As we prepare for another exciting City Nature Challenge this year, the Academy reached out to Etienne Falquet, a Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science student co-op who is very active on iNaturalist, to learn more about this digital network of nature lovers and why we should get involved!
Tell us more about yourself.
I am a fourth-year Environmental Science major at Drexel University and my areas of interest are reptiles, amphibians, birds, science communication and wildlife photography. While attending Drexel, I’ve had many environmental science fieldwork experiences, like catching treefrogs in the Pine Barrens or doing electrofishing surveys. In the past, I have had co-ops at the Live Animal Center of the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Philadelphia Zoo.
I have been fascinated by animals since a very young age, and I hope to pursue conservation or wildlife biology as a career after I graduate. I am particularly interested in herpetology, which is the study of reptiles and amphibians, and hope to do work related to this as well. It feels surreal looking back to when I used to catch critters in my backyard and compare it to now, as I am working toward becoming a real scientist!
What is iNaturalist?
iNaturalist is an online platform that uses participatory or citizen science to collect observations of biodiversity and share information about the natural world. Essentially, it is a place where everyday people can contribute to real science by posting photos of any plants or animals they see and getting them identified.
Identification is done through crowdsourcing and image-learning technology. This technology is very cool, as it gets better at identifying observations the more posts people submit. iNaturalist has a mobile app and a website, and I personally use the mobile app more. I have been using it almost every day for nearly three years and now have over 800 observations, 500 different species and 12,000 identifications.
Why should we get involved?
I think that iNaturalist is a great species occurrence and distribution tool. The public has many more eyes looking out for organisms than a single scientist ever could, so they can gather a much larger body of data. This kind of data is helpful for conservation initiatives which need the range and population for imperiled species. iNaturalist is also helpful in tracking the effects of climate change over time using this occurrence data. In our area we may notice typically southern species moving up into the northeast as global temps increase.
I have also had some inspiring experiences while using iNaturalist. There was one species of salamander, called the Red Salamander, that I had always wanted to see but didn’t think occurred in this area. However, other people had made observations of this species around Philly, so I set out on a mission. I found suitable habitat at a local park and began looking, and sure enough I actually found one. As the name suggests they are a bright red-orange color which startled me at first because they almost don’t even look real, but I was ecstatic that I finally found it.
Since using iNaturalist, I have become more observant of all the life, big and small, that exists in our day to day lives. For example, something I didn’t notice before is that certain bird species that winter here begin to disappear, indicating the coming of spring. I knew of this annual migratory process from school but because of iNaturalist I am now more acutely aware that I do not hear or see these species when I go out on walks this time of year, when I did only a month before. I think people should get involved in iNaturalist as a way to connect more with nature and contribute to important science.
What advice can you offer to someone new to it?
I really recommend creating an account and then checking out the iNaturalist website for a wide variety of tutorials that help explain the technical particulars of the platform. The community itself is also very welcoming to new users, and I frequently see veteran users commenting and giving tips so that people get the most out of using iNaturalist.
Another aspect of iNaturalist, besides submitting observations, is helping with identifications. This is something that I like doing in my spare time by scrolling through local observations and checking for people that need help ID-ing certain taxa. For me, this is almost like a “whodunit” mystery as you are trying to find specific “clues” in the picture to narrow down the list of possible suspects, but instead of finding out the butler did it, you find a species!
Start off first with a few species you know you are good at recognizing, and through practice you’ll expand your knowledge to broader groups of organisms.
A great place to find high densities of animals without exhausting much effort is to check underneath cover like rocks or fallen logs, but make sure to always place them back exactly as you found them. Plants are a group that are often overlooked but, in my opinion, great for beginners since they don’t move much and there are a lot of different species to explore.
If you are posting an observation but don’t know what it is, it is okay to put something super broad like “birds” or “beetles” as it is highly likely there is someone out there that can identify it for you.
All you need is a phone and the outdoors to get started, so what are you waiting for?
The City Nature Challenge is a four-day bioblitz where cities around the world compete to see who can record the most wildlife. The event takes place using the iNaturalist website and app. Any observation photo, geotagged from anywhere in the seven-county area (Philadelphia, Delaware, Montgomery and Bucks counties in Pennsylvania, and Camden, Gloucester and Burlington counties in New Jersey) and time-stamped during the four days of the event, will count toward Philadelphia’s tally.
Join the Challenge and explore along with the Academy community through our home on iNaturalist, the Academy Naturalists project group!