October 16, 2018

How does iNaturalist Count Taxa?

A common question to both help@inaturalist.org and the iNaturalist Google Group is why the species counts on Your Observations are different from species counts elsewhere on the site such as your Life List.

Unfortunately, counting species has some subtle complexities that make this trickier to explain that we'd like. On top of that, Life List functionality on iNaturalist works quite a bit differently than the Your Observation functionality which complicates things further.

We wrote a tutorial to try to explain some of these complexities about how iNaturalist counts taxa. We also provide some steps for how to sync up your Life List count with the count displayed on Your Observations. Read more

Posted on October 16, 2018 07:21 PM by loarie loarie | 23 comments | Leave a comment

October 12, 2018

A Birder's Observation Extends the Range of a Fiddler Crab by 240 km

A common theme among iNaturalist users is that they might have started out with an interest in one or two taxa (e.g. birds or plants), but once they start opening their eyes to the life around them, their interests grow and diversify. I can personally attest to this as I am now stooping over  to photograph lichens and slime molds when, not long ago, anything without scales or spinnerets was of little interest to me.

This past June, iNaturalist user @tracyk2 visited the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in southern California to do some bird watching, but she also took notice of fiddler crabs scampering about on the beach. She snapped some photos and uploaded them to iNat, identifying them as Mexican Fiddler Crabs (Leptuca crenulata), a species that has been recorded in the area.

iNaturalist Co-direct Scott Loarie (@loarie) came across her observation and, drawing from Dr. Michael Rosenberg’s (@msr) comment here, believed at least some of her crabs to be Large Mexican Fiddler Crabs (Uca princeps), a species never before recorded in the United States. Scott then notified Michael about Tracy’s sighting and asked him to take a look.

“I happen to be one of the world's experts on fiddler crab systematics (a legacy of my dissertation) and have gradually become known as the go-to-guy on iNat for questions on this group,” explains Michael. After looking at Tracy’s observation, he says “I immediately realized that this was novel to California and the US. It was when I pointed this out in the thread that the excitement built and others started looking for them, leading not only to additional confirmations of the species at that particular site, but now in other sites [see photo below] in California as well.” Other scientists who study crustaceans urged Michael to write a short research note about this range extension. And so he did.

In the publication, Michael notes that while this species has been observed slowly creeping up the coast of Baja California, Tracy’s observation is approximately 240 km further north than any previous record. The cause of this expansion, according to the paper, is likely El Niño events and warming temperatures, but “it is not likely to extend much further up the coast of California without major changes to ocean temperatures and currents.”

Michael joined iNaturalist nearly eight years ago, telling me “As a biologist who occasionally falls into OCD-like efforts to track certain things, iNaturalist appealed to me as a better way of staying on top of bird lists or mammal lists, which at the time I just had in spreadsheets.” He also found it to be a good place for him to share his nature photos.

From the perspective of a researcher, Michael says that citizen science endeavors such as iNaturalist provide “ a volunteer workforce making observations (and who can even occasionally be directed to make specific types of observations) on a scale that the formal scientific endeavor simply cannot support in any manner,” with the caveat that “identifications can sometimes be sketchy and there is a limited amount of data cleaning that can be done if one wanted to truly cross-check whether the observations are accurate...To be fair, many other ‘traditional’ sources of data can be just as messy...so it's not a problem unique to citizen science…

I suspect that most scientists currently under-appreciate how much data these endeavors are creating and how useful they might be. I haven't formally tried to create a research project based on iNaturalist data (the U. princeps observation was a fortuitous accident), but it is in my mind that the data might just be waiting there to answer the right questions if we just think to pose them.


-Male Fiddler crabs use their enormous major claw for gestures, both in combat with other males and when courting females. Here is a video, shot in San Diego, of the latter behavior.

Photo credits - Top, @tracyk2; Bottom, @thumbwave.

Posted on October 12, 2018 11:06 PM by tiwane tiwane | 8 comments | Leave a comment

October 03, 2018

New collection project filters

We've just finished another round of updates for collection projects. A little over a month ago we announced some changes to collection and umbrella projects related to joining and displaying these newer projects on observation details pages. The updates being released today allow further customization of collection projects through the use of new types of filters.

Since launch, collection project managers have been able to specify multiple taxon, place, and user filters to limit which observations are shown in the project. Today we are allowing managers to specify the inverse of these filters. For example in the case of taxa, you could always create a taxon filter of Lepidoptera, and now you can "exclusion filter" for the taxon Papilionoidea. That would result in a project that shows observations of all Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) except the Papilionoidea (butterflies) - effectively a project of moths.

It was possible to achieve this same outcome without exclusion filters, but you would have needed to create 42 taxon filters - one for each subfamily of Lepidoptera except Papilionoidea. With exclusion filters you only need to create 2 taxon filters - one for including Lepidoptera and one for excluding Papilionoidea.

These exclusion filters also apply to places (e.g. observations from the United States except California, Oregon, and Washington), and to users (e.g. observations from all users except these users).

Another new filter option for collection projects is annotation terms and values. Project managers can now choose to include observations which have annotations of a particular attribute (e.g. life stage), or a particular attribute and value (e.g life stage = adult). Currently there is a limit of one annotation filter per project, but this could be expanded over time to combine multiple filters, including an exclusion filter for annotations (e.g observations with a life stage = adult annotation, without a sex annotation).

We hope these new filters make it easier and faster to customize collection projects. As always we will continue to work on more improvements based on your feedback and we'll let you know when anything noteworthy is released.

Posted on October 03, 2018 03:19 AM by pleary pleary | 14 comments | Leave a comment

October 02, 2018

Welcome, Amanda!

It took a bit longer than expected, but we finally managed to hire another software engineer, so please welcome Amanda Bullington to the iNat community! Amanda will be leading us into new technological territory as we re-implement Seek in React Native, a mobile development framework that enables code sharing between Android and iPhone apps, and will allow us to reuse some of the code we use on the website as well. Hopefully she'll also be working on the many other parts of our infrastructure that rely on Javascript (website, API, etc.). In addition to being an avid hiker, Amanda is a triathlete, speaks Mandarin, and seems to be an expert in optimizing credit cards for travel bonuses, so she brings a lot to the team (I, by comparison, can run a mile, mispronounce "ni hao," and put credit cards into little boxes to get groceries, but that's about it). Anyway, we're all super excited to have Amanda onboard and are looking forward to working with her!

Posted on October 02, 2018 07:57 PM by kueda kueda | 19 comments | Leave a comment

September 30, 2018

“It was a cool morning and the colourful shell of the snail caught my eyes immediately.“ - Observation of the Week, 9/30/18

Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. >

Our Observation of the Week is this Amphidromus hamatus snail, seen in Malaysia by @pizzamurderer!

“I am just a casual observer from Singapore and I got into loving nature as a young kid,” says E.H., who goes by pizzamurderer on iNat (“I love bugs and pizza.” is what their profile says). E.H. previously interned in a marine lab and enjoyed that work, but says “I'm actually interested in plants and insects more so than any other taxa, but taxonomy is tough and ever-changing.”

While on a family holiday at Gunung Mulu National Park, E.H. says “I was out photographing the plethora of organisms that I had never seen before. It was a cool morning and the colourful shell of the snail caught my eyes immediately. Intrigued, I snapped a few photos and that was that.”

I reached out to @jkfoon, a malacologist who specializes in Southeast Asian mollusks, to inquire further about this find, and he told me this genus is arboreal and individuals are often found high up in trees. He also notes

perhaps the most peculiar thing with Amphidromus is that many of them are chirally dimorphic i.e. there are both right-coiling (dextral) and left-coiling (sinistral) shells within a species. This sort of developmental character is highly unusual among animals and thus, have attracted the attention of scientists.

E.H. says he uses iNaturalist and other platforms “to inquire about IDs of plants and animals that I come across while on my nature walks. Taxonomy confuses me, so having the opinions of other, more experienced nature-lovers is pretty handy.” And JK Foon emphasizes the importance of making this connection between naturalists, saying

Southeast Asia is home to multiple biodiversity hotspots. Habitat loss is accelerating across the region yet many of its native biodiversity remains to be discovered by scientists. Given that tourism is booming across the region, online citizen science contributions such as this are invaluable in helping people appreciate, discover and document species and their distributions.

- by Tony Iwane.


- There are just over sixty observations of Amphidromus snails on iNaturalist, you can see them here.

- JK Foon helped to identify an observation on iNaturalist as the rediscovery of a snail on Hon Cau island in Vietnam.

Posted on September 30, 2018 06:47 PM by tiwane tiwane | 3 comments | Leave a comment

September 24, 2018

An Anole Dines at a Hummingbird Feeder - Observation of the Week, 9/23/18

This Green Anole lapping up some sugar water at a hummingbird feeder is our Observation of the Week! It was seen in Louisiana by @vanremsen.

Van Remsen remembers being interested in pretty all types of plants and animals when he was a child, and says he had “the usual collections of bugs in jars, pressed leaves, and tropical fish tanks, and I was always fascinated with identifications.  I wanted to be able to identify every living creature in my Colorado backyard.” Birds eventually became the focus of his passion and he is now a Professor of Biological Sciences and Curator of Birds at the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science, where his focus is in Neotropical birds.

“I am especially interested in hummingbirds, and my Louisiana yard is an overgrown jungle of hummingbird-pollinated plants,” explains Van. He watches his feeders and has noticed Green Anole lizards on them from time to time.

I have glimpsed them suspiciously licking the feeder ports previously, but this time I was determined to photograph just exactly what this one was doing because I did not know whether this species had ever been documented drinking “nectar” (in this case sugar water).  The photo shows the tongue licking the solution, but the video link [see below] makes it clear that it is deliberately drinking from the feeder.  The question is, could it smell that the solution in the hole in the plastic “flower” was sugary and thus worth sampling, or did it just sample the liquid by chance and thus learned that it was sugary.

Herpetologist @gregpauly posted links to a few other sightings of Anoles at hummingbird feeders, but as far as I can tell Van’s question of how the lizards find the “nectar” is still unknown. However, in a paper cited here, an Emerald Anole was observed biting the red knob of a stopwatch, suggesting that color might be a factor, just as it is for the birds. Many anoles are known to eat fruit and nectar, and really who can turn down delicious sugar water, especially if it involves confusing and annoying a hummingbird?

Van heard about iNaturalist from two graduate students at the LSUMNS, @cypseloides and @henicorhina, and he uses it to help identify the non-bird organisms he comes across. 

- by Tony Iwane


- In case you can’t get enough Anoles-eating-at-hummingbird-feeder action (I can’t) here are some more videos

- Here’s a nice article in The Advocate about Van Remsen and the LSU ornithological collection.

- And a video of Van Remsen receiving the 2013 William Brewster Memorial Award from the American Ornithologists’ Union.

Posted on September 24, 2018 05:16 AM by tiwane tiwane | 8 comments | Leave a comment

September 18, 2018

A Growing iNaturalist Community in Mumbai Documents Their Beach Finds

Because I monitor recent popular observations on iNaturalist for Observation of the Day fodder, every so often I start noticing trends, especially when there’s activity in places where iNaturalist has not had a historically strong community. So it was really cool when, over the last few months or so, I started noticing an uptick in observations from the beaches and seas around Mumbai, India. I didn’t know much about Mumbai, aside from the fact that it’s one of the world’s largest cities, and I was excited to see so many observations in the Marine Life of Mumbai project, showing off the city’s wildlife. I reached out to Shaunak Modi (@shaunak), who started the Marine Life of Mumbai iNat project on behalf of the Marine Life of Mumbai (MLOM) organization.

“When we started Marine Life of Mumbai a year and a half ago, we had a very open-ended idea,” explains Shaunak. “Our aim was to re-introduce the citizens of Mumbai to their largely forgotten heritage - the city's shores, through its marine life.” The group leads monthly shorewalks (below), has downloadable guides to the city’s marine life, and shares photos, finds, and information on social media. “We’ve been able to showcase how much marine life thrives on Mumbai's shores despite the adverse conditions,” he says. Shaunak himself says he’s only been exploring his city’s shores for just about a year but already has a deep passion for it.

Co-founder Pradip Patade (@pradip) had been keeping records of his beachcombing finds for the last few years, and as the group continued its work, they wanted to make their observations accessible to others. “Realising that we now needed to find a resource to publicly share our observations, we started trying out biodiversity databases but didn’t find one that was the right fit for us, until one of our acquaintances; intertidal biologist and iNaturalist user Vishal Bhave, led us to iNaturalist,” Shaunak recalls.

Our aim at Marine Life of Mumbai is to keep all our findings free and public, which is why iNaturalist is a perfect fit. It’s been a fantastic experience from the get-go. As a platform, it’s feature-rich, yet has an easy-to-use interface, which is very important to any citizen-driven project. Not only have the curators helped identify our observations but also take the time to answer our questions...We're thrilled to have our observations reach beyond the boundaries of our project and find a place in other taxon-based projects and get channeled into global databases.

The project itself is MLOM’s main database for observations (clicking on “Database” on their website’s header will take you straight to iNat) and they want to encourage more people to submit their observations. They’re right now in the final planning stages of a “structured, wide-scale citizen science project to map the intertidal biodiversity of Mumbai, with iNaturalist as the platform for managing the data. With its user-friendliness and features, we couldn’t have asked for a better base to power our project.”

This being such a collaborative effort, Shaunak says they would like to “highlight the efforts of the entire Marine Life of Mumbai team. Their hard-work and support on field, is crucial to everything we have been able to achieve.”

- by Tony Iwane. Photos courtesy Marine Life of Mumbai.


  • There have been some excellent articles written about MLOM, I recommend checking them out on the site’s press page.
  • A Marine Life of Goa project is also on iNat, it was started this past May. 
  • Gotta love Shaunak’s video of squirting mollusks at low tide!
  • Here’s an incredible story of a massive clean up effort on one of Mumbai’s beaches.

Posted on September 18, 2018 04:28 AM by tiwane tiwane | 6 comments | Leave a comment

September 16, 2018

“We went for a walk in the nearby dunes and this chap was hidden in the second small bush I looked under.” - Observation of the Week, 9/15/18

Our Observation of the Week is this Peringuey’s Adder, seen in Namibia by @robert_taylor!

Here’s What Robert Taylor wrote back to me when I told him his Adder had been chosen as Observation of the Week:

“Hi Tony, I am very chuffed that my observation was made observation of the week. I will try and send you more details by the end of today. Sorry being in the bush means that I have very limited reception.”

Besides using a delightful word we Americans aren’t used to hearing, Rob’s email indicates that he’s someone who does a lot of field work and field living, and that has been the case for much of his life.

“I grew up in the bush within the iSimangaliso World Heritage Site, South Africa,” he says. “With my father (also on iNaturalist) as an ecologist I was hooked on conservation from an early age.” Rob now works in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, which is another World Heritage Site, and tells me

I am very keen on my dragonflies and wetland/aquatic ecosystems in general. I work with a small team of ecologists and our projects are very varied from developing management plans for alien invasive plants in the delta, conducting biodiversity surveys, monitoring elephant damage to trees, assisting with rhino re-introductions and fixing Land Rovers.

But while most of Rob’s field work is done in Botswana, the adder you see above was spotted in neighboring Namibia:

My wife and I were on holiday in Swakopmond and we had been meaning to do a ‘living deserts tour’ but we got so distracted by the quaint little German town filled with museums and tasty confectioneries that we left it too late to make a booking. Instead we went for a walk in the nearby dunes and this chap was hidden in the second small bush I looked under. When disturbed he hissed and tried to wiggle into the sand to hide.

With this camouflage you can already tell this is a snake that is well adapted to life in the sand, but take a closer look at its head and check out the placement of its eyes - they’re pretty much right on top of its head! As Rob noted, the snake tried to hide in the sand, and that is how it often spends much of its time throughout its range in Namibia and Angola . Having eyes so high up on its head allows it bury itself almost completely, allowing it to either take refuge from predators (and the sun) and also ambush passing lizards, which make up most of its diet. It’s been noted that Peringuey’s Adders that have dark tails will use them as caudal lures, which is awesome. Like other Adders it is part of the Viperidae family, meaning it has retractable fangs and (mostly) hemotoxic venom to help subdue and pre-digest its prey.

iSpot and now iNat have expanded my interests hugely to include a wide range of taxa - from ants to carnivorous plants - and I learn new things every day. IDing other people’s African dragonflies and damselflies has also helped me hone my dragonfly ID skills even of species I have never seen in person. I love the community and the discussions which we have. I recently built myself a light trap to attract moths and longhorn beetles - interests sparked by other enthusiasts on iNat.

- by Tony Iwane.


- Watch some amazing footage of a Peringuey’s Adder catching and eating a lizard, as well as burying itself in the sand! 

- And here’s a nice shot of one buried in the sand - watch the grains move as it breathes.

- Hearken back to a previous Observation of the Week which had a desert viper using a caudal lure as its subject - the amazing Spider-tailed Horned Viper! 

Posted on September 16, 2018 05:09 AM by tiwane tiwane | 4 comments | Leave a comment

September 13, 2018

New validations FYI curators

Several parts of iNaturalist, such as the ‘community identification’ algorithm and ongoing efforts to make the computer vision algorithm work across the iNaturalist taxonomy (ie not just on species) require that active taxa grafted to the taxonomy tree have ancestries with only:
1. coarsening ranks (e.g. if the taxon is of rank family, the parent can’t be rank genus)
2. active taxa (e.g. if a taxon is active, its parent can’t be inactive)

To help discourage iNaturalist curators from accidentally introducing these kinds of inconsistencies, we’ve added a few new validations.

Using the Family Salamandridae as an example, curators can no longer do things like:
1. change it’s rank to Subphlyum as this would violate the ancestries with coarsening ranks condition
2. inactivate it as this would violate the ancestries with only active taxa condition

It was previously possible for curators make each of these edits to the taxonomy directly. However, the most common culprit for introducing rank inconsistencies was the automated process for importing names from external names providers like Catalog of Life which has also been reigned in by these validations. The most common culprit for introducing inactive taxa inconsistencies was through taxon changes. Imagine a draft taxon change structured as follows:

Committing a taxon change first inactivates the input taxa (e.g. Family Salamandridae) and then activates the output taxa (e.g. Family Eusalamandridae). In the past, committing taxon changes left children behind leaving situations like this:

Which, unless curators take the time to manually handle the children after committing, resulted in active taxa lingering behind with inactive parents. This led us to make a change such that taxon changes with single outputs (ie Taxon Swaps and Taxon Merges but not Taxon Splits) automatically moved children like this:

Or, when the names of children depend on the parent (e.g. a species binomial), automatically created taxon swaps for the children like this:

This approach to always automatically handling children has led to some screwy taxon names because it’s ignorant of things like gender agreement (e.g. Kyllinga alata moved to Cyperus should be Cyperus alatus, not Cyperus alata). And because it doesn’t work on taxon changes with multiple outputs (ie Taxon Splits) curators are still making taxon changes that ‘leave behind’ children.

As part of these new changes described here, we’ve made it optional to automatically move children on commit when making a Taxon Swap or Taxon Merge

But we’ve also made it so that iNaturalist will prevent you from committing a taxon change if the input taxon has active children and you haven’t checked ‘move children to output’. This is intended to encourage curators to handle all the active children before committing a taxon change. As before, you can handle this automatically by checking ‘move children to output’ for Swaps and Merges but please use it with care to avoid creating weird binomials like the gender issues described above. For Splits, you have to now handle the children first manually.

One annoying Catch-22 here is that these same new validations would prevent you from first moving an active child to the inactive output of the draft taxon change before committing, because active taxa can no longer be moved to inactive parents. Doh...

So we’ve added the caveat where you can move active taxa to inactive parents if the parents are the outputs of draft taxon changes:

So remember to first make the draft taxon change, then handle the children manually (or by checking 'move children to output' when appropriate), and then finally commit the draft taxon change.

We recognize that these new validations might cause a bit more work for everyone upfront when curating taxa to make sure that the integrity of the ancestries isn’t corrupted. But we hope that this will create less cleanup for everyone in the long run. On that last note, a huge thanks to everyone who’s helped cleanup the hundreds of existing rank and inactive taxa issues already in the taxonomy over the last few weeks - especially @kokhuitan and @bouteloua who have done so much of this. All the rank issues are sorted and I’ve pasted links to the remaining 68 inactive taxa issues below in case you want to help. We’ll monitor to see whether these kind of inconsistencies are still getting introduced through pathways we haven’t considered yet.

Thanks again for all your help curating iNaturalist!

Mentioning our top 20 curators:
@treichard, @choess, @bouteloua, @borisb, @stephen_thorpe, @maxkirsch, @hkmoths, @kokhuitan, @duarte, @berkshirenaturalist, @jakob, @jonathan142, @cmcheatle, @tiggrx, @coreyjlange, @bobby23, @sea-kangaroo, @tonyrebelo, @eol_education, @kai_schablewski

FYI Remaining 68 inactive taxa with active descendants:
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/126338
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/160773
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/82890
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/366718
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/152909
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/142375
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/178397
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/246174
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/84009
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/173395
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/72208
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/142368
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/181363
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/148483
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/49148
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/164599
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/163781
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/221264
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/126870
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/60172
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/211511
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/424784
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/175776
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/335007
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/69580
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/208727
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/152861
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/61126
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/366574
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/211389
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/123845
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/176360
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/379251
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/82412
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/164817
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/71657
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/336176
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/244116
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/346633
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/77141
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/359516
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/59095
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/62354
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/152932
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/163573
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/372761
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/148975
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/343503
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/349315
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/321807
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/203833
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/157125
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/342574
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/347180
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/338640
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/320761
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/122111
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/246143
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/127138
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/324196
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/363465
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/359159
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/511731
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/355276
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/174140
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/118355
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/203106
https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/117765

Posted on September 13, 2018 05:04 AM by loarie loarie | 5 comments | Leave a comment

September 09, 2018

An Invasive Moth is Recorded in Ontario, Canada for the First Time - Observation of the Week, 9/9/18

This Box Tree Moth, seen in Ontario, Canada by @kyukich is our Observation of the Week!

As our world becomes more interconnected through commerce and transportation, the likelihood of organisms native to one region of the planet being transported another region has of course increased, and the Box Tree Moth (Cydalima perspectalis) is an example of how quickly this can happen.

Originally hailing from eastern Asia, caterpillars of the Box Tree Moth host on plants of the genus Buxus, which are often used in for hedges and topiaries. In 2006 or 2007 its first European sightings were in Germany, likely brought in on Box Trees shipped from China. By 2010 it had caused severe defoliation (with many fully defoliated plants dying) of the country’s largest Buxus forest in the Grenzarch-Whylen Nature Reserve. It has spread to much of Europe and Britain and is also established in Sochi, Russia when it was likely imported with topiary plants for the 2014 Olympic Games. While some wasps and flies are known to parasitize Box Tree Moths in their native habitats, very little is known about them, and the larvae seem to be distasteful to birds often being found regurgitated or not eaten.

The moth has not made a splash in the Americas, but several specimens were found in Ontario, Canada in late August of 2018, including the one photographed above, by Karen Yukich. Karen has been an iNaturalist user since 2016 and says “I don’t get into fine points of anatomy or capture insects for close study – my forte is to keep an eye out for small creatures on vegetation and then try to quickly get a decent ID shot.

That was what happened on the morning of August 25 this year. When I returned home late morning, I paused before entering our walkway to check our small wild pollinator garden. Sometimes if I go too fast I scare away something interesting, so I’ve learned to check first. This time I saw what looked like a Melonworm Moth (Diaphania hyalinata), a species I’ve seen in south Texas, fluttering inside the Indian hemp...So I carefully snuck past to get my long-zoom camera (Lumix FZ60), and then took a few shots while it moved over to our neighbour’s ornamental shrubs. It soon disappeared into their overgrown boxwood hedge.

After looking at her photos, Karen realized this she was not familiar with this particular moth, so she called her friend Dave Beadle (@dbeadle), co-author of The Peterson Field Guide to the Moths of Northeastern North America and manager of Ontario Moths. Dave tells me,

It all came as a bit of a surprise really. Karen phoned me to say she’d photographed a strange moth and had put it in iNat if I’d care to have a look. By the time I checked it out it had already been correctly identified by Karen and confirmed. I was amazed since this species was not really on my radar to occur in Ontario. I knew that this East Asian native had become rather widespread across much of Western Europe as an adventive species, but didn’t really think of it making it this far!

Another observation of a Box Tree Moth in the Toronto area was also posted in a local Facebook group, and just a few days later Dave himself found one (photo below) in his backyard moth trap, explaining “I knew exactly what it was before I even opened the trap!”

Mike Burrell (@mikeburrell), a Project Zoologist for the Ontario Natural Heritage Information Centre (NHIC), tells me “[these look like] like the first records for Canada...This is certainly a great example of Citizen Science for early detection of exotic species.” 

It will take some more digging to see if these are the first sightings for all of North America, but so far I haven’t been able to find any other North American records on either iNaturalist or Butterflies and Moths of North America, so it’s possible they are among the first for the continent. Dave Beadle explains, “I suspect it has the potential to become more common and widespread in Ontario, wherever its larval food plant occurs. This, of course, rather depends upon whether the eggs/larvae can survive the Ontario winters. If it made it into the southern United States it probably would not have a problem surviving the winter.”

Karen (above, in Manizales, Colombia) is not only a backyard naturalist. She volunteers at High Park Nature and helps coordinate the High Park Moth Night, which is co-sponsored by the High Park Nature Centre and the Toronto Entomologists’ Association. It was actually through High Park Nature that she met David Kaposi (@dkaposi), who introduced her to iNaturalist (and alerted me to this finding). Interestingly, she got into nature after her husband, Bob, bought her a field guide for birds in 1980. “I didn’t use it but he got hooked!” she says. “Birding became a big part of his life and we both learned a lot more about nature. We started taking nature trips to local sites and then to the neotropics. In the mid-90s he became similarly passionate about butterflies, and I would photograph some of them with my old SLR camera. After we both moved into digital cameras, Bob became the more serious butterfly photographer and I began to pay more attention to other insects.”

She has embraced iNaturalist and says

I’ve found [it] very useful for identifying species in our region, and especially useful for insects I photograph on our winter trips to Central and South America, for which reference sources are hard to find. Leafhoppers and other true bugs are my particular favorites, but I look out for all kinds of creatures, especially the tiny ones that others may not notice. It’s like finding a secret little gem! And then being able to share my sightings with others and to contribute as a citizen scientist via iNaturalist adds a whole new dimension!

- by Tony Iwane. Photo of Karen Yukich by Bob Yukich.


- Over 2,000 observations have been recorded for the High Park Moth Study project on iNaturalist! 

- And the Moths of Ontario project on iNaturalist has nearly 62,000 observations of over 2,000 species!

- Mike Burrell has helped to create and manage the NHIC Rare species of Ontario project and iNaturalist users have recorded over 15,000 observations of nearly 1,000 rare species!

- The European Boxwood and Topiary Society has a great page detailing the Box Tree Moth and its spread in Europe.

- Check out this time lapse of Box Tree Moth caterpillars going to town on a plant. 

Posted on September 09, 2018 09:06 PM by tiwane tiwane | 11 comments | Leave a comment