August 19, 2017

Observation of the Week, 8/18/80

This amazing conglomeration of Papilio anchisiades idaeus caterpillars, seen in Mexico by luisguillermog, is our Observation of the Day!

A biologist and amateur wildlife photographer who lives in Cancún, on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, Luis Guillermo has been working in the jungle for over decades but has never seen an aggregation of caterpillars like the one above, which he photographed.

“The picture was taken in Dzitnup, a tourist site near to Valladolid, Yucatán, during a [family] trip, [this] July,” recalls Luis. “[This was] outside the “cenotes” X’kekén and Samulá…

I was looking for birds when I saw a stain on a tree, but [what] caught my attention [was] the geometric form and then a slight movement. When I saw through the lens could hardly believe that it was a group of caterpillars. I had to look twice. I had never seen this before and I have worked in jungles for 25 years.

Luis said locals “indicated that they had seen before this type of grouping, but they [did] not give me the common name of the "worms" or were they able to tell me that they were butterfly caterpillars. I knew it after, through iNaturalist Page.”

What Luis saw were the caterpillars of the Ruby-spotted swallowtail butterfly. Females of this species lay eggs close together on the leaves of trees in the Rutaceae, or Citrus family, and according Young, et al (1986), “a major feature of larval behavior in P. anchisiades in both field and laboratory is the close physical contact among individuals.” For the first three instars, the caterpillars hang out on leaves during the day and eat at night. They then relocate to the trunks of the tree for instars four and five.

We suggest that aggregative behavior in the larval stages of P. anchisiades enhances visual crypsis to some predators such as birds and lizards. The combined aggregate of several fifth instars on the bark of the host tree creates the image of a mottled blotch of false lichens and bark on the trunk. Similarly, the tightly packed clusters of younger larvae on the ventral surfaces of Citrus leaves resemble dead or dying plant tissue destroyed by a pathogenic microorganism. (Young, et al; 1986)

Like other swallowtail caterpillars, these evert osmeteria when threatened, and “A strong, disagreeable odor, best described as ‘sweaty socks,’ was apparent when the osmeteria of the last two instars were everted.”

Luis, who has over 1,300 observations on iNaturalist, says he uses the iNat “as a form to show the diversity of the Yucatan Peninsula, because I believe that you can only protect or conserve what is known and with the hope to inspire another to observe the richness of life forms around us.”

- by Tony Iwane


- Check out these videos of Ruby-spotted swallowtail caterpillars molting and then metamorphosing!

- Check out the nearly 500 faved observations from the Yucatan Peninsula!

Posted on August 19, 2017 01:04 AM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

August 18, 2017

iNaturalist, Occurrence Data, and Alligator Lizard Mating

iNaturalist is a tool for engagement, helping people around the world get in touch with the life around them and with others who are into nature. But the observations that iNaturalist users collect (over 5.6 million verifiable observations and counting) is also data that can be used by researchers. How does occurrence data from iNaturalist compare to other methods of data collection?

Dr. Greg Pauly (@gregpauly on iNaturalist), Assistant Curator of Herpetology with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and creator of the Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California (RASCals) project on iNaturalist, recently co-authored Citizen Science as a Tool for Augmenting Museum Collection Data from Urban Areas, which looks at this question. 

Pauly and his co-authors Dakota M. Spear and Kristine Kaiser compared records of four different reptile and amphibian species from VertNet, a database of museum collections, with observations from the RASCals project. They found that in all four species, 

the RASCals citizen-science project generated modern locality records 4–252 times more rapidly than museum collections (Table 1). In 27 months, the RASCals citizen-science project generated 0.36–23.8 times more modern locality records than museum collections acquired over more than 24 years (Table 1). Thus, for three of our four focal species, citizen science provided more data about modern species distributions than the more than 250 natural history collections searchable through the VertNet database.

These numbers are pretty impressive, and as the authors note, up-to-date records are beneficial for giving us a real-time look at species occurrence. It was especially valuable in urban locations, where researchers can’t do exhaustive surveys amongst the “mosaic of private properties that, depending on the taxon of interest, can be difficult or even impossible to survey using standard techniques.”

iNaturalist photos can’t replace museum specimens, which are still hugely important, but “citizen-science projects like RASCals may become a key tool that complements traditional specimen collecting efforts for obtaining data on species distributions throughout the world.”

I had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Pauly in Los Angeles this past May, and here’s a short video of our discussion. He talks about iNat’s importance in understanding urban biodiversity; not only its utility in collection occurrence data, but of rarely observed behaviors such as Alligator lizard mating (see photo above). He and his colleagues at NHMLA are really doing cool stuff with iNaturalist, and I’ll post more videos of them in the future. Check it out! 

- Tony Iwane

Photo credit: Joshua Flatt, CC-BY-NC; https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/7000881

Posted on August 18, 2017 12:35 AM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

August 14, 2017

Observation of the Week, 8/14/17


Our Observation of the Week is this Carpathian Blue Slug, seen in the Ukraine by @cloudya!

Originally from Berlin but in America after studying Forest Ecology at Humboldt State University amongst California’s giant Coast Redwoods, Claudia Voigt dug up photos from a survey in Ukraine to show her friends that there’s an “even more magical slug” than North America’s famed Banana slugs.

Three years ago, when she was studying at the University of Sustainable Development in Eberswalde, Germany, “travelled to the Carpathian Biosphere Reserve in Ukraine. The reserve holds one of the only remaining virgin old-growth forests in Europe. We did a rapid biodiversity assessment and studied the impacts to the reserve by the emerging tourism industry but also by changes in traditional land uses. The Carpathian blue slug was one of the amazing endemic creatures of the old-growth beech forest.”

As its common name suggests, the Carpathian blue slug is endemic to the Carpathian Mountain range of Eastern Europe, and is blue in color. The blue ranges from a turquoise to dark blue and even black, and the slug can be found under logs or in the leaf litter in damp conditions. It’s also a large species, with adults growing up to 14 cm in length!

Claudia, who now does forestry work for California State Parks (and is at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in the above photo), says “I always thought of myself more as a naturalist than a forest ecologist or botanist.” Of iNaturalist, she says “[I] am glad that iNaturalist shares observations with other databases. I want researchers to better understand the distributions and ranges of the organisms they study and find the quality control by curators is very important to make iNaturalist a truly valuable tool.”

- by Tony Iwane


- Here’s a Carpathian blue slug in (slow) action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhgDkkVDwaY

Posted on August 14, 2017 09:25 PM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

August 05, 2017

Observation of the Week, 8/4/17



Our Observation of the Week is this Pachyrrynchus congestus beetle, seen in The Philippines by @tonyg

The son of two Biology teachers, Tony Gerard has always been into nature and the outdoors, and he’s even followed in his parents’ footsteps, as a teacher of Biology (and Physical Geography) at Shawnee Community College. “I grew up, and currently live, in an area of great biodiversity- the Cache River wetlands in southern Illinois. It's a great place to visit and an even better place to live!” Tony’s main interest is herpetology (“It's so odd to me that now it's even trendy,” he says, “as a kid I was somewhat ostracized for being the weird kid into snakes and salamanders.”), but he’s also quite interested in other critters such as leeches, flatworms, and gastropods.

And weevils, of course, are also an interest of Tony’s, but mostly in his wife’s homeland, the highlands of Luzon island in the Philippines. “The weevils in the states have always been a nondescript bunch of small brown beetles in my experience,” Tony explains. “Here in the Philippines many are much larger and come in great fun colors and patterns. When they feel threatened they usually just let go and fall into the undergrowth. I've missed a lot of good shots that way. This guy I stuck my hand under as I was focusing - sure enough he dropped - but into my hand. Problem was he didn't want to set still. He kept walking and I had to keep turning my arm to keep up with him.”

There’s not too much information about Pachyrrynchus congestus online, but intrepid iNat user @sambiology was able to dig up this paper, which looks at the structure behind the orange markings of the beetle. From the abstract:

The orange scales that cover the colored rings on the animal’s body were opened, to display the structure responsible for the coloration. This structure is a three-dimensional photonic polycrystal, each grain of which showing a face-centered cubic symmetry. The measured lattice parameter and the observed filling fraction of this structure explain the dominant reflected wavelength in the reddish orange. The long-range disorder introduced by the grain boundaries explains the paradoxical observation that the reflectance, although generated by a photonic crystal, is insensitive to changes in the viewing angle.

“iNaturalist has definitely made me a better naturalist and field biologist,” says Tony (above, with a huge snail in hand). “I'm much more aware and informed about certain groups - especially arthropods and gastropods - from responses I've received on iNaturalist….There is one class I teach, "Field Biology" in which I require students to post observations to iNaturalist. With the current decreases in funding for sciences, iNaturalist is one way in which regular folks can help fill in the gap.”

- by Tony Iwane


 - Like the orange colors on this beetle, many blue colors in nature are structural rather than pigmentary

- There are a ton of awesome organism in the Philippines, check out the faved ones on iNat

Posted on August 05, 2017 05:23 AM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

July 28, 2017

Observation of the Week, 7/27/17

Our Observation of the Week is this group of Cookeina fungi, seen in Costa Rica by @robberfly!

“One of the earliest memories I have is being in the backyard of my childhood home (I'm not sure I was even walking yet) and finding a tiny Western Toad in the grass,” recalls Liam O’Brien (robberfly). “My brother Colin and I had quite the Tom Sawyer boyhood with a creek nearby. We were constantly bringing frogs and things-in-the-creek home. We converted our baby's sister's pink, plastic wading pool into a pond, with rocks, strands of algae and polliwogs. We got busted from our Mom. The biggest punishment we could get was not "Go to your room!’ or ‘You're Grounded!’, it was...‘No Creek for a Week.’”

“After a great stage career in Repertory Theatre and Broadway, I've gone full circle back to...Nature. The fates handed me a new chapter as an Environmental Conservationist in the niche corner of Invertebrate Restoration. I surveyed all the butterflies of San Francisco in 2009, had an idea of how we could help a little green hairstreak continue on in the county (the Green Hairstreak Corridor) and became involved with many butterfly conservation efforts here.” Liam also monitors endangered Mission Blue butterflies for the National Park Service, and is part of the nascent Operation Checkerspot, which is restoring Variable Checkerspots back to the Presidio National Park. He is also an artists, and illustrates nature for trail signs in San Francisco and publications throughout the county.

While he specializes in butterflies, Liam has a broad interest in the natural world, and he was recently in Costa Rica, taking a Dragonfly Class with Dennis Paulson. The group was allowed into the La Selva Biological Reserve. “We were there to see (and did see) the bizarre Helicopter Damselflies (Coenagrionidae). With four wings beating independently, the tip spots seem seem to whirl around these large, very slender species. They pluck spiders from their webs while in flight. Amazing day, but the humidity was literally dangerous and as I made my way back out of the jungle (to find...oxygen), the light hit the fungi in such a way that made me stop. Like I say on my profile on Instagram (robber_fly) : I love Nature, Color & Form - the Cookeina fulfilled all three.”

Aptly called “cup fungi,” Cookeina make up a genus of fungus that are found mainly in the tropics. Their beautiful cup shape is directly related to their main purpose, which is of course spore distribution. As the cup, or apothecium, fills with rain water, asci, or spore-containing cells, become engorged. When the water evaporates, the tips of the asci pop, releasing spores into the air.

“My use of iNaturalist is slightly selfish - I exploit it daily...trying to...learn. Trying to become a better teacher.  Trying to...see what other's see and being utterly jealous and happy for them :),” says Liam. “I don't do Facebook or Twitter, so, iNat is kinda my main social platform. I've come to make friends with many folks here and that, by far, is my favorite part. Meeting up with other Nature Nerds and letting them show Me what They find...enthralling.”

And for folks who send him robberfly (Asilidae) observations to ID, Liam has a confession:

I picked them as a handle because...I wanted to butch up the butterfly thing. They eat butterflies and are long, sinewy, creepy and wolf-like, like me. But...I don't know my Asilids (does anyone?) and there are days I regret it, but not when I was in the Puerto Vallarta Botanical Gardens a few years back. "Gracias, Señor Robberfly" That, I liked.

- by Tony Iwane


- Check out this short video of Cookeina speciosa releasing spores.

- Listen to an interview with Liam on KQED’s Forum.

- There are over 150 observations of Cookeina on iNaturalist, and they are quite beautiful.

- Here’s some charmingly old school footage of helicopter damselfies.

Posted on July 28, 2017 05:20 AM by tiwane tiwane | 1 comments | Leave a comment

July 22, 2017

Observation of the Week, 7/21/17



This Alloniscus mirabilis isopod, seen in California by @alex_bairstow, is our Observation of the Week!

While many high school students are working summer jobs, volunteering, and just having fun, Alex Bairstow is finding and documenting new species for iNaturalist!

A resident of Southern California, Alex describes himself as a “nature enthusiast,” and is interested in birds, fish, mollusks, and more. Right now he’s gearing up for his senior year of high school in the fall and he says that after he graduates, “ideally, I'd like to go into a career in marine biology.”

Alex is already on the right path, as he posted iNaturalist’s first two observations of Alloniscus mirabilis, an isopod native to California (here’s the second observation). According to iNat Co-director and isopod enthusiast Scott Loarie (@loarie), these are the first documented photos of this species he’s been able to find on the web. “This is a pretty awesome contribution to iNat,” he says.

Alex discovered these isopods while on a trip to Cabrillo National Monument, where he took some of his relatives who were visiting from Sweden. “[Cabrillo National Monument] has some pretty great tide pools, but it was high tide when we arrived, so I decided to check the cliff faces bordering the upper intertidal zone instead. That's when I came across a few interesting woodlice, which thanks to Scott Loarie and Jonathan Wright, I learned were Alloniscus mirablis,” he tells me.

According to Jonathan Wright, it was interesting that Alex found the creatures in crevices on a cliffside (see above); these isopods are usually found on the sand, under driftwood and other cover. According to UC-Santa Barbara Marine Science Institute researchers David Hubbard and Jennifer Dugan, sand-dwelling isopods in Southern California, including members of Alloniscus, are declining in population and range (see article here). Loarie muses that perhaps the isopods are moving into the cliff faces due to lack of suitable beach habitat; obviously more studies would have to be done, but it’s an intriguing possibility. That a teenage nature enthusiast would find these creatures in an unlikely habitat, then post the first photos of the species online, illustrates the potential of citizen science.

“Since joining iNaturalist about a year ago, the way I view nature has changed drastically,” says Alex. “Instead of focusing on just one group of organisms (i.e. birds), iNaturalist has encouraged me to see the bigger picture and enjoy all that nature has to offer.”

- by Tony Iwane


- Check out some of the other faved Isopod observations on iNat!

- We’re used to seeing tiny isopods, but of course there are enormous ones at the bottom of the ocean.

Posted on July 22, 2017 03:52 AM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

July 18, 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 18, 2017 03:45 AM 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 07:27 PM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

July 08, 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 08, 2017 01:48 AM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

July 07, 2017

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 06:00 PM by loarie loarie | 22 comments | Leave a comment
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