February 24, 2018

Observation of the Week, 2/23/18

Our Observation of the Week is this multi-colored wonder, an Anoplodactylus evansi sea spider! Seen in Australia by @sascha_shulz.

“I was snorkeling with the Shelly Beach Swim group (many of whom also contribute to iNat), and was photographing a Sand-diver species [See if you can spot it! -Tony]...when I noticed something crawling on my hand,” recalls Australian freediver Sascha Shulz. “And it turned out to be the first sea spider I have ever seen in 24 years of diving in Australia and other locations around the world!”

The sea spider Sascha found, Anoplodactylus evansi, is more colorful than any I’d personally seen (here in California they’re usually pretty drab), and the colors along with its spindly pretty-much-legs-only construction make it a striking organism. In fact, the lack of a “body” means that internal organs like those of the digestive system reside partially in the legs of the beast, and the high surface-area to volume ratio allows respiration to occur directly through the exoskeleton. While sea spider taxonomy is somewhat in flux, they are currently in the subphylum Chelicerata, which also contains arachnids and horseshoe crabs.

Like most arachnids, sea-spiders can only eat liquids, and a long proboscis allows them to pierce and suck out the insides of soft-tissued animals like sponges, gastropods, and hydroids. According to Sea Slug Forum, one of Anoplodactylus evansi’s favorite prey items are juvenile Sea Hares (among other Opisthobranchs), which are young enough to not have accumulated an amount of diet-derived compounds to deter predators. They’ll also eat around an organ where these compounds are kept, like the digestive gland of Aplysia parvula.

Sascha grew up partly in Germany, and says he was “heavily influenced by the German TV series Expeditionen ins Tierreich.” He moved to Australia when he was still a child, and started freediving when he attended the University of Wollongong, where he received a Marine Biology degree. He’s worked for the Australian Museum and still collects specimens for its fish section when he can.

“The amount of valuable data and knowledge that is accumulating due to the people who contribute to iNaturalist is truly stunning,” says Sascha, but “to avoid iNat becoming a ‘problem’” he uses it to record mostly marine species, explaining “I have found myself interrupting conversations to get a photo of a bug crawling past!...’I can stop anytime I want’ I tell myself!”

- by Tony Iwane

- Most sea spiders are tiny, but at the Earth’s poles, there be giants.

- Sascha, among many other iNatters, contributes to the Australasian Fishes and Seaslugs of the World projects, which are amazing.

- Over 150 sea spider observations have been upload to iNaturalist, seeing them all together is pretty amazing.

- Sea spiders don’t just walk, some of them swim!

Posted on February 24, 2018 12:35 AM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

February 18, 2018

Observation of the Week, 2/18/18

Our Observation of the Week is this Yellow Treefrog that found a perch on the back of a Lethocerus Giant Water Bug, seen in Colombia by @estebanalzate! (Oh, and don’t forget the small insect on the bug’s back as well).

Insider info: I generally look for Observation of the Day possibilities by searching through recently faved observations, and when I saw the photo shown above, I thought it was a nice photo of a beautiful frog - and then I saw the Giant Water Bug! Thanks to our amazing users there are many stunning photos on iNaturalist that immediately grab your eye, but it’s also cool to come across images that continue to reveal beyond a first glance.

Esteban Alzante teaches herpetology and ecology at CES University in Medellín, Colombia, and says he’s been interested nature ever since he was a young boy in the 1980s, “when I was living in a very small town in the middle of the jungle and I could catch lizards, snakes, frogs and turtles in the backyard of my house and my mother would let me do that.” He’s currently studying frog ecology in Colombia, especially the antibacterial molecules found in the skin exudations of some frogs.

“We are looking for new molecules in 16 different species that belong to nine different families, these species had never been evaluated before, as there are many species in Colombia,” explains Esteban. “We found antibiotic activity in nine species, but just one of them has a more powerful activity than the commercial antibiotics.” He’s working on three separate papers, and is currently looking for a grant to identify the compounds in these secretions and submit his doctoral proposal.

Esteban takes his students into field with him, and he observed the above treefrog while on one of these outings:

...we found this puddle with hundreds and hundreds of Dendropsophus microcephalus [Yellow Treefrogs] (my wife says that I tend to exaggerate, but believe me), and they were in the reproductive period, it was so loud... and I found this little guy with his vocal sac inflated but when I was going take its picture it jumped on a branch, then i took the picture and that is when I realized that it had been on a bug's back.

Giant Water Bugs, members of the family Belostomatidae, are “true bugs,” meaning they’re part of the order Hemiptera, and have tube-like mouths for piercing and sucking. Often called “toe-biters” in the US, Giant Water Bugs are known to inflict a painful bite in self-defense (due to the injection of digestive enzymes), but the bite is not medically significant. In most genera, the female lays her eggs on the back of her male partner, and he will guard them, but in the genus Lethocerus, the female lays her eggs on vegetation near the water, which the male then guards. Lethocerus bugs are the largest of all true bugs, with some species growing to 12 cm (4.75 in) in length!

To give you a sense of scale, most Yellow Treefrogs reach about 25-31 mm (.98-1.2 in) in length, so this is a mighty large insect. The frogs range from Central America into the norther part of South America and onto some islands in the Caribbean, and are commonly seen. They are nocturnal, and come together at pools to breed. Eggs are laid on leaves overhanging the water, and tadpoles will drop from them when they hatch.

As Esteban (above, with a snake) continues his studies and field ventures, he’ll use iNaturalist to “share the biodiversity, mainly here in Colombia; we have hundreds of species that nobody knows, and my idea is do something for the people can identify them and to know as many species as I can.”

- by Tony Iwane (As English is not his first language, some of Esteban’s quotes have been lightly edited.)

- You wanted to hear what these frogs sound like, yes? They’re pretty loud.

- A Giant Water Bug takes down a garter snake in Arizona. Video here!

- Frog slime might be antiviral as well.

- Does the frog’s choice of perch remind anyone else of Han Solo’s similar maneuver with a Star Destroyer

Posted on February 18, 2018 11:59 PM by tiwane tiwane | 3 comments | Leave a comment

February 16, 2018

Citizen Science and iNaturalist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Our own Citizen Science department here at the California Academy of Sciences (led by 2017 Bay Nature Environmental Education Award Winners @kestrel and @rebeccafay) does a great job of implementing iNaturalist in their work, and so do our friends (and City Nature Challenge co-organizers and friendly rivals) at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (@natureinla). So last year I traveled south and interviewed members of their Citizen Science (now called Community Science) department as well as some researchers who are using iNaturalist, all of whom graciously gave up part of their day to talk with me on camera.

I made videos and blog posts about specific projects and researchers over the past few months (links at the bottom) but wanted to create one more video that sums up their overall approach to using iNaturalist as a way to build community and generate great biological data in an urban environment. They’re game to keep up engagement with the public and do so in a positive, approachable way, even making the effort to meet some iNat users in the field to gather specimens and confirm sightings. Data from their projects have been used to petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for Endangered Species status, study Alligator Lizard mating behavior, and map squirrel range expansion.

If you or your institution are thinking of using iNaturalist for outreach and for gathering data, they provide a great model to start with.

Many thanks to @lhiggins, @smartrf, @gregpauly, @jannvendetti and @mordenana for speaking with me and for doing great things with iNat.

If you’re a part of NHMLA’s Community Science endeavors, or know other examples of excellent iNat use, please share in the comments!

- Tony Iwane

  • Herpetologist Dr. Greg Pauly discusses iNat use to collect urban range and behavioral data.

  • Wildlife biologist Miguel Ordeãna talks squirrels and the importance of staying engaged if you’re running a project.

  • Malacologist Dr. Jann Vendetti makes the case for the importance of mapping snails, and meeting iNat users to collect specimens.

(Photo by @alex_bairstow, depicting a rare sinistral (”left-handed”) Garden Snail with a dextral (”right-handed”) one. The sinistral one was donated to NHMLA.)

Posted on February 16, 2018 11:35 PM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

February 10, 2018

Observation of the Week, 2/9/18

Our Observation of the Week is this Myrmecophila christinae orchid, seen in Mexico by @thibaudaronson!

“I am generally more interested in things that move, but I have long had a sweet spot for orchids,” says Thibaud Aronson. “In fact, it was my mother who first took me out to look at Ophrys species in the Mediterranean prairies when I was about five or six years old. And when I was a bit older, I traveled to a few far-flung places such as Ecuador and Borneo, and honed my tree-climbing skills to look specifically for orchids.”

Those tree-climbing skills were not needed to find and photograph the plant shown above, however. Thibaud was on a scuba diving holiday on the Mexican island of Cozumel after a spell as a research assistant in Yucatan (studying spider monkeys) when he found it.

I saw the Myrmecophila christinae at the Mayan ruins of San Gervasio. It was pretty common in the area, but mostly high up in trees. This individual was pretty low on a branch (I figure it might have fallen in a storm and then been stuck back in the tree by someone, as I have done myself on many occasions).

Thibaud points out that this genus of orchids are particularly fascinating as they are “one of the few orchid genera (off the top of my head, I can only think of Caularthron as another example) to form a mutualistic association with ants.” In fact, the genus name derives from myrmecophily, meaning “ant love.” And ants are almost always found in the hollowed-out “pseudobulbs” of these orchids, where they find shelter. The ants are able to obtain nectar from the plant’s flowers and in return fight off herbivores that might damage the orchid. Fascinatingly, researchers have documented ants residing in Myrmecophila tibicinis plants depositing detritus such as arthropod carcasses and decaying plant matter in the pseudobulbs. That decaying matter can be absorbed by the orchid, giving it crucial minerals in the often nutrient-poor substrate of the trees on which they grow.

Thibaud (above, in Bhutan, where he’ll upload observations from soon!) researched mate choice in birds for this Master’s degree, and is currently deciding on his career path. He’s been contributing his photos of flora and fauna to Flickr and JungleDragon, and recently joined iNat on the recommendation of some friends in Mexico.

The algorithm that suggests likely IDs for photos still amazes me, and has been a tremendous help, in particular with butterflies. I am also incredibly grateful for the very involved community of experts who have helped ID many of my photos in groups I know nothing about, such as hard corals, and even correcting some of my bird identifications! Plus, I greatly appreciate the citizen science aspect of it, and the incredible wealth of information that is being accumulated. And, since I am lucky to travel to some fairly unusual places...I am now happy to do my part, and contribute observations of things that aren’t in the database yet!

- by Tony Iwane

- Several people pointed out this flower’s resemblance to cuttlefish. Do you agree?

- Check out the more than 600 orchid observations have that have been faved by iNat users!

Posted on February 10, 2018 02:08 AM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

February 03, 2018

Observation of the Week, 2/2/2018

Our Observation of the Week comes to us from @andriusp, and it’s this Cloudy Snail-eating snake with a (what else?) snail on its snout! Seen in French Guiana.

“I grew up in Lithuania with biologist parents and I’ve been an avid chaser of all things moving as far as I can remember,” recalls Andrius. A biologist now himself, Andrius is a research fellow at the University of Vienna (Austria), studying the behavior of Neotropical frogs. “My biggest passion remains chasing animals in the field and I’m extremely lucky that my research allow me to do just that. I spend prolonged periods of time in the field in South and Central America where I mostly study the spatial behavior of the so-called poison frogs. Actually, I just arrived in French Guiana for another 2 months of frog tracking!”

Andrius found the above snail and snake in his favorite research station in the Nouragues Nature Reserve, located in the tropical rainforest in French Guiana. Andrius recalls “we happened to find this beautiful small snake (first time for me) right on our kitchen table!” He thought the snail looked like a beret, which was fitting for a French research station, and furthermore

The scene was even more absurd and intriguing because [Cloudy Snail-eating snake]  is primarily a snail-eating snake! We kept discussing whether it was a smart trick from the snake to keep the dinner for later or whether that was a daring escape strategy of a sneaky snail. We released the two “companions” on a bush next to the kitchen where I snapped these pictures.

More commonly found in trees than on kitchen tables, Cloudy Snail-eating snakes range from Mexico into South America and even onto some islands in the Caribbean, like Trinidad and Tobago. They’re nocturnal (check out those huge eyes!) and do like to hunt snails and slugs, as well as worms and other prey.

Andrius (above, with a mantid on his face) says

iNaturalist rebooted my interest in keeping records of my observations and paying attention not only to my research subjects but to all living things around me. I realised that over time I started ignoring plants, fungi, and animals that I didn’t know much about and had no easy way to identify. I was also never good at keeping well organised notes and photo catalogues of my various travels and observations. Now I’m happy once again to snap photos other very ordinary as well as extraordinary plants, fungi, and animals! iNaturalist takes care of the rest.

- by Tony Iwane

- You can follow Andrius on Twitter and check out his photos Facebook.

- Members of Pareas, genus of gastropod-eating snakes from Asia, have more teeth on their right jaw than left jaw, allowing them to eat “right-handed” snails more easily. In areas where they occur, “left-handed” snails are found to occur more frequently. How cool is that?

- Two Cloud Snail-eating Snake vidoes, a wild one climbing, a captive individual hunting and eating a snail.

Posted on February 03, 2018 12:26 AM by tiwane tiwane | 3 comments | Leave a comment

January 26, 2018

Observation of the Week, 1/26/18

Our Observation of the Week is this Celaenia excavata spider, seen in Tasmania, Australia, by @simongrove!

Simon Grove is all about sharing. As the Senior Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), Simon’s main duty is to care for the museum’s collections, but he says “I'm also interested in outreach, which is one reason I take photos of living insects and spiders.” Not only does he post them on Flickr (and is currently importing his Flickr photos to iNat), he shares them on two Facebook Groups and his own Facebook page as well as on the TMAG’s A Field Guide to the Fauna of Tasmania mobile app. “It's also one reason I signed up to iNaturalist, in that I can help identify or validate others' Tasmanian nature observations,” he explains.

Oh, and

My 'research-grade' observations on iNaturalist, and the accompanying photos, will also find their way onto our national recording platform, the Atlas of Living Australia, where the photos will help others identify their own observations while the observations will augment museums' specimen-based records in helping us better understand what lives where around Australia.

The Celaenia excavata spider you see above is one of Simon’s older photos that he recently imported from Flickr. He found in April of 2015, sitting on a ripening almond at a community garden in Taroona. “It's a common species in suburban Hobart and elsewhere in Tasmania and southeast Australia,” says Simon, “but seldom spotted because of its close resemblance to a dollop of bird poo.” During the day, this spider rests and hides, utilizing its camouflage as protection, but at night it preys on moths, especially those commonly found in orchards.

But how does this tree-climbing but non-web-spinning spider capture its prey? Well, Simon says “[they] waft chemicals into the air which mimic the pheromones of female moths. When a male moth comes to investigate the source of the smell, the spider has a chance of grabbing it.” You can see another iNaturalist observation showing a Celaenia excavata eating a moth here. The myriad ways in which spiders have evolved to capture prey is astounding.

Here’s to more amazing observations from Simon’s archive!

- by Tony Iwane

- Bolas spiders also look like bird droppings (or snails) and use pheremones to draw in moths. However they use a “bolas” made of silk and glue to catch their prey. Check it out!

Posted on January 26, 2018 09:31 PM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

January 20, 2018

Observation of the Week, 1/19/18

Our Observation of the Week is this hoarfrost-encrusted Gray-headed Coneflower, seen in Illinois by @bouteloua!

“I started undergrad wanting to be a human doctor, but now I’m sort of a prairie doctor,” says field botanist cassi saari. “I work in the field of ecological restoration where I design and monitor habitat restoration projects and help people inventory and manage their natural lands, from ponds to woods, streams, dunes, marshes, prairies, or savannas.”

Lucky for iNat, when cassi isn’t tending to the prairie’s needs, she’s taking care of things on iNaturalist as one of our most active Curators. She’s enjoyed “stepping up my...curator activities on iNaturalist: maintaining the taxonomic database, helping new users, resolving issues, and improving the quality of the data.” Keeping up with taxonomy and our community is a huge job, and our noble Curators, like cassi, are people who spend some of their free time helping out in the many ways cassi mentioned. They’re a vital part of iNat.

Now back to that frosty flower. cassi spotted it on

a foggy but very cold morning drive to the office [above]. The drive is quite dull - all city, then suburbs, then long, flat stretches of harvested fields of corn and soy…[it’s] always a stark reminder that 99.9% of the prairie lands in Illinois have been destroyed by farming, grazing, and development.

But the land around cassi’s office (pictured above) is “a little oasis of wetland and prairie with hundreds of species of native plants...part remnant, part restored.” When she pulled up in her car, she says “I saw the hoarfrost clinging to plant stems and couldn’t help but stop and make some observations.” One of which, of course, was the Gray-headed Coneflower you see at the top of the page. “Working year-round as a field botanist is a fun challenge in winter botanizing. One of my favorite things about iNaturalist is adding to the growing database of plant photos when they’re not flowering (which is usually when I need to be able to identify them),” she explains.

When describing Gray-headed Coneflowers, cassi first mentions their distinctive shape, calling them “one of several prairie sentinels that forms a charismatic silhouette at dawn and dusk at any time of the year.” Like other member sof the Asteraceae or “sunflower” family of plants, their “flowers” are actually inflorescences made up of many tiny  florets, with about 15 of them on the outside growing the large petals we recognize. “The flowers and fruits are easily recognized and its frequent use in prairie restorations makes it one of the first native wildflowers that people learn around here,” says cassi.

An iNat user since 2012, cassi has mainly focused on plants, but says “this year I’m aiming to be a 100% naturalist by observing more animals, fungi, and other creatures, since sometimes I seem to have the opposite of plant blindness…”

- by Tony Iwane

- You can check out cassi’s personal website here.

- In 2017 the Illinois Native Plant Society held its second annual Illinois Botanists Big Year and cassi came in at number one, contributing over 900 species.

Posted on January 20, 2018 12:11 AM by tiwane tiwane | 1 comments | Leave a comment

January 12, 2018

Observation of the Week, 1/12/18

Our Observation of the Week is this calling Water Frog, seen in Lithuania by @ausrazilinskiene!

“As always I was looking for birds,” says Ausra Zilinskiene, recalling the day back in the spring of 2016 when she photographed the above frog. About seven or eight years ago was when she started observing animals, mainly birds. “I started to watch live web cameras of the storks nests. This was beginning of my way...I bought a camera and at the beginning sat for hours under the storks nests in the village, and later found that other birds are even more interesting than storks.”

Back to May of 2016. “In that day I had a hope to meet the Eurasian bittern,” recalls Ausra. “I could hear its voice in the reeds, but unfortunately the bittern did not give me a chance to see it.” She did, however, hear the mating calls of frogs around her. “It was May, mating time and water frogs all were "In love." :) There were a lots of frogs in the swamp. I lay down in the dirt near the swamp and started to observe them, trying to catch good moments for taking photos. The frog from photo was the largest of all frogs and its voice was the loudest.”

So why can’t we get this frog down to species? Ausra, on the advice of a more experienced herper, identified it as Pelophylax esculentus, commonly known as the “Edible Frog” (and yes, that is the frog whose legs are eaten as a delicacy). But as experienced Lithuanian natuarlist @almantas notes, “I received a note that their species are actually separated by genetic analysis, all other signs are not diagnostic.” So while we can get it down to genus from a photo, it would take genetic analysis to determine the species. AmphibiaWeb states that “genetic, ecological and behavioral studies in these frogs are in progress.”

One cool thing about P. eculentus, though, is that it is a hybrid of two species, Pelophylax lessonae and Pelophylax ridibundus, and itself reproduces hemiclonally, in a complicated process called hybridogenesis. Basically the process results in “each generation is half (or hemi-) clonal on the mother's side and has half new genetic material from the father's side.” (Wikipedia)

Right now Ausra is holed up during the winter, but says “I hope in Spring I'll continue my observations…

My purpose in iNaturalist is to show all species that I find and can identify in this small area of our planet, where I am observing nature. I think it would be nice to have the opportunity to open up the map of iNaturalist and to see what can we find in every part of Earth. But for this many naturalists must do a great job. I do hope that every day, new people will enter their observations and there will be less white areas in the map.

- by Tony Iwane. (Some of Ausra’s quotes have been lightly edited, as English is not her first language) 

- Ausra humbly claims that “my photos aren't very good, because I am not a good photographer, but the camera helps me to focus and to find new interesting things. The camera helps me to see.” But I beg to differ, check out her observations here!

- You want to know what Edible Frog calls sound like, right? Of course you do - and you won’t be disappointed.

- Lithuanian iNatter @almantas was the subject of Observation of the Week this past June

Posted on January 12, 2018 11:48 PM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

Explicit Disagreement Update

Turns out the way we handled explicit disagreements wasn't quite meeting one of the goals we had, which was to allow people to add more conservative identifications without changing the taxon the observation was associated with, so after running things by the Google Group we made a somewhat more radical change. The Community Taxon will continue to operate as it did, but the taxon an observation is associated with should now be the most specific proposed taxon with which no one disagrees. Here are some examples:

ID 1: Homo sapiens
ID 2: Genus Homo, not a disagreement
=> CID: Genus Homo (this is what the community of 2 agree on)
=> Observation Taxon: Homo sapiens (the finest proposed taxon no one disagrees with)

So now this observation will show up as Homo sapiens in search results and such. It's still in "Needs ID" b/c there's no consensus at the species level, but the user who made ID 2 can chime in without bumping the observation back to species-level.

Here's the slightly more controversial scenario:

ID 1: Genus Homo
ID 2: Genus Homo
ID 3: Homo sapiens
=> CID: Genus Homo (this is what the community of 3 agree on)
=> Observation Taxon: Homo sapiens (the finest proposed taxon no one disagrees with)

This is a bit less conservative than we've been in the past because observations can move toward a finer taxon with less community consensus. Some people (*cough*Scott*cough*) like this because hey, no one's said it isn't Homo sapiens so why not go with that until there's a contradiction? Others (*cough*me*cough*) are probably going to feel like this just makes it easier for incautious identifiers to shift more observations toward incorrect taxa. To my fellow naysayers, this might also mean that fewer people click "Agree?" *just* to move the observation to species level, so maybe we'll end up with more incorrectly-identified observations in "Needs ID" but fewer in "Research Grade," which might be a good thing.

Anyway, try it out over the next few days and see how it works and feels. For a more extensive background on these changes, including illustrated examples, see https://docs.google.com/document/d/1BHX1pnoMEv9gf_PqDzoqdQmZjsvdU_j8O7TEGwdr6fg/edit

Posted on January 12, 2018 11:41 PM by kueda kueda | 15 comments | Leave a comment

January 03, 2018

Identification Disagreements Are Now Explicit

We've made a slight change to how we handle conservative identification disagreements. Previously, if an observation was of a dog and you identified it as a mammal, iNat would assume that your ID was a disagreement, i.e. that you both thought the observation was a mammal and was not a dog. Personally, I've always thought this was a simple way to force disagreements to be constructive, but it's also caused a lot of confusion of the years. Now, if you add an ID of a taxon that contains the observation's community taxon, iNat will force you to choose whether you mean to disagree or not. It makes the identification process slightly more cumbersome, but hopefully less confusing, especially for new users.

Bonus: this also lets you add constructive identifications in situations where they would have previously been considered disagreements, e.g.

ID 1: Mammal (CID is Mammalia)
ID 2: Vulpes vulpes ssp. arabica (CID is Mammalia)
ID 3: Vulpes vulpes (CID is Vulpes vulpes)
ID 4: Vulpes vulpes ssp. arabica (CID is Vulpes vulpes ssp. arabica)

Before, that species-level ID would count as a disagreement with the subspecies ID before it, but now it can just be a "best guess" and the additional subspecies ID can shift the CID to subspecies.

Anyway, this is mostly just going to affect the hardcore identifiers out there. Hopefully it won't be too much of a problem for you folks. The apps do not yet support this behavior so IDs from there will continue to work like IDs before, i.e. IDs of taxa that contain the community taxon will count as implicit disagreements.

Posted on January 03, 2018 07:42 PM by kueda kueda | 6 comments | Leave a comment