Journal archives for May 2016

May 05, 2016

Observation of the Week, 5/5/16

This Golden-cheeked Warbler seen in Texas by @greglasley is our Observation of the Week!

A stalwart of the iNat community, Greg Lasley has added over 18,000 observations and made nearly 118,000 identifications (!) on the site, and even hosted an iNaturalist meet-up in his home state of Texas last year. He’s been a birder for over 40 years, led expeditions to Antarctica, and studied dragonflies and damselflies since 2000, even serving on the executive council of the Dragonfly Society of the Americas. He’s also a professional nature photographer to boot. But sometimes a great nature experience can happen in your own backyard, even for a veteran like Greg.

While out on his back deck last week, Greg spotted a Nashville Warbler. Quickly retrieving his camera from the house, he tried in vain to take a good shot of the flitting bird. “So, I'm standing there getting frustrated at the Nashville,” he says,  “when suddenly...a Golden-cheeked Warbler started singing about 8 feet from me!” An endangered species that nests only in central Texas, Golden-cheeked Warblers are tough to find. A song here or there and a fleeting glimpse is all he’s had in his neighborhood, and a 30 mile trip to another location yields spotty results. “So,” he says, “now this Golden-cheeked cranks up in song at 4 PM on an overcast and windy day right at my back door...AND I'm holding a camera!” He took over 150 shots of the bird, some from as close as 6 feet away, and “the bird seemed totally unconcerned about me blasting away with the camera and was busy grabbing small worms, etc. It was terrifically exciting.” After about ten minutes and five or six songs, the Golden-cheeked Warbler flew away. As for the Nashville Warbler? “I never did get any shots of [it]. Somehow that is just O.K. :-),” he says.

After spending the winter in Central America, Golden-cheeked Warblers migrate to central Texas, where they nest in Ashe juniper (aka mountain cedar) trees. Ashe juniper bark is essential to Golden-cheeked Warblers, as they use strips of its bark to construct their nests - with the help of some sticky spider webs. Many of these trees have been cleared to make way for development, and loss of habitat is why Golden-cheeked Warblers have been on the endangered species list since 1990.

Citizen science observations like Greg’s can become useful data in situations like this. Speaking of iNaturalist in general, Greg says “I very much appreciate the way iNaturalist documents and archives the sightings so that those observations are there for current and historical purposes. I believe important information can be gleaned about the geographic ranges of different species from iNaturalist observations and hope that field guide authors, etc., will take advantage of this incredible resource.”

For Greg, iNaturalist has helped him look at all life around him, regardless of whether or not he could get a publishable image out of it. “If I was not set up with a tripod and high-end gear, I just did not bother with taking the images…[with iNaturalist] it has been a lot of fun to not worry about how publishable an image might be and just knowing that the image will provide a piece of data which may be of help to that organism in the long run.”

When I asked him for any advice he might have for aspiring nature photographers and iNaturalist users, Greg said “iNaturalist is something that youngsters can participate in, as well as much older folks such as me.” Good, affordable cameras are plentiful, so learn how to use one “and go have fun...Basically, just get out there and do it!”

- by Tony Iwane

- a wastewater treatment facility? Greg is featured in a Texas Parks and Wildlife video about just that. The whole video is great but his section starts at about 3:30.

- Texas Parks and Wildlife with yet another cool video, this one featuring Golden-cheeked Warblers and researchers studying them.

- Greg took some phenomenal photos during a trip to Costa Rica this year. Here are his observations and a journal post about it. 

Posted on May 05, 2016 02:52 PM by tiwane tiwane | 1 comment | Leave a comment

May 08, 2016

Its Buttercup Week on iNaturalist! May 01 - May 07, 2016

From The Princess Bride to the classic song by The Foundations, buttercups have long been symbols of beauty, and we’ll be looking for some this week on the Critter Calendar!

The Buttercup family, known scientifically as the Ranunculaceae, is a group of about 1,700 species of plants with worldwide temperate and subtropical distribution. In appearance they can vary widely, from the broad, wide flowers of the Clematis plants to the tubular blossoms of the larkspurs and the crown-like shape of Western Columbine. However, there are several traits that can clue you in on their buttercup membership:

  • Think of the word “simple.” In botanical terms, this means that the parts of the flower, such as the petals, sepals, and more, are rarely or never fused together. Most flowers of other families have one pistil, or female organ, but buttercups have multiple separate pistils.
  • Flowers are frequently in aggregate structures like spikes or panicles.
  • Buttercups are almost always herbaceous, or lacking in woody structures. Only some of them are shrubs or woody vines.
  • Buttercup fruits are usually dry simple structures such as achenes or follicles. Some, like thimble-weed, have wooly structures which aid them in being taken by the wind.

Most buttercups are toxic, and some, such as the wolfsbane genus (Aconitum) are very dangerous. Even handling them or picking leaves without using gloves can cause serious poisoning, so be careful out there! There was even a recent murder case in England involving deliberate Acontium poisoning.

We’ll be keeping track of Ranunculaceae observations here. Happy buttercup hunting!

Posted on May 08, 2016 06:04 AM by loarie loarie | 0 comments | Leave a comment

Its Asparagus Week on iNaturalist! May 08 - May 14, 2016

The huge, diverse Asparagus family (Asparagaceae) is the quarry for this week on the Critter Calendar!

Formerly considered part of the Lily family, it’s hard to pin down traits shared by all of the the Asparagaceae, but the number three is important to remember. Most have three petals and three sepals on their flowers, as well as six stamens a pistil split into three parts. Leaves usually have parallel veins.

The word asparagus will normally bring to mind Garden Asparagus, whose fleshy shoots are one of the oldest recorded cultivated vegetables. The plant quickly becomes woody once it starts to bloom, however, and is not culinarily important once that happens.

Other common or interestings members of the asparagus family are:

The subfamily Avagoideae, which counts plants like the desert growing Agave and Yucca genuses. These plants have tough, pointy leaves occurring in rosettes. Yuccas, like the iconic Joshua Tree, are pollinated only by the Yucca Moths, some of whom actually purposefully transfer pollen among the flowers. Their larae eat developing yucca seeds.

The Brodiaeoideae subfamily boasts colorful flowers that grow in umbels on a long stem known as a scape. They grow from starchy corms, which are underground stems used to store food for the plant.

Plants of the Scilloideae include commonly known garden flowers like hyacinths, bluebells and squills. They have a rosette of fleshy leaves at the base and grow from an underground bulb. Their flowers are bell-shaped and formed by six tepals, which is a term used for flower parts which can’t be separated into petals and sepals.

Lily of the vally is a highly toxic flowering plant that is often grown in gardens and used at weddings. It, too, has bell-shaped flowers made up of six tepals.

Asparagus family members grow worldwide and in many types of habitats, so get out there at find some! We’ll be keep track here. Happy asparagus hunting!

Posted on May 08, 2016 06:18 AM by loarie loarie | 0 comments | Leave a comment

May 11, 2016

Observation of the Week, 5/11/16

This Twin Fan Worm colony seen off of Portugal by jpsilva is our Observation of the Week!

When he was 7 or 8 years old, Joao Silva (@jpsilva) was asked what his favorite animal was. Instead of the standard “dog” or “horse,” he answered “Panorpa, it’s a sort of fly but looks like a scorpion.”

“Even then I was interested in what was uncommon, less known or for which I had less information,” Joao told me. He continued to look for animals in his spare time, and photograph them with his first camera, a Praktica MTL5B, and he’s “never stopped shooting since.” “I wanted to record my observations but I think mostly to show others things they probably had never seen or even heard about,” he says.

For the past 16 years his focus has been on marine invertebrates, especially nudibranchs. “I got interested in nudibranchs simply because I once found a couple while snorkeling but couldn't find information about them, it was not accessible to the general public, so I decided to fill that gap.” He’s now added nearly 4,000 observations to iNaturalist, most of them marine invertebrates, and also writes a blog about nudibranchs. Below is his photo of a Felimare fontandraui nudibranch.

“Nudibranchs surely are pretty but they're too ‘weird’ looking for most,” Joao says. “People have a hard time establishing a relation with a subject they cannot really ‘fit in.’” He’s found that fan worms often get many of those “cute”, "lovely” and “beautiful” sort of reactions, “so I think I took my first shots of these animals just because they helped to get the attention to then show the ‘more difficult subjects.’”

The “fan” of fan worms (order Sabellida) is actually an array of tentacles that the worm uses to extract food particles from the surrounding water. The worm itself is a polychaete that builds a tube around itself for protection. When they sense something approaching, most fan worms will quickly withdraw their plumes. Twin Fan Worms, like the ones Joao photographed, are less common in his area, and more “camera shy,” like these - only one worm remains out of its tube while six have gone into hiding. And they are usually more white than yellow, so the color of the colony in this observation caught his eye.

“I've contributed to other citizen science platforms in the past and even helped some get started but iNaturalist does seem the best to me right now,” says Joao. Its “knowledgeable participants” have helped him learn about polychaetes he thought he had identified years ago, and he mentions iNat user @leslieh as being particularly helpful with them. “It's the ‘real deal’ when it comes to citizen science in wildlife observations.”  

- by Tony Iwane

- While he says “I'm hardly the best person to give advice on underwater photography,” I was able to get some tips from Joao about taking photos of marine life. He suggests making sure animals, especially intertidal ones, are underwater when you photograph them. He also recommends using artificial white light when underwater, as it will bring out the colors of the subject much better. And finally he quotes famed photographer Robert Capa, who said “If your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough.”

- You can check out Joao’s Flickr page here.

- Nice little video showing a fan worm emerging from its tube then retreating when it senses danger. Check out the little eyes!

- Diving enthusiast James Cameron used Christmas Tree Worms as inspiration for the shrinking “Helicoradian flowers” in Avatar. 

Posted on May 11, 2016 07:15 PM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

May 19, 2016

Its Snake Week on iNaturalist! May 15 - May 21, 2016

This week the Critter Calendar focuses on a group of animals that usually provoke strong emotions in people - Snakes!

Comprising about 3,000 species, Snakes (suborder Serpentes) are squamate reptiles that lack limbs, eyelids, and external ears. All snakes have skin covered in scales, elongated bodies, and they are all carnivorous. It is believed they evolved from burrowing lizards around 100 million years ago, although the fossil record is spotty. Primitive extant snakes, like pythons and boas, have vestigial hind limbs known as anal spurs on either side of their cloaca, and thread snakes have vestigial pelvic girdles inside their bodies.

Snakes live in all types of habitats and on every continent on Earth (aside from Antarctica), and are most active in warm weather, as they are ectothermic, or cold-blooded. They can often be found basking on roads or trails, and find refuge in rocky outcrops or under cover. While most snakes are not harmful to humans, about 600 are venomous, 200 of which are considered to have venom which is medically significant. Make sure to watch where you put your hands and feet, especially around rocky areas.

Many snakes can be identified by color and pattern, but for some families like garter snakes, photographs of the head scales are necessary, so if you can safely get photos of the head, it’ll be very helpful on iNat.

Some notable snake families are:

Colubrids (Colubridae) - a bit of a catch-all group, nearly two thirds of all snake species belong to this family, including kingsnakes, cat-eyed snakes, and mole snakes. Most colubrids are not dangerous to humans, and either swallow their prey alive or constrict them. The bite of a boomslang, however, can be fatal. Interestingly, one of the world’s only poisonous (as opposed to venomous) snakes is the tiger keelback, which eats toads and sequesters the poison in two glands in its throat.

Elapids (Elapidae) - the cobras and sea snakes (although some list the sea snakes as separate). These highly venomous snakes have fixed front fangs and produce neurotoxic venom and generally lack the “triangle” shaped head of vipers. Cobras, coral snakes, and kraits are all members of the elapid family, and some, like the black mamba and coastal taipan, are considered the most dangerous snakes in the world.

Vipers (Viperidae) - these stocky venomous snakes have hinged fangs which spring forward when the snake bites. Their venom is mainly hemotoxic as opposed to neurotoxic. Usually ambush predators, many vipers have thermoreceptive “pits” between their nostrils and lips which allows them to “see” heat. Rattlesnakes, adders, and fer-de-lances are all members of of the viper family.

We’ll be keeping track of all your snake observations here. Happy serpent hunting and be careful out there!

Posted on May 19, 2016 08:22 AM by loarie loarie | 1 comment | Leave a comment

Over 100 Bioblitzes on iNat for the National Park Service's 100th Birthday - mostly this weekend!

2016 is the 100th Birthday of the US National Park Service (NPS)! To celebrate, NPS and the National Geographic Society have teamed up with iNaturalist to host over 100 Bioblitzes in different parks across the Nation. And MOST of them are happening this weekend!

Here's a quick summary of whats happened so far and what will go down this Friday and Saturday:

The NPS Servicewide Bioblitz

Bioblitzes are events where scientists and members of the public work together to document as many species as possible in a specified area and time period.

The 'top layer' Bioblitz for the Centennial Celebration counts all observations made within the National Park Service anytime during 2016. At the time of this writing, this NPS Servicewide Bioblitz has logged over 30,000 observations representing over 5,000 species from nearly 2,000 observers. These observations have come from 228 individual parks. Thats over half of all the parks in the National Park Service! The sizes of the orange circles on this map show the number of observations that have been logged so far in 2016 in each individual National Park:

Over 100 Individual Park Bioblitzes

Under the umbrella of this yearlong Servicewide Bioblitz, 126 individual parks in the National Park Service are hosting 'physical' Bioblitz events. This map shows the parks that are hosting Bioblitzes in orange. Tap through to learn more about each Bioblitz.

Some of these Biobltizes, like the March Death Valley National Park Bioblitz have already happened. But nearly two thirds of the Bioblitzes are scheduled for this upcoming Friday and Saturday. Here's a calendar that shows the timing of each Bioblitz as a horizontal orange bar. The vertical gray bar highlights May 20th-21st when most of the Bioblitzes will occur.

Most of the Bioblitzes last 24 to 48 hours and take place within the boundaries of a single National Park. The Saguaro Schoolyard Bioblitz is exceptional because it (a) is not taking place in a National Park but rather across the Tucson region and (b) is lasting all year.

Showcase Bioblitzes in Washington DC

Fifteen of the Bioblitzes will take place this Friday/Saturday in National Parks in Washington DC. These include familiar parks such as Rock Creek Park but also places I didn't know were National Parks like the National Mall.

The National Mall Bioblitz will also be the site of a Biodiversity Festival on Friday/Saturday that will feature two 15 foot Jumbotrons. These Jumbotrons will be mostly streaming a feed of results from iNaturalist that we made just for this event. If you can't make it to DC, you can tune into the iNaturalist feed for the Jumbotron here. This feed summarizes the Servicewide Bioblitz and then loops through all 126 individual Park Bioblitzes showing various stats and highlights from each.

What can you do to help?

Explore your park and post observations!

If you live near a National Park (here's how to find your park), visit and post iNaturalist observations! Here's a tutorial on how to post iNaturalist observations. If you can time your visit with the Bioblitz that your park is hosting all the better. But if not, remember any observation made with in the National Park Service anytime in 2016 will be counted!

Help flag captive/cultivated observations

A lot of new users in lots of landscaped parks (e.g. the National Mall) will undoubtedly result in a lot of unflagged observations of captive and cultivated plants and animals. Help us keep these from getting into the Research Quality data stream by flagging observations that are clearly of captive and cultivated things.

Help Identify observations

There are thousands of observations from the Bioblitzes that need their identifications improved or confirmed. If you know what any of these organisms are, add your identifications! Here's a tutorial on how to identify iNaturalist observations.

Help us promote on Social Media

NPS set up a cool tagboard tracking #BioBlitz2016. Be sure to give us a shout @ iNaturalist on Twitter and Facebook so we can keep track of your Bioblitz stories.

Why is this important?

1. National Parks are some of the front lines of defense against species extinction. They serve as crucial habitat for tens of thousands of plant and animal species. Observations posted to iNaturalist during the Bioblitz provide valuable data to the Park Service to help them better manage these natural resources.

2. In the words of John Muir, the 'father of the National Parks': "When I discovered a new plant, I sat down beside it for a minute or a day, to make its acquaintance and hear what it had to tell." National Parks introduce millions of visitors to the outdoors each year. Bioblitzing helps visitors discover and connect with nature. A well acquainted public will surely be better advocates for nature and better stewards of our National Parks in the coming century!

Still not convinced? Listen to National Park Service Data Ranger Simon Kingston and National Park Service Biologist Daniel George share their thoughts on iNaturalist and the National Parks

Posted on May 19, 2016 08:53 AM by loarie loarie | 1 comment | Leave a comment

May 20, 2016

Observation of the Week, 5/20/16

This Phronima sedentaria seen by @nikbaines in New Zealand’s Otago Peninsula is our Observation of the Week.

iNaturalist user Nicola Baines found many little jelly-like organisms washed up on the beach, and several had what she said looked like “mini transparent lobsters” in them. She posted photos of them in iNaturalist “keen to know” what they were, and also uploaded a video to YouTube.

Lisa Bennett (@lisa_bennett), who had studied Antarctic pelagic amphipods, recognized the tiny crustaceans as members of the Phronima genus of amphipods. Most of us are familiar with amphipods as sandhoppers and lawn shrimp, living under rocks and eating detritus, but the amphipod suborder Hyperiidea are planktonic in habit. Many have “relationships with gelatinous zooplankton, such as salps and cnidarians,” says Lisa, which “can vary from obligate parasites to ectocommensals.”

Using its formidable front claws, members of the Phronima genus carve out the insides of salps (free-floating tunicates), jellyfish and siphonophores and use them as buoyancy devices. The salp walls still contain living cells, which may help it maintain its form. Female Phronima will lay their eggs in it “then propel it around like a pram or buggy until the young are ready to be released,” says Lisa.

Nicola’s observation was the first Phronima of any kind posted on iNaturalist - a curious citizen scientist and a knowledgeable community working hand in hand!

- by Tony Iwane

- Phronima are often cited as the inspiration for the creature in Alien, or for the Alien Queen in Aliens, but I couldn’t find any evidence to support this claim. What do you think?

- Really great footage of Phronima in action.

- iNat user @steve_kerr scouted out the beach where Nicola came across her Phronima and he took some fantastic photos of the ones he found!

Posted on May 20, 2016 06:30 AM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

May 25, 2016

Observation of the Week, 5/25/16

This Checkerboard Worm Lizard seen by benkaddour in Morocco is our Observation of the Week!

Khalid Ben Kaddour has a PhD in Animal Ecology from Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakesh, and has been doing conservation biology work on the Moorish tortoise (Testudo graeca). He’s admired nature from a young age and counts himself lucky to have grown up in a small town in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa, “near a river with beautiful preserved landscapes where we spend much of our free time like the Tom Sawyer cartoon life.”

After a long day in the classroom on May 19th, Khalid and his family took a ride outside of El Hajeb, and his 3 year old daughter asked to pick some poppies and other flowers. As they were out and about and the sun was setting, Khalid turned over a rock and an “unusual” animal he’d never seen before, which as “the shape of a snake, but [lacks] the eyes.” He snapped some photos before it could bury itself and did some research when he got home - it was a Checkerboard Worm Lizard!

Checkerboard Worm Lizards are endemic to northern Africa, and while they don’t completely lack eyes, they do only possess rudimentary ones, as they spend most of their lives underground. The worm lizards (suborder Amphisbaenia) are a poorly studied group of lizards, most of whom lack legs and instead have loose skin which they use in an accordion-like fashion for locomotion. Amphisbaenians use their powerful jaws to capture and devour prey.

While he’s new to iNaturalist, Khalid is optimistic about the platform, and looks forward to share more of his “observations with other scientists and naturalists and possibly develop scientific collaborations in the future.”

- by Tony Iwane

- Khalid has published quite a few papers, you can check them out here.

- Nice video showing a Trinidadian worm lizard - check out its accordion-like motion!

Posted on May 25, 2016 11:34 PM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment