject. I like to include a mix of leaves, bark, closeup, whole plant, flowers, fruit, and anything else that seems significant. Some plants may be very small, so one photo will cover all these aspects (unless you have a macro lens). These photos can help in identifying what the actual plant is when comparing it to photos of other plants later on. Better yet, they help you remember the characteristics of that strange plant you saw.
This has changed over time, but as of the model released in March 2020, taxa included in the computer vision training set must have at least 100 observations, at least 50 of which must have a community ID. Photos for training are randomly selected from among the qualifying iNaturalist observations (that is, it is not only the first image of an observation that may be used for training). Related species are sometimes inserted into the suggestions based on being seen nearby. When using computer vision, only the first image is assessed.iNaturalist Help
As more observations are added and more identifications made, additional taxa can be added to the computer vision suggestions. This means your observations and IDs work to make better models!
Something I just learned – only the first image is assessed. Good to know. Pick a great first image! When selecting multiple images, this is done by holding your finger on the image you want to be first… first. Later on, on the observation page, you have the ability to change it if you want. Look for the filled bubble below the photo, along with the word “1st.”
You will still have to look at the comparable plants and judge for yourself which is right. Sometimes it’s an obvious identification with a well-known name that makes you question why you didn’t figure it out. Sometimes there’s 10 plants, all listed as appearing locally, all looking remarkably similar – and your plant isn’t flowering, so the crucial color detail seems to be missing. Both will happen, especially the more that you use the app. On the other hand, you’ll find yourself getting better at identifying the plants in the area, so you won’t need the app as much.
Lycium californicum is a sprawling shrub in the Solanaceae (Nightshade) family known by the common names California boxthorn and California desert-thorn. This plant is native to the coast of southern California, including the Channel Islands, from Los Angeles County into northern Baja California, as well as nearby Arizona. This slightly thorny shrub has thick, fleshy, bulbous green leaves and bell-shaped white flowers with purple streaks or spots. It bears bright red shiny berries 3 to 6 millimeters in diameter which are edible and taste like tomatoes. There are numerous relatives in the Lycium genus that are primarily desert plants, but this species is strictly coastal. In the wild it goes completely leafless in summer and appears dead. However, it responds very rapidly to rain and will even leaf out in response to a summer shower. If given continuous garden water it can remain evergreen.Calscape.org
I’ll admit, after reading that this is a coastal plant and having found this on the coast, I’m feeling confident about my identification. But… tomatoes? I may have to return to see the fruit, in order to be certain of my identification. They do also say it grows much wider than it does tall, which fits with what I saw (mine was a medium size in comparison). And… I just kind of want to taste a berry now.
Community help and functions
If you get stuck somewhere along the way, this app is a great way to crowdsource more answers. There’s probably going to be someone on the app at some point in the future that’s able to figure out what that mysterious plant was two months ago (it’s happened to me!). They’ll make an update to your observation. It’s also fun when you come across photos in your phone from a while ago and finally want to figure out what that thing was. You can select when the observation was made, set the location (in case your location data was off or isn’t working), and let the app take care of the rest.
You can create a project (I believe after you have 50 verifiable observations). Collection projects are places where you can collect observations. You can select restrictions, such as by location. Projects are, in their words, constantly-running filtered searches. You can essentially keep an eye out for any of particular types of observations in an area. Great if you’re keeping an eye out for when certain species start flowering, or when birds migrate.
Thanks for stopping by! I hope you had a pleasant time checking out the plants. If you’re in the mood for more nature, please stay in touch!