Journal archives for December 2018

December 05, 2018

A Great Crested Grebe in Russia - Observation of the Week, 12/4/18

This Great Crested Grebe, seen in Russia by @zveroboy57, is our Observation of the Week!

As iNaturalist users have continued to fill in the map with their observations, one of the most conspicuous empty spaces has been Russia and Central Asia. True, Russia is an enormous country with vast wild expanses where few people live, but the overall observation levels for Russia have been pretty low until recently. We started seeing an increase in late 2017 and then a huge spike over the past month or two. This chart of observations in Russia really says it all:

Much of this increase is due to Russian wildlife photographers who have started to share their archive of fantastic photos with the iNaturalist community, and one of those photographers is Alexander, who photographed the Great Crested Grebe you see above.

Great Crested Grebes range through much of Eurasia, as well as parts of northern Africa and Australia, and are large (for a grebe), with a wingspan of 59–73 cm (23–29 in). In the summer both males and females are resplendent in their breeding plumage and like many other grebes they participate in an elaborate courtship pas-de-deux, mirroring each others’ motions and displaying their crests. They are excellent divers and hunt for fish and other underwater prey. These grebes were hunted almost to extinction in the United Kingdom, as their head feathers were highly sought after.

Alexander (above, in wildlife photography mode) says that he has been “fond of nature from childhood,” and has recently become interested in wildlife photography. Of the Great Crest Grebes, he says “[they] are not uncommon, but they are very cautious and it is not easy to photograph them.” He recently discovered iNaturalist via Facebook and now uses it “to show my photos to the whole world.”

- by Tony Iwane

- Here are the most-faved iNaturalist observations from Russia!

- By the way, Great Crested Grebe chicks are pretty adorable.

- One of the more amazing feeds on Twitter is from Russian deep sea fisherman Roman Fedortsov, who shares photos of the awesome creatures he finds.

Posted on December 05, 2018 06:53 AM by tiwane tiwane | 8 comments | Leave a comment

December 09, 2018

The Elusive Colombian Weasel - Observation of the Week, 12/9/18

Our Observation of the Week is this Colombian weasel, seen in Colombia by @sultana

Juan de Roux, an architect/designer and a professor in the Pontifical Xaverian University in Colombia, tells me that his primary natural history interest is snails (“There are over 100,000 species of mollusks, so I never get bored or get to know the whole thing; there is always something new to find and blow my mind.”) but like many other Observation of the Week posts, the observation which was chosen is not of the observer’s favorite taxon. However, that doesn’t mean he has no history with weasels.

When I was still a kid (13), my parents moved to a huge house in northern Cali, where I could spend most of my free time in the yard, exploring, as kids do...One summer day in the mid 90s I saw something amazing: the silhouette of what to me seemed like a tiny squirrel crossed the yard at a speed that was just off for a squirrel. During the next days I had a couple more encounters with the strange animal, one of them was very close. At the time I was able to determine this had to be some sort of ferret or weasel, however I could not take pictures or find anything about mustelids in my area (those were dark times without the internet) I hoped that someday I would be able to corner this animal again and picture it. But the years passed empty, but I held that memory. Now that I think about it, the animal I saw must have been the common Mustela frenata.

Flash forward to 2011 and Juan is at his parent’s country house in the mountains outside of Cali which was being remodeled at the time. The door to one of the bathrooms opens out into the backyard and, when he opened it, he found an animal trapped inside.

Recalling my childhood events regarding weasels, I rushed for my camera upstairs. I then stood under the threshold and took a good 14 pics, with my Nikon D80, as the little animal moved frantically all over the bathroom, looking for a way out that allowed him to avoid me. I recall a weird scent, I knew at the time that mustelids have odor glands, so I was not surprised, it was something like urine and insects. When I was done with the shots I left the door opened, I did not get any nearer, as it is best to exercise precaution with wild mammals.

Without giving it much more thought, Juan stored the photos on his computer and, for the most part, forgot about them; his computer has actually since died and its drive was wiped - “thank God my mom had saved the pics on her disc.” He rediscovered the photos a few weeks ago and, now an iNat user, said

[I] felt glad I could finally do something useful with them; I uploaded them into iNaturalist, as M. frenata at first, because - I confess - I know almost nothing about weasels. Something did not feel right with the ID, though. After a day, I decided to take a second look and found this very interesting paper...At first I was a bit skeptical, reading that this is a rare species. But could see in the holotype´s pelt a black oval spot in the ventral part that simply made this species unmistakable, so I corrected my id in iNat, and then the observation started getting starred.

To give you an idea of how rare Colombian weasels are, as of 2014, when that paper was published, there were no known photographs of a living one, so Juan’s nearly lost and forgotten photos are possibly among the first ever photo documents of a living individual of this species! “I still cannot believe I was lucky to see this animal and take these pics,” he says. “Needless to say, I never saw one of these again. But at least I can gladly assure that this area has remained basically unaltered for the past decade, so it has to be out there. Perhaps this animal is not so rare, but the lack of knowledge about it, combined with its secretive nature contribute to its rarity.”

Understandably, not much is known about the Colombian weasel, but it is believed to inhabit riparian areas and feed on fish and aquatic invertebrates and even has webbed feet! It is considered to be possibly the rarest South American carnivore, and is one of the smallest members of the order Carnivora, measuring 22 cm (8.7 in) in length, sans tail. And yes, weasels do produce a strong, musky odor from their anal scent glands when scared.

Juan (pictured above) was looking for local snail data when he first learned about iNatuarlist from a friend of his. “I looked it up in hopes of finding my beloved gastropods and found myself mesmerized,” he recalls. “Not by the mollusk observations in my country (modest at best), but by the concept that anyone with a camera (even with virtually no knowledge) could contribute to build precise distribution maps for all sorts of creatures.

For the last 2 decades I had been accumulating pictures of my own observations. I had an entire folder. “Perhaps someday I can make a field guide with all this stuff,” I used to think. This was really a side project, as the amount of field work required would have been impossible to do in a single lifetime, also because the trends in nature are dynamic, and the natural environment is changing very fast (alas unfortunately for the worse) so it is definitely not a one-man task.

Thanks to iNat I have access to a collaborative network of observers, which allows my observations to be part of something big, and have a real impact. The best part is that anyone can use this potent tool without needing to have a degree in biology, which allows everybody, no matter their background, to contribute to future research.

I always travel with my cellphone, provided with a camera and my iNat app. You never know what you might be lucky enough find.

- by Tony Iwane. Some quotes have been lightly altered for clarity. Thank you to @jwidness for alerting me to this observation!

- Juan sent me this aerial footage of the forests near where the weasel was found.

- Héctor E. Ramírez-Chaves, co-author of the Colombia weasel paper Juan found, has been in touch with Juan and will work on disseminating this find. 

-  iNaturalist has a network node in Colombia, Naturalista, which is operated by Instituto Humboldt

Posted on December 09, 2018 10:38 PM by tiwane tiwane | 16 comments | Leave a comment

December 14, 2018

Let's condense 15,000,000 observations down to 150 dots

iNaturalist reached 15,000,000 verifiable observations this week! It's getting harder and harder to come up with visualizations for this much data, so how about this tried and true trick (with apologies to the LonelyPlanet stats pages):

iNaturalist observations now represent over 190,000 distinct species! Plants, Insects, and Birds remain the big 3 species groups. I guess people love birds is old news, but cheers to 300,000 mollusk observations!

While we still have a significant bias towards North America, 2018 saw a lot of growth in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Only 400,000 observations from South America, but exciting developments are in the works there for 2019....

iNaturalist continues to just about double each year in terms of the number of observations. We launched the site in 2008, but didn't pass the 100,000 observation a year threshold until 2012.

You've heard of the 80/20 rule where 80% of the effect comes from 20% of the causes? As far as iNaturalist observers generating observations goes, it's more of a 90/20 rule with the top 20% of observers responsible for about 90% of observations so far.

In terms of data quality, about 77% of observations have been identified to the species level and about 60% are Research Quality.

Thanks as always for being part of the iNaturalist community and helping us reach this 15 Million milestone. We're having to continually upgrade the iNaturalist infrastructure to keep on top of this rapidly growing dataset. If you'd like to help support the staff and server time it takes to manage all these observations, please consider sending us a donation through our new donate page.

Posted on December 14, 2018 10:55 AM by loarie loarie | 80 comments | Leave a comment

December 19, 2018

Year In Review 2018

It's that time of year again, when everyone everywhere feels the need to summarize the past 12 months with a bunch of excruciating charts and graphs. What? You don't do this? Huh. Well we do. And if you're not the chart-making type yourself, we can make some for you too.

So, what can we say about this tangle of lines and rectangles? For one thing, we had kind of a big year. We passed 15 million verifiable observations in December, after hitting 14 million in October. It took us 6.5 years just to reach our first million observations, and we just did the same in a little over a month. We're growing quickly. What amazes me in particular is the growth in new species documented. There is a finite number of different kinds of organisms on our planet, and an even smaller number of them have names, but we don't seem to be approaching the limit of either. I mean, we're still seeing new birds, for crying out loud!

So what's driving all this growth? The most obvious factor from these charts is some mysterious event that happened at the end of April. What could that possibly be? It's almost as if there was some global, coordinated effort to use iNat for a few days... yes, of course, it was City Nature Challenge 2018, far and away the most successful event ever organized in terms of observations recorded on iNat and people recruited! And we at iNat had almost nothing to do with it: the whole effort was organized by folks at natural history museums and associated organizations around the world, but the founders and chief coordinators are our friends and colleagues here at the California Academy of Sciences and the Natural History Museum of LA: Rebecca, Alison, and Lila. Hats off to you folks. You helped make 2018 an amazing year for iNaturalist.

On top of that, we've seen a ton of growth in the southern hemisphere from countries like South Africa and Australia, but also in places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, the UK, Italy, Portugal, and Brazil. For this I think we owe a lot of thanks to enthusiastic iNaturalist Network partners and other volunteer iNat promoters in these areas, so many thanks to all of you. You can check out the Year in Review for the iNaturalist Network partners in Mexico, Canada, New Zealand, Colombia, and Portugal. Also, while I'm probably biased by the fact that I manage a lot of the translation integration for the website and the Android app, I suspect at least some of this growth outside of the US is due to the translation efforts of volunteers at Crowdin (mobile) and Translatewiki (web). Translatewiki doesn't seem to provide these stats, but here are some of the top translators on crowdin for this year (ignore staffers like Alex and me, since we were mostly fixing formatting issues):

Aside from growth, I'm grateful that iNat remains a fun and useful place to share information. How fun and how useful can be difficult to quantify, but the publications section we added to the site-wide stats helps demonstrate at least one aspect of that utility: a lot of scientific studies used iNat data this year! We have our friends at GBIF to thank for enabling this kind of citation. Unfortunately it's not yet possible to say what individual observations were used in research, which would enable us to tell you what research you helped support, but export-level citations are still very interesting. Scientists, don't forget to cite your GBIF exports!

Many thanks are, of course, due to the institutions that support us: the California Academy of Sciences for employing us on staff, the National Geographic Society for financial and promotional support, the Moore Foundation for financial support, Microsoft for donating servers and other infrastructure, and many other companies for providing free services to our cause, including Google, Slack, New Relic, and others. Running a global platform like iNaturalist is not free, even if we don't charge people to use it, so we are very grateful for the largesse of these companies and institutions. If you would also like to chip in to financially support iNaturalist, that’s possible now too.

As always, huge thanks from all of us on the iNat team to all of our fellow members in the iNat community. iNaturalist would not be possible without all of your contributions. I hope 2018 brought you many strange and wonderful creatures, and that in 2019 you'll see even more alongside your fellow naturalists.

-Ken-ichi and the iNat staff

Posted on December 19, 2018 01:41 AM by kueda kueda | 52 comments | Leave a comment

December 24, 2018

A Great Egret nabs a Mexican Free-tailed Bat - Observation of the Week, 12/23/18

A Mexican free-tailed bat is a snack item for a great egret - it’s our Observation of the Week! Seen in the United States by @kempo63.

“I've been out photographing birds every weekend, dragging my wife and granddaughter all over the California central valley to most of the Wildlife Preserves and refuges. I absolutely love finding and photographing new species (to me) of birds, and sending copies of them to my mother to enjoy,” says Richard Morgan. Originally from Pennsylvania, he says “I've started taking bird photography serious about a year ago when my Dad passed. I bought my first DSLR camera to take back to Pennsylvania (I live in California) to take photos of friends and family, and when I returned I wanted to make use of the camera, so I photographed my first backyard bird, and haven't looked back since then.”

It was on a trip to the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area where Richard took the above photograph, and he almost didn’t make it in time. "That was just plain luck I suppose.

My wife, granddaughter, and I were just pulling in the gate at The Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area outside of Sacramento, when I spotted the egret on my left side, grabbed the camera with a 500mm lens (heavy!) and shot a few photos with one arm, through the driver side window. I knew that it had something in its bill, but didn't see that it was a bat until after I had the car stopped and reviewed the photos. That was awesome!

Egrets are generalist predators and often devour fish, reptiles, amphibians, and (non-flying) mammals such as rodents, so bats are not the first type of prey which come to mind when you think about this bird. How, then, did this bat find itself in the beak of one? Well, as iNaturalist user @fogartyf points out in a comment on the observation, the nearby Yolo Causeway is home to hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats, the largest roost in California. Bats skim over pond and lake surfaces to get a drink and it’s likely this one somehow ended up in the water, making it an easy snag (although perhaps not so easy meal) for the egret.

I don’t think many of us often think of bats as food items for other animals, so I reached out to Jakob Fahr (@jakob), who started the AfriBats project on iNaturalist, to see what he had to say on the subject. Jakob tells me that there are the usual suspects such as raptors, snakes, and mammals such as civets and genets (Viverridae) and mustelids, and notes that some predators such as the bat hawk and bat falcon specialize in bat predation. Also, “fascinating are bats preying on other bats, for instance Nycteris grandis in Africa, Macroderma gigas in Australia, and Vampyrum spectrum in the Neotropics.” Jakob also notes that other animals such as amphibians, insects, and yes, herons and egrets, have also been seen preying on these flying mammals.

“I've been using iNaturalist to help with bird IDs since I'm relatively new to birding. (No one wants to get called out for posting the wrong bird id, right?),” says Richard (above). “Someone made a comment on one of my posts that I should submit the photos to iNaturalist, and I've decided to make a commitment to myself to submit observations and photos of each bird that I've photographed each weekend.”

 - by Tony Iwane

- In addition to iNat, Richard posts his photos to Instagram.

- Have you ever wanted to see a giant centipede catch a bat? Well, thanks to the BBC, now you can.

- One more nice video about the Yolo Bypass bats because why not?

Posted on December 24, 2018 12:12 AM by tiwane tiwane | 10 comments | Leave a comment