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 by tiwane tiwane, August 18, 2017 12:35 AM

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