July 17, 2017

Lets find the 13 US amphibians still missing from iNaturalist!

Last month, I did a post on the tres-zeros-club which are species with at least 1,000 observations on iNaturalist. But what about the other end of the spectrum: species not yet represented on iNaturalist? There are more than 2 million named species and we've only ticked around 100,000 on iNat. So broadly speaking (ie globally across all taxa) this group includes the vast majority of species. But for certain well known groups, like US amphibians, these 'missing species' are becoming a more manageable minority.

For example, there are ~300 species of US amphibians. iNaturalist has over 70,000 observations of amphibians in the US. Together, these cover all but 13 missing species:

So who are these missing species? One of them, Lowland Burrowing Treefrog has a broad distribution in Mexico where it has been observed 14 times on iNat. But in the US, it just barely ranges into Arizona in the Tucson area where it has yet to be observed. The remaining dozen missing species are all US 'endemics' meaning they aren't found outside of the US. Most are endemic to a single state and several are only known from a single site. The map below shows where these missing species are distributed according to their IUCN range maps:

In the southeast lowlands, five species with relatively 'large ranges' include 2 frogs: Dusky Gopher Frog and Florida Bog Frog, a terrestrial salamander: Reticulated Flatwoods Salamander, and two aquatic salamanders: Dwarf Siren and Alabama Waterdog that still haven't been observed. In the Sierra Nevada in California two recently described slender salamanders Kern Canyon Slender Salamander and Kings River Slender Salamander are still missing. Similarly, in the Appalachian mountains the Dwarf Black Bellied Salamander hasn't been observed.

The remaining four missing species are all cave species that occur underground. Most are only known from a single cave. They are the Blanco Blind Salamander only known from a single specimen from the 1950's in Texas, the West Virginia Spring Salamander only known from General Davis Cave in West Virginia, Georgia Blind Salamander known only from a few limestone formations on the Georgia/Florida border, and Berry Cave Salamander known from a few caves in the Appalachian mountains.

Some of these cave species may be hard to find (certainly Blanco Blind Salamander which is unlikely to be rediscovered). But the iNaturalist community should be able to find the remaining missing species. Lets get the word out and see how close we can get towards logging a complete set of US amphibian species!

Note: Remember to treat sensitive species and habitats with respect. it is illegal to harass, touch, pick up, or otherwise compromise threatened species and be sure not to trespass or break any laws while naturalizing!

Posted on July 17, 2017 08:45 PM by loarie loarie | 4 comments | Leave a comment

July 15, 2017

Observation of the Week, 7/15/17

Our Observation of the Week is this Dotted Galliwasp, seen in Colombia by @juanda037

The island of Malpelo, located about 500 km off the coast of Colombia, is a tiny (~1.2 square kilometers), rocky, and barren place. “Despite of these characteristics,” says Juan Daniel Vásquez-Restrepo, “the island maintains the largest population known of Nazca boobies (Sula granti), an endemic species of crab (Johngarthia malpilensis) and some other small secretive invertebrates, and three endemic species of reptiles: an Anolis (Anolis agassizi), a gecko (Phyllodactylus transversalis) and the galliwasp (Diploglossus millepunctatus). But, I'm only talking about land species, because if you dive you will see colorful fishes, hammerhead sharks, corals, sea turtles, dolphins and a lot of awesome marine creatures.” It is a nationally protected Fauna and Flora area.

As herpetology student at the University of Antioquia, Medellín, Colombia, Juan “was invited to participate in the XXXII scientific expedition to study the lizard populations on the island, as a result of an agreement between Fundación Malpelo and the Herpetological Group of Antioquia,” and sailed forty hours to reach Malpelo. “I was responsible for conducting the census of reptile populations on the island, and let me say that there are thousands and thousands of them.” 

Galliwasp lizards range throughout much of Central and South America, and are thought to be highly adaptable. The Dotted Galliwasp, especially, has had to adapt to its salty, lonely home, It feeds on amphipods and crabs, but also exploits the many birds of the island. The lizards are known to eat bird carcasses, eggs, guano; they even mob birds and force them to regurgitate their food for the lizards, instead of the young birds!

Juan (pictured above, with a Western basilisk (Basiliscus galeritus) in hand), says his “main research interest focuses on snakes and [their] taxonomy, biology, evolution and diversity in the Neotropical region. I’m also strongly interested on the scientific divulgation about the important role that these organisms play in nature and why we should protect them.” He only recently joined iNat, and says “I believe this is a powerful tool, because anybody can interact and learn directly from scientists, specialist and amateurs from all parts of the world.”

- by Tony Iwane


- Couldn’t find any footage of Dotted Galliwasps, but there’s a ton of great diving footage from the Malpelo on YouTube

Posted on July 15, 2017 12:27 PM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

July 07, 2017

Observation of the Week, 7/7/17



Our Observation of the Week is this Five-toed Worm Lizard, seen in Mexico by @screws!

“I didn't seriously become interested in biology until I was in my 20s and worked at a (now closed) bookstore in Berkeley while going to community college,” says Sarah Crews. “I was in charge of shelving the science section and would read books about evolution and critters. One day I read a book called the Biology of Spiders. I hadn't thought much of spiders but after reading this book I was contacting people (via phone and letter as it was the olden days) mentioned in the book asking them how I too could study spiders.”

Her interest in spiders, and especially selenopid or flattie spiders (“I didn't know anything about them when I began and sort of hurriedly chose them from the World Spider Catalog so I could pretend I had a plan should I be accepted to Berkeley. It was probably one of the best accidental choices of my life.”) has led her to many places around the world, including several stints in Australia, where she’s described over thirty new species of selenopids. She’s now a post-doctorate at the California Academy of Sciences, working with Assistant Curator and Schlinger Chair of Arachnology Lauren Esposito.

Lauren runs the Islands and Seas Science and Surf Summer Institute with Erik Stiner, and Sarah was down there last month, teaching about terrestrial arthropods and geology. Herpetologist Sara Ruane was down there as well, and it was in the pitfall traps that she and her students had made where the Five-toed Worm Lizards were found. “They aren't uncommon - they just live underground, so unless you are looking for them, you probably won't find them,” says Sarah. “We were a bit surprised they were in the pitfalls, because they must surface briefly...They're very unique animals.” In local folklore, these lizards are thought crawl up the anuses of humans, but Sarah tells me “we assured them this isn't true and I think [that] sparked their interest to understand the uniqueness of the immediate world around them. Next year, I &S hopes to expand the program to work with the school in the town.” Due to its unique geological history (it’s been separated from mainland Mexico for 10-12 million years), Baja California has many endemic species. “It's a really wonderful place and I encourage everyone to go if they have the opportunity,” says Sarah. “I've been there a lot and there are still many places I want to explore there. Also, selenopids live there which means it's a great place!”

Sarah’s not kidding about the uniqueness of the Five-toed Worm Lizard. It’s one of only three species in the genus Bipes (the others, of course, being the three-toed and four-toed varieties), and they’re the only extant members of the worm lizard family (Amphisbaenia) with legs. As Sarah said, these reptiles (which are neither snakes nor lizards) spend most of their time underground, using their forelimbs to build tunnels in the soil as they look for invertebrate prey. And while they resemble snakes, the Amphisbaenia are most closely related to the wall lizards, so they developed their legless bodies entirely separately from snakes (which are believed to have evolved from lizards).

Now that she’s working at a the Cal Academy, Sarah doesn’t have as much time for iNat as she used to, but she still uses it to post observations from her field work and to look for new selenopid locales, like this one found in Borneo, a probable new species. “I like helping people learn new things and when they get excited about seeing something they haven't seen before (like Bipes) or when I get excited about seeing something I haven't seen before.”


- by Tony Iwane

- Of course there’s a video of the worm lizard!

- Check out Sarah’s publications here, and follow her on Twitter!

- Some selenopid spiders fly! (Well, glide)

Posted on July 07, 2017 06:48 PM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

Where are iNaturalist observations under represented per capita?

Like most citizen-science data, iNaturalist observations tend to come from the places with the most people. But have you ever wondered where iNaturalist observations are under represented relative to human population? Here's a little analysis of that for the United States. The map below shows the number of iNaturalist observation from the past year by metropolitan area (blue areas) as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau (gray areas are non-metropolitan areas excluded from this analysis). As expected, lots of observations come from places like San Francisco, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago where there also happen to be lots of people.

The next graph shows 2016 population summarized by the same metropolitan areas. Here we see many of those same areas where we have a lot of iNaturalist observations like San Francisco and Dallas light up. But we also see several populous metropolitan areas in the midwest and southeast like St. Louis and Atlanta that weren't as dark on the map of iNaturalist observations.

These are places where iNaturalist observations are under represented relative to population. Its easier to see these if we take the log difference of the number of the two graphs. Here, the blue areas have a lot of iNaturalist observations relative to the population. In contrast, the red areas have relatively few iNaturalist observations relative to the number of people living in the areas.

This final map shows the same data as the previous map but filters out just those metropolitan areas with a population greater than one million people. In blue, and ranked by 'most well represented' in descending order I've numbered the top 12 areas with the most iNaturalist observations relative to population. Austin comes in first place. In red, I've ranked the 'most under represented' areas again numbered from one to 12 in descending order. Louisville, KY comes in as the most under represented metropolitan area in the United States in terms of number of iNaturalist observations per capita.


This table shows that same data from the above graph alongside this 'relative discrepancy' index I used to color the maps. Its negative when areas are under represented and positive when they are well represented. Major metropolitan areas in California, Texas, and the piedmont area jump out where iNat observations per capita are relatively well represented. But similarly, several major metropolitan areas in the midwest and southeast jump out as places where iNaturalist observations are under represented per capita. Here regions in Kentucky, Missouri and Indiana (Louiville, St. Louis, Kansas City, Indianapolis) as well as Michigan (Grand Rapids, Detroit), Georgia (Atlanta), and Florida (Tampa) lead the pack.

Obviously, lots of things could be driving the number of iNaturalist observations in a region other than just population. Demographic or cultural differences may be important. In some places, contributions from a few hard-core users may be causing some regions to be better represented than expected. But population is probably a pretty good first order predictor for the number of iNaturalist observations that should be generated from an area. So why is this map so patchy? One good explanation is the network effect which means that the value of a service increases with the number of people using it. Its easy to see why a social network like iNaturalist would be subject to this effect. Social networks are a lot more interesting to use in places where there's already a vibrant community and data to explore. Another interesting thing about the network effect is that because once an effort kicks off in a place the positive feedbacks can make it grow quickly, sometimes from seemingly random beginnings. A good example was Google's social network Orkut which perhaps randomly caught on in Brazil and India and because of the network effect grew rapidly in those places. This kept Facebook at bay in those countries long after it became the dominant social network elsewhere in the world.

A lot of the patchiness in the maps presented here can almost surely be attributed to the network effect causing iNat to catch on from seemingly random seeds. A good example is iNat's strength in the Austin area (the 'most well represented' area in the US). This is anecdotal, but my hunch is that early, 'random' adoption of iNaturalist by Cullen Hanks (@cullen), formerly with Texas Parks and Wildlife, combined with his charisma, expert outreach skills, and the network effect is a large part of why iNaturalist is so strong in the Austin area. Cullen personally 'recruited' many of iNat's most important community members like Greg Lasley (@greglasley). I'm sure others can point to many other examples of this kind of local leadership and community building accounting for the patterns on the maps.

I'll end with question. Suppose we wanted to try to actively turn some of these red areas blue. How would the iNat larger community go about making this happen? We know that adoption by a few 'champions' can rapidly build community in a region. But how would we find, reach out to, and 'recruit' these champions? There's a lot of chicken-and-the-egg and lead-a-horse-to-water issues that make kicking off local community growth difficult to do from the outside. I have to say, here at iNat-headquarters our track record of this has been pretty poor, which is why we've tended to focus on building and maintaining the platform and watching the network grow passively rather than actively doing outreach. But maybe there's something that we could be doing better? Curious to hear your thoughts on how one could imagine getting iNaturalist to reach its potential in Louisville, Jacksonville, Grand Rapids and beyond!


Posted on July 07, 2017 11:00 AM by loarie loarie | 22 comments | Leave a comment

July 01, 2017

Observation of the Week, 7/1/17



This Typocerus gloriosus beetle, seen in Arizona by @birding4fun, is our Observation of the Week!

 Like many iNaturalist users we’ve profiled for Observation of the Week, Arthur Gonzales (@birding4fun) started out with an interest in one taxon (birds, in his case) but made a great find of a completely different taxon that earned Observation of the Week. “[After first learning about birdwatching] I found myself chasing birds all over Arizona and planning trips across the country based on bird sightings that I needed for my life list,” recalls Arthur. “This new enthusiasm was heavily fueled by the fact that my two boys enjoyed chasing bird sightings with me and as a family, it was yet another reason for us to be outdoors.

“All those feelings of excitement I got from the chase, identifying new birds, and visiting new locations are happening again as I caught the iNaturalist bug,” he explains. “Now I find myself trying to identify just about every living organism I walk past, which makes for some seriously long short walks. Despite my years of being outdoors, I am blown away by how many more life forms I have learned to identify in just the last few months.” 

One of those, of course, is the Typocerus gloriosus beetle shown above. Arthur and his family took a trip to some nearby woods and “our typical exploring process began. All the doors on the truck opened, we spilled out and began walking the mud flat edges of the tank. We usually call out our sighting and I snap a photo or two.” They found the beetle, which didn’t look familiar to any of them, so Arthur took some photos and they moved on. “That evening, I spent a couple hours trying to identify the beetle but got to the point that I just posted the picture on iNaturalist hoping others would help with the identification,” says Arthur. “A few days later, the comments rolled in and my family and I were blown away with our find.” 

Those comments were by Boris Büche (@borisb), an invaluable beetle expert on iNaturalist who currently has 48,662 identifications (!) and dug up The Cerambycidae of North America guide to identify it. “Image sources were unavailable, until now & here,” says Boris. “In 1976, no more than five specimens were known to science. Typocerus gloriosus is an endemic of the Colorado plateau (CO, UT, NM, AZ), it is found in June and July, that´s about all we know.” Boris explains that while identifying an insect to species from just photographs is often difficult, Typocerus gloriosus “makes an exception. It is readily identified by its colour pattern, being one of the most beautiful, and most scarce Longhorn beetles on US territory.”

 Arthur (above, with his family) lives and works in Kaibab National Forest, and is currently the leading observer in the their 2017 Citizen Science Project on iNaturalist. He has also worked with nearby Williams Middle School and their iNat project to help connect the students there with the outdoors. 

I used to walk around looking at wildlife, mostly mammals and birds, thinking I knew my surroundings better than the average forest user. Once I slowed down to photograph and identify plants and insects as well, I quickly realized how much more there is to the environment I live in and how little I really know. I see so much biodiversity in my walks it would be very tough to describe to others but I hope my photos can help bring my observations to others...Having the ability to interact and observe the natural world on a daily basis is not a fact that I take for granted. It’s tough for me to describe the excitement I have in observing, photographing, sharing, and discussing all that nature provides in this short narrative but through iNaturalist, I can certainly try to share my excitement with others. What a way to connect and share my observations on the Kaibab NF with people across the globe.

- by Tony Iwane


- Check out an Earth Unplugged video about why beetles are awesome

- Several types of longhorn beetles are pests, as their larvae bore in wood. Here’s a Smithsonian article about invasive Asian longhorned beetles in North America.

- Here’s all the faved longhorn beetle observations on iNaturalist! 

Posted on July 01, 2017 11:06 AM by tiwane tiwane | 2 comments | Leave a comment

June 26, 2017

5,000,000 Observations!

iNaturalist hit 5,000,000 observations today! Its been just 2 years and 8 months since we hit our first million observations. The bulk of these observations are from North America, but observations hail from 246 (out of 253) countries. New Zealand, Australia, and Western Europe are also well represented. Much of Africa and the Middle East are relatively poorly represented.

Posted on June 26, 2017 10:11 PM by loarie loarie | 5 comments | Leave a comment

June 23, 2017

Observation of the Week, 6/23/17



This Bird’s Nest orchid, seen in Lithuania by @almantas, is our Observation of the Week! 

Almantas Kulbis is a professional nature educator at the Lithuanian Centre of Non-formal Youth Education, and he just plain loves doing it. “For me my work is leisure too,” he says. “The main object of my nature observations is usually plants. I like to explore flora when I'm traveling or just walking in surroundings. Although I'm not a professional natural photographer, I do share my discoveries to people in articles, TV shows or books. I have always stressed that the grandeur of nature is composed of a lot of small details.”

Details, for instance, like the many flowers on the Bird’s Nest orchid that he photographed. “Bird's nest orchid is quite a rare plant in Lithuania,” says Almantas. “In June I wandered near the forest where I was knew this plant grew. I had observed this orchid there about 15 years ago. It was amazing to see almost a hundred of flowering Bird's Nest orchids again! Despite the very active biting mosquitoes, I made a series of photos of these orchids that I happily shared with other people.”

The Bird’s Nest orchid is a pretty amazing plant. Lacking chlorophyll, it is unable to photosynthesize and make its own energy; it instead relies on the mycelium of the Rhizoctonia neottiae fungus, which breaks down the soil into nutrients that the plant can absorb through its tangle of its eponymous nest-like roots. After nine years (!), the orchid finally shoots up a leafless stalk of brownish flowers in the summer. It is not known for certain whether the fungus benefits from this relationship with the orchid. Bird’s Nest orchids range from Europe through North Africa and east to Turkey and Iran.

Almantas discovered iNaturalist after reading Scott Sampson’s How to Raise a Child in the Wild, which was released in Lithuanian last year. “The book teaches us that the current generation of young people get most of their knowledge about the world through displays of electronic gadgets,” he explains. “So I started to use iNaturalist application and promote it in seminars for teachers or radio shows. I’m happy that the iNaturalist community in Lithuania is growing very rapidly and for now is one of the largest in the surrounding countries.” 

- by Tony Iwane

(Note that while Almantas writes excellent English, I did fix a few errors here and there.)


- Almantas’s work has been featured on the TV show Hello Lithuania many times! http://www.lrt.lt/paieska/#/content/Almantas%20kulbis

- Some soothing footage of Bird’s Nest orchids in Italy. Ahhh.

- Probably the best movie monologue about orchids ever (from Adaptation): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WCx6GjD8d4

Posted on June 23, 2017 11:01 PM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

June 16, 2017

Observation of the Week, 6/16/17

This Jungle Cat, seen in Sri Lanka by @markuslilje, is our Observation of the Week! 

A longtime guide for Rockjumper Birding Tours, Markus Lilje has been interested in nature since he was young and “had numerous opportunities to explore farms and a number of game reserves.” His travels have taken him all over the world, to Africa, Asia, North America and even Antarctica!

In 2013 Markus was in Sri Lanka’s Uda Walawe National Park and “just had a fantastic sighting of Asian Elephant and were looking for a place to turn around when we saw this very relaxed Jungle Cat that allowed good but brief views before quickly disappearing in the dense vegetation.”

A generally diurnal hunter, the Jungle cat stalks mainly small mammals, as well as birds, reptiles and amphibians, and like most cats stalks them before attacking. This species ranges from the Middle East through to southern China, preferring areas with dense vegetation and thick grass, meaning it’s often found in swamps and wetlands. It’s a member of the genus Felis, just like our domestic cats.

Markus has only recently joined iNaturalist and he’s posted many of his amazing photos from his years as a guide, contributing some fantastic new observations to iNat. “Hopefully some of these sightings can be used to extend our knowledge or help in some study,” he says. “It is definitely more likely to be useful on this site than on my hard drive! I think I will be more likely to look for other species than I have be focused on and look forward to a greater overall understanding!” 

- by Tony Iwane


- Markus has a great archive of photos on Flickr.

- A Jungle Cat takes down a snake.

Posted on June 16, 2017 11:12 PM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

June 10, 2017

Observation of the Week, 6/10/17

This leucisitic California Kingsnake, seen in California by @apatten, is our Observation of the Week! 

One of a naturalist’s maxims is that you always find the coolest thing when you’re not prepared for it - something Amy Patten knows well. “I was night driving with some friends on a warm night in the Mojave [and] I had forgotten my macro lens on this trip so I knew we'd see something good!” she recalls. “We were road cruising through creosote scrub way out in the middle of nowhere and had already stopped for a gopher snake. Then we saw a big snake moving across the road shortly after dusk, and I pulled over and hopped out of the car to get a closer look. When I first saw this snake, I couldn't believe my eyes!”

An experienced herpetologist, Amy has been working all over California on various reptile and amphibian conservation projects, so she knew she had found something special. “There are many aberrant morphs of California Kingsnake throughout the state,” she explains, “such as a striped morph in San Diego County and a black-bellied morph in the Central Valley, but I had no idea this leucistic ‘lavender phase’ could be found in the wild! As far as I know, wild lavender morphs have been found in LA and San Diego Counties, but not in the northern Mojave where we were.” Amy and her friends were “awestruck” at the snake and, while this morph can be found in the pet trade, she believes she was far enough from any habitation that it was unlikely this individual was a captive-bred animal. “After taking some photos,” Amy says, “we released the snake and it continued on its way across the desert plains.”

As Amy mentioned, California Kingsnakes are popular among the pet trade, but wild populations range throughout much of California and into Nevada, Arizona, Utah Colorado and Mexico. The most common form has dark bands (from black to light brown) and and light bands (from white to cream) with beautiful slate grey eyes. Like other kingsnakes, they have a varied diet that includes other snakes, even rattlesnakes, to whose venom they have immunity.

Amy is currently working with the Ventana Wilderness Alliance, and told me they recently started using iNaturalist help inventory the area.

The project allows us to track the spread of invasives, record phenology and document populations of special-status species. And there’s so much potential for hikers and backpackers in the wilderness to record valuable data on rare species, or find range extensions and new populations. We hope to use this data to work with the US Forest Service to guide management decisions for the Los Padres National Forest.  We also used iNaturalist to run our first-ever BioBlitz in April, which yielded some really amazing results. Our volunteers recorded a number of rare and endemic plants and documented several moth species which had never been recorded in Monterey County!

As for herself, Amy says that iNaturalist “has definitely” made her a better biologist, encouraging her to record more organisms when she’s out in the field on her own time, and has helped her branch into less-familiar taxa such as insects and mushrooms. “Entering my observations and identifying for other naturalists constantly sends me down rabbit holes digging out my field guides, scrutinizing range maps and looking up papers to provide the community with the best possible information for research-grade data,” she explains. “It’s both humbling and enlightening to realize how much there is to learn about taxa I thought I was an expert on!”

- by Tony Iwane


 - Check out other aberrant organisms in the Amazing Aberrants projects on iNat!

- Cool footage of a California Kingsnake grabbing and swallowing a rattlesnake - in slow motion! Try to disregard the overwrought music and narration.

- An introduced albino morph California Kingsnake population in the Canary Islands is decimating much of the native wildlife there

Posted on June 10, 2017 11:39 AM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

June 03, 2017

The Tres-Zeros Club: Meet the 500 species on iNat with at least 1,000 observations!

Over 112,000 species have checked in on iNaturalist from over 4.7 million observations. But they're not all equally represented. While many species are represented by just a few observations each, some like the Western Fence Lizard are each represented by over 10,000 observations!

Today we passed an interesting milestone. For the first time, the top 500 species on iNaturalist (ranked by number of observations) are each represented by at least 1,000 observations. They are lead by heavy-hitters like the Great Blue Heron, Monarch Butterfly, and Honey Bee. Upstarts like the White Nose Coati, Variable Checkerspot, and American Redstart are the newest members of the tres-zeros club.

As expected, most of these species are birds, plants, and insects. But even a few Fungi (Turkey Tail, Fly Agaric) and Mollusks (Garden Snail, Milk Snail) are in the club.

Posted on June 03, 2017 03:34 PM by loarie loarie | 5 comments | Leave a comment
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