Journal archives for September 2017

September 09, 2017

Observation of the Week, 9/9/17

This group of Haastia pulvinaris plants, seen in New Zealand by @peter_sweetapple, is our Observation of the Week!

Yes, Virginia, that is a plant! peter_sweetapple, a researcher with Landcare Research in New Zealand, found and photographed these Haastia pulvinaris in the northeastern South Island mountains, where they grow in dry, rocky areas. They grow into large hummocks up to 1m x 1m (these are about 30cm, which Peter describes as “quite small”), and in fact are known as “vegetable sheep” due to stories of shepherds hiking out to them, believing they’d found a lost member of their herd.

H. pulvinaris, along with its genus Hastia, are native to New Zealand and are members of the Asteraceae family, also known as the sunflowers and daisies. Peter tells me that a person can sit or stand on these fuzzy wonders without affecting their form, and he explains their structure thusly:

Each ‘mound’ is a single plant comprised of numerous densely packed stems. Each rounded structure on the plant surface is the tip of an individual stem, with woolly appressed leaves packed tightly around the stem tip. Hairs along the leaf margins give the whole plant a velvety texture. The whole structure is a highly evolved adaptation to cold dry conditions; it prevents moisture loss, which is locked up within years worth of dead leaves still attached to the stems and hidden beneath the outer shell of live tightly packed leaves...I encounter these plants, and several other species of similar form, while out tramping (hiking), usually on multi-day excursions to very remote locations.

For his research, Peter studies “introduced mammalian pests in native forests, particularly herbivores , their diets, impacts and management,” and uploaded this observation via NatureWatchNZ, iNaturalist’s sister site in New Zealand. While he’s fairly new to it, he says “ it’s been interesting to see a bunch of people (mainly colleagues) I know and what they are doing on the site. I’m primarily interested in native Alpine and Forest flora but one local ecologist (literally lives just up the road) posts a lot of weed observation, which has made me look more closely at the local weeds.”

- by Tony Iwane

- Here are all 54 observations of Hastia plants on iNaturalist - they really are remarkable.

- Check out a lengthy (of course) New Yorker article about the impact of invasive organisms (especially mammals) on New Zealand’s wildlife.

- Landcare Research has a nice little NatureWatchNZ video on their website.

Posted on September 09, 2017 06:57 PM by tiwane tiwane | 1 comment | Leave a comment

September 16, 2017

6M observations total! Where has iNaturalist grown in 80 days with 1 million new observations?

We hit 6 million observations today! It's been a very active and awesome summer since we hit 5 million observations just 80 days ago. This will be a hard stretch to beat as a lot has happened. In fact, we launched image recognition in the iNat iOS app the same week this most recent 1 million observation stretch began!

As we head into the northern hemisphere fall and things mellow out a bit, we thought we'd take a moment to consider this most recent million observations. This map shows all 6 million observations binned into 200 x 200 km pixels. iNaturalist still has the largest number of observations in a few strongholds like California, New England, Texas, Mexico, Italy, and New Zealand.

But where have these most recent million observations had the biggest relative impact? The map below shows the percent increase in observations since the 80-day stretch that produced this most recent million observations began. 100% means that the total number of iNaturalist observations in that pixel doubled in the past 80 days alone. We removed pixels with fewer than 250 observations.

This map is very different than the overall map. iNaturalist strongholds like California and Texas don't show up as very hot because the contribution in the last 80 days isn't that large relative to the number of observations already posted from those places. But certain areas really stand out. For example, how about that bright red pixel in the middle of Brazil? Before the last 80 days, there were 182 observations in that area on the Mato Grosso / Pará boundary in Brazil. But over the last 80 days 564 more observations were posted. This ~300% (564 / 182 * 100% = 309.89%) increase was mostly driven by hundreds of observations from @birdernaturalist and @markuslilje nicely filling out this part of the map.

Theres also larger patterns on the map. Growth in southern Canada reflects a very successful Bioblitz to mark Canada's 150th Anniversary. Eastern Australia has been becoming more active in part thanks to collaborations with the Australian Museum and Questagame. In the United States, iNaturalist is growing rapidly in the Midwest and Rocky Mountains. Meanwhile, iNaturalist continues to get more traction in Europe. I should also mention neat areas of growth in Central/South America, Eastern/Southern Africa, and East Asia,
but we thought this map might be more fun for you to zoom in and explore yourself. You can find that map here if its not displaying below:

Posted on September 16, 2017 12:55 AM by loarie loarie | 8 comments | Leave a comment

September 20, 2017

How iNternational is iNaturalist?

iNaturalist is most active in the US, but has observations in over 95% of all countries globally. This chart below orders the countries in descending order by the number of observations. It also displays the top 5 observers and below that the top 5 identifiers in each country which you can click on the observers and identifiers to explore further. Click here to open the chart in a new window:

Posted on September 20, 2017 02:36 PM by loarie loarie | 11 comments | Leave a comment

September 22, 2017

Observation of the Week, 9/21/17

Our Observation of the Week is this Euphorbia ankarensis plant, seen in Madagascar by @fabienrahaingo!

Apologies for the tardiness of this blog post, but this week’s observer, Fabien Rahaingoson, has been busy in the field and wasn’t able to get back to me until now. He’s currently spending most of his time collecting seeds and herbs for the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. “I collect the seeds with local communities and at the same time I also collect these specimen and send them to Kew and TAN herbarium here in Madagascar,” explains Fabien.

Fabien came across this Euphorbia ankarenesis while working with the community of Andavakoera, in northern Madagascar. It was growing in the Montagne des Français Protected Area. He was immediately interested in it, so he photographed it and added it to iNaturalist. Like other members of its fascinating genus, this plant exudes a milky-white toxic sap when cut, and its flowers are minimal, comprised of only the sexual organs needed for reproduction. Leaves and other plant structures have replaced petals and sepals as ways to attract pollinators. Euphorbia ankarensis lives in the rich humus that collects in limestone formations of the Falaise de l'Ankarana mountain range, from which it gets its species name. Fabien’s observation is one of only three that have been uploaded to iNaturalist so far, and the plant is considered Globally Endangered by the IUCN, threatened by fire, habitat loss, and collection for the plant trade.

Fabien and his colleagues add their observations to the Zavamaniry Gasy Plants of Madagascar project, part of a larger initiative funded by a grant from the JRS Biodiversity Foundation. “For this project we try to promote Malagasy plants with support of @TeamKMCC twitter account,” says Fabien. Thus far, over 10,000 observations of 2,418 species have been added to the project, with hopefully many more on the horizon.

- by Tony Iwane

- Madagascar has quite an array of botanical wonders, check out the over 100 faved observations from the Zavamaniry Gasy Plants of Madagascar project.

- Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank is pretty incredible, learn more about it here.

- Several years ago, our own @loarie visited Madagascar and made a short video of the trip! 

Posted on September 22, 2017 12:49 AM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

September 23, 2017

Observation of the Week, 9/23/17

Our Observation of the Week is this Small giant clam, seen in Egypt by @wernerdegier!

Currently an intern at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, Werner de Gier is already on his second project there, revising and figuring “a lot of species of the genus Ptychotrema, a group of African cannibal snails. I used a CT-scanner to examine the internal shell structures and tried to solve the complex taxonomy of these species.” This is already after describing two new species of caridean shrimp in Indonesia, “which were associated with colourful tunicates,” so he’s been busy.

And it was on a vacatoin to Hurghada, Egypt, that Werner (below, “showing my snorkeling mask and sense of holiday-fashion”) found the Small giant clam (Tridacna maxima). After exploring the tidal pools near his resort, Werner says

When I almost decided to head back to the beach, I saw a weird brownish blob a few meters ahead. It was a huge Tridacna maxima, which I had never seen of that size and more importantly, had never seen being above the water at low tide. The living shell was partly contracted, but open enough for me to take some pictures. Armed with my second hand camera and being aware of the waves coming in, I took some overview shots of the shell. When I decided to turn around, I felt a splash of water hitting my back. Apparently I placed my feet to close to the shell, triggering the shell to shoot some water out while closing a bit.

While it is a large bivalve, Tridacna maxima gets its common name from the fact that is the smallest of the giant clams, the average specimen being not much more than 20 cm in length. By contrast, the largest attain a length of 120 cm! Like other bivalves, Tridacna maxima is a filter feeder, siphoning in seawater and digest planktonic organisms. However, it derives much of its nutrients from a symbiotic relationship with algae, who create food through photosynthesis. This is one reason they are found in shallower waters than other giant clams. This exposure to the sun is believed the reason for the incredible colors of its mantle - crystalline pigments possibly give them protection from solar rays. The beauty and small size of Tridacna maxima, alas, makes it a target for the aquarium trade. In fact, try and find a video on YouTube 

“Thanks to a friend of mine (@franzanth) I got into iNaturalist and I have to say I’m even a bit addicted to it,” says Werner. “I really like the format of experts identifying tricky species and love the diversity of the species being submitted...I have recommended this community to a few friends of mine and since we’ll be traveling the world as biologists in a few months, I think this is the perfect way to see what’s everybody been up to.”

- by Tony Iwane

- Not only is Werner a published biologist, he’s also creates some great scientific illustrations

- You can check him out on Twitter as well.

- Interesting article about the importance of giant clams in the reef ecosystem.

Posted on September 23, 2017 11:19 PM by tiwane tiwane | 1 comment | Leave a comment

September 25, 2017

We've reached 150,000 observers!

2 weeks ago, we celebrated reaching 6,000,000 observations. This week, we have a related, but slightly different milestone to celebrate. We now have over 150,000 'observers' - ie people who have contributed at least one observation*! Here's all 150,000 observers (scaled by number of observations each). A big thank you to everyone who has contributed!

Here's another way of looking at that same data by plotting number of observers on the x-axis and number of observations on the y-axis. The curve shows the number of observers with at least that many observations.

So at the top of the curve we see @finatic in first place with 52,656 observations, @erikamitchell in second place with 36,662 observations etc.... Interestingly, the intersection of the number of observers and the number of observations is just shy of 1,000. In other words, there are just about 1,000 observers on iNaturalist who have each posted at least 1,000 observations.

Both these graphs show the disproportionate contribution that iNat power-users like finatic, erikamitchell, @jaykeller, @sambiology, @dpom etc. have had towards the total pool of 6,000,000 observations posted so far. I'm going to take this opportunity to coin a new unit of measurement which I'm calling the finatic with a current exchange rate of 52,656 observations. That means the picture below of sambiology, @psyllidhipster and @treegrow (courtesy of @muir from the recent 2017 iNat-athon in Southeast Arizona) weighs in at 42,240 (29,454+6,146+6,640) cumulative observations. Or 0.8 finatics.

Likewise, this picture of finatic, jaykeller, sambiology, @silversea_starsong, and @nathantaylor7583 (also muir's & from the iNat-athon) clocks in at 135,928 (3,769+20,372+52,656+29,454+29,677) cumulative observations. Or 2.58 finatics. If anyone can produce a picture worth more finatics than this one, I'd love to see it!

Its fun to joke around with competitions around these stats (I get great satisfaction pointing out to @kueda that he's fallen down to 20th place on the identifier leaderboard while I'm holding on in 18th place...). But it really is the hard work that each of these individual observers has put in recording and sharing observations (combined with the equally important work of the iNat identifier community) that makes all the science coming out of iNaturalist possible. This includes our recent computer vision analyses which is completely trained off of iNaturalist observations and identifications. Also our ongoing work to try to get a handle on the spatio-temporal distributions of organisms. For example, the visualization below of the spring bloom of Yellow trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) across the eastern US is completely driven by iNaturalist observations. And also all of these studies that have used data from iNaturalist shared via GBIF.

Sophisticated analyses like these computer vision and spatio-temporal examples are extremely data hungry, and the iNaturalist data stream has only just grown to the point where really exciting 'big data' analyses are possible. Our computer vision model, for example, is trained up on about 20 thousand species for which we have enough data. This may seem like a lot of species, but it really represents just a tiny fraction of the 2,000,000+ species we know are out there. So we have alot of work still to do!

Hopefully, this is just the tip of the iceberg. If we can sustain the growth rate in iNaturalist observations from the past seven years into the next three years, we'll be dealing with around 50,000,000 observations a year in 2020. While there are a thousand reasons why we shouldn't expect to be able to maintain this growth rate, its exciting to think about what this volume of observations would allow scientists studying life on Earth to do. Imagine the computer-vision and spatio-temporal analyses from the examples above working on hundreds of thousands of species from around the globe - that would be pretty cool!

And to continue this likely shamefully over optimistic projection, in order to reach that 2020 5,000,000 observation goal we'd need contributions from about 1,000,000 observers up from the current 150,000. And before reaching 1,000,000 observers starts seeming like an easy thing to pull off, remember that only represents a tiny fraction of the people iNaturalist would have to reach. For example, iNaturalist is now getting over 100,000 visitors to the website and over 7 thousand app downloads (iOS + Android) each week. But only about 500,000 of these visitors have taken the next step and created iNat accounts. And of these half a million people, only about 1/3 (150,000) have actually posted observations.

What would it take to try to get 1,000,000 people out observing nature by 2020? Is it possible for iNaturalist to scale that much and still be such a polite and knowledgable community of awesome people? I'm not sure 50,000,000 observations in 2020 is a realistic goal, but its kind of a neat number to keep in mind for where we'd be if we were somehow able to stay the coarse for another three years!

*As usual, when I count observations I mean 'verifiable' observations. We've actually had more like 190,000 people post about 7.3 million observations if you include 'casual' observations (that is observations without photos, or of captive organisms, or missing dates/locations etc.)

Posted on September 25, 2017 02:20 AM by loarie loarie | 78 comments | Leave a comment

September 27, 2017

(Bonus!) Observation of the Week, 9/26/17

A pair of juvenile conehead mantids, beautifully photographed in France by @imalipusram, is our Observation of the Week!

Sometimes an observation is cool not because the organism it depicts is uncommon or out of range - sometimes it’s a common animal, but one that is seen in a new light. Regardless of its “official” taxon, each observation on iNaturalist is also an observation of a human, and we all see and photograph nature differently - like the photograph at the top of this post, which depicts not the standard colors and surface details of the insects, but captures their shape (that head!) and behavior in a unique way. The diversity of iNaturalist users and their perspectives is pretty awesome.

Jeremie Lapeze (@imalipusram) grew up on a farm in the south of France, among “omnipresent” nature, and has been interested in wildlife since he was a young boy, when he raised mantids and crickets with his brother. The conehead mantis (Empusa penata), he says “has been my favorite insect for a long time. It's a common species of southern France. Common, but it's difficult to find because it a specialist in mimicry, and for many people this species is invisible.”

Jeremie recalls the evening when he took the photo for this observation:

I went in the field to find insects, and this evening the light was especially beautiful with the sunset and the cloudy sky. I found a lot of Empusa pennata, as usual, in my favorite place (a field close to my house). And I started a shooting session of these two specimens. The crazy thing was, on the other side, a rainbow shone in the sky! I shot some photos with the rainbow in the background, but the result didn’t satisfy me [see below], because there was a stain on my lens and the photos weren’t very good. But the shot with backlighting was really nice, and one of the twenty photos was better because one of the conehead mantid tried to “play-leg” with the other.

Conehead mantids range throughout southern Europe, but as Jeremie says they have very effective camouflage and are not often seen. As his photo shows, not only does the “cone” on its head break up its body shape, the protrusions from its abdomen do as well. Combined with a very “shaky” locomotion, it is a master ambush predator. Other unique aspects of this species is its use of pheromones rather than vision as a key method for finding mates, and the fact that its life cycle starts in late summer/autumn and finishes in the spring. “It's one of the only species of insect you can find during winter,” says Jeremie.

While only twenty-two years of age, Jeremie (above, with a young Empusa pennata on his hat) has already completed two entomological internships, with Société Entomologique Antilles Guyane and Museo Entomologico de Leon, in in French Guiana and Nicaragua, respectively. He continues his study of the neotropics and at the moment he is on the island of Guadaloupe where he and the others on the island recently endured Hurricane Maria (which is why this blog post is a bit late). He stresses iNaturalist’s value as a place to share observations and to connect with other passionate naturalists. “It's important for the sciences to share,” he says “to improve knowledge about nature and to protect it!”

- by Tony Iwane

(Note that because Jeremie’s first language is not English, I did clean up some of his quotes for clarity.)

- Jeremie’s got some more great photos on his Flickr page, check them out!

- Because conehead mantids use pheremones to find their mates, males have large, feathery, moth-like antenna - like this one

- The New York Times has a good list of ways you can help islands that have been devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Posted on September 27, 2017 03:50 AM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment