Journal archives for March 2020

March 01, 2020

A Rare Endemic Plant Grows in the Atacama Desert - Observation of the Week, 3/1/19

Our Observation of the Week is this group of Malesherbia tocopillana plants, seen in Chile by @juanmauricio2!

“The deserts are some of the best landscapes on earth for adventure,” says Juan Mauricio Contreras, a wildlife guide and amateur naturalist in Chile who, it’s safe to say, likes the desert. “Wonderful hikes show us the beauty of the desert. They rarely cease to impress, and reveal the desert’s most intimate secrets.”

The Atacama Desert, which lies along the western side of South America, is one of the driest places on Earth and is home to many relict and edemic species, including the incredible Malesherbia tocopillana plants you see above. Juan came upon the plants while exploring with Caminantes del Desierto (“Desert Walkers”), an NGO.

[Malesherbia tocopillana] grows mainly in the gorges of Tocopilla on slopes with an angle greater than 45º. They’re quite difficult to climb, given the stony and steep slope of the terrain. It is an impressive species, different from everything I had seen in the desert...It is located in an extremely fragile environment. This area is characterized by flora and fauna of strong endemism and primitivism of the relict type.

A small genus (it contains about 27 species), Malesherbia is a member of the Passifloraceae, or passionfruit family, most of which live in tropical regions and not deserts. In fact, Malesherbia tocopillana looks to have colonized this region of the Atacama only within the last two million years, which is about 6 million years after the climate of the area became hyperarid. (Guerrero, et al., 2013) [PDF] Seeing these incredible flowers growing out of the pile of rocks here is pretty extraordinary.

Juan Mauricio (above), says that his explorations of the desert and other regions of Chile have led him to write a scientific note about Liolaemuslizards, and he is cooperation with research on other taxa, including bees, birds, and other reptiles. He started using eBird for his bird sightings and posting his photos of other taxa to social media until someone encouraged him to use iNat. Now, he tells me,

[I’m] uploading everything I observe and can photograph. This allows me to increase my vision and knowledge and learn how species interact with each other in an ecosystem. I can communicate with other specialists of different species, and increase my knowledge of the biodiversity of nature.

Posted on March 01, 2020 08:31 PM by tiwane tiwane | 9 comments | Leave a comment

March 13, 2020

Exploring Nature When You're Stuck at Home

With so many people facing restricted activity for days or weeks or months due to the covid-19/coronavirus/SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, here are some suggestions for how you can still engage with nature and connect with others through iNaturalist while in or around your home.

Add Identifications

Help add IDs to other people’s observations! The Identify page is the best tool to use when doing this (you'll need to be signed in).

Here are written instructions and below is a short tutorial video for the Identify page. You can filter by taxon, place, and other criteria, then use keyboard shortcuts to quickly go through observations and add IDs, comments, or mark observations as captive/cultivated. Please only add IDs to the level which you can independently verify.

Add Annotations

If you don’t feel comfortable adding IDs, you can use the Identify page to add annotations to observations. There’s a tutorial for this on the iNaturalist Community Forum, as well as some helpful links to get you started. If you’re unsure about a specific observation, don’t feel obligated to add an annotation, feel free to move to the next one. :-)

Make Observations At Home

Make observations in your home and add them to the Never Home Alone project, or get to know your neighborhood nature by observing sidewalk weeds, birds, and local insects and spiders. (Don’t forget to obscure the observation’s location if you don’t want your home location publicly visible on your observations.)

Try Seek With Your Kids!

Have kids? They can use our kid-friendly and privacy-focused Seek by iNaturalist app to explore and earn badges for finding common species!

Upload Old Photos

If you have an archive of your old nature photos, add them to iNat! Instructions for our web uploader can be found here, and a tutorial video here. Below is a video interview with iNat super user @greglasley, who’s done just that.

Learn How to Use iNat in the Classroom

If you’re an educator and need to teach remotely, consider using iNaturalist, but please make sure you’re familiar with the platform and have carefully read the Teacher’s Guide before using it with your students. They don’t even have to make observations, they can use our Explore page to explore and download data to work with. We’ve also started a thread on the iNaturalist Community Forum for educators using iNat remotely.

Help Translate

Ok, it's not really exploring nature, but if you speak English and another language, translating our website and apps into that other language helps speakers of that language enormously. Our software has been partially translated into 68 languages by over 100 volunteers, but text is always changing, so there's always translation work to do.

Share Your Ideas!

Our most active community members have compiled an even longer list of great ways you can get involved with iNat from home. If you have other ideas, share them in the comments below. Please stay safe and healthy, and do your part to protect others in your community by limiting in-person interactions, washing your hands frequently, and other recommended precautions.

Posted on March 13, 2020 08:27 PM by tiwane tiwane | 60 comments | Leave a comment

March 15, 2020

In China: An Assassin Bug with an Ant Carcass Disguise - Observation of the Week, 3/15/20

Our Observation of the Week is this Acanthaspis fuscinervis assassin bug, seen in China by @jishenwang!

I can’t speak for everyone, but I usually relax for a bit after finishing dinner. Entomology PhD candidate Ji-shen Wang and his family, who live in the Yunnan province of China, go outside for a run after their evening meal (“a family tradition”) and come across incredible insects.

 “On our way back home,” he recounts, “my mom shouted with a great curiosity: ‘What? Is this a moving ball made of soil?’ 

Luckily I know this is an assassin bug nymph, which covers itself with debris and corpses of its victims as camouflage. The next day, I went to the same place and photographed some more bugs. When I show my mom and dad my macro photos of the adult (see below) and immature bugs, they could hardly believe their own eyes. "This ball of soil has legs and antennae!" my mom said. “No way this little soil ball would become a stinging bug like this!” my dad said.

The Reduviidae family, also known as the assassin bugs, are a group of predatory “true bugs”, and like other bugs (Order Hemiptera) have mouth parts adapted to piercing and sucking. Many of the bugs we commonly see, like aphids, hoppers and cicadas, tap into plants and slurp up their juices, but as you might expect, assassin bugs dine on other animals. 

Unlike many other familiar insects such as flies and beetles, bugs undergo “incomplete” metamorphosis, and grow through a nymphal stage  rather than a larval stage, which more closely resembles the final adult stage. And as Ji-Shen noted above, the nymphs of Acanthaspis fuscinervis excrete a sticky substance which they use to attach dirt and dead ants (not the bodies of any other prey) onto their bodies. Joseph Stromberg of Smithsonian Magazine writes that researchers studied the efficacy of this camouflage with jumping spiders, a common predator, and found that “[the[ spiders attacked the naked bugs roughly ten times more often than the masked ones.” So it seems pretty effective! 

Growing up in a very biodiverse area, Ji-Shen (above, photographed by his mom) was always interested in nature but says he was “obsessed” by insects and over the last six years has been researching the Panorpidae family, commonly known as scorpionflies, as a PhD candidate in the Entomological Museum, Northwest A&F University, Shaanxi Province of China. 

Ji-Shen has been on iNat for just over five years, and he tells me

iNaturalist benefits me in two ways: 1) I can share my observations with people around the world, and quickly know what species I am recording; 2) I can find a lot of useful information through other people’s observations. For example, a new distributional record of a species, a never-reported interesting behavior, and vivid colors of a living scorpionfly, which are obscured in the museum specimens. iNaturalist is actually a very beneficial companion to my personal life and scientific works! I usually spend at least half an hour on iNat each day to share my observations and check other's interesting posts.

- by Tony Iwane. Some quotes have been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

- Ji-Shen started a scorpionfly project on iNat.

- And you can take a look at his research publications here.

- Lacewing larvae also encrust themselves with debris and carcasses.

- Assassin  bugs are pretty cool, here are the 50k+ Reduviidae obserations on iNat!

Posted on March 15, 2020 09:23 PM by tiwane tiwane | 8 comments | Leave a comment

March 18, 2020

A New Vision Model!

These are dark days, but here's a small piece of good news: we recently released a new version of the computer vision model that iNaturalist uses to make automated identification suggestions. It takes several months to create a new model, and we released this one on March 3, 2020.

We want to take this opportunity to share how the model, its input data, and our process has changed over time. The first thing to understand is that the model isn’t updating on a day-to-day basis. Each time we train a new model, we use a snapshot of the images on iNaturalist associated with observations that have complete data (i.e. they have coordinates, a date, and media) without any problematic flags (e.g. if the location is marked incorrect, we exclude it) and a taxon. This means that we do include images from observations of captive and cultivated organisms. Lastly, in recent models, a taxon must have at least 100 verifiable observations and at least 50 with a community ID to be included in training (actually, that’s really verifiable + would-be-verifiable-if-not-captive, because we want to train on images of captive/cultivated records too). That’s quite different from the criteria for our first three training sets, which were filtered by the number of photographers. Here’s a chart showing the change in taxa included in the model over time. Brown bars show models that include taxa (“classes” in the chart) by number of photographers, pink by number of observations.

As iNaturalist grows, the pool of images for training grows too. You can see the growth over time in this graph, which shows the date that the training began. For this most recent model, it used images from observations meeting the criteria above on September 29, 2019.

Not only has the number of images grown, but the geographic spread has grown as well. In the figure below, we’ve plotted the locations of all the observations represented in recent models to show the difference in geographic coverage. Value indicates log-normalized number of images per area. Note the increased density in Russia and in the western Pacific Ocean in the September data.

The approach to the data we train with also evolved. For the first three models, we only trained them to recognize species. For the last two models, we’ve been able to train with coarser taxonomic ranks. For example, if each species in a genus has 10 photos, that might not be enough data to justify training the model to recognize any of those species, but if there are 10 species in the genus, that’s 100 photos, so we can now train the model to recognize the genus, even if it can’t recognize individual species in that genus. This approach allows the model to make more accurate suggestions for photos of organisms that are difficult (or impossible) to identify to species but are easy to identify to a higher rank, e.g. the millipede genus Tylobolus in the western US. In the first 3 models, it would over-suggest the most visually similar species, even if it had no nearby records, e.g. Narceus americanus, a species from the eastern US that looks almost identical to western species of Tylobolus but that doesn’t occur in the same areas. In the diagrams we’re sharing here, we refer to this as the “leaf model” because it adds more “leaves” to the taxonomic tree that the model recognizes.

The graph below shows the increase in the number of taxa included in the model that began training in February 2019 compared to the newly-released model that was started training in September 2019. Starting with the Feb 2019 model, we now cap the number of photos we use for each taxon at 1,000 to prevent over-training, hence the flat tops of those two curves.

To see how the number of taxa included at different ranks compares between the February 2019 and September 2019 training sets, compare the bars below. We added non-Linnean ranks like tribe and superfamily in the September training, so there’s no expected growth for those, but note the drastic increase in species.

As the amount of data increases, so do the resources required for training. We trained most of our models on a machine in our office at the California Academy of Sciences using graphics cards donated by Nvidia, but for the February 2019 training we experimented with rented hardware at Microsoft Azure using funds donated by Microsoft. Although we were able to spend fewer days training at Azure, it was too expensive for us to afford indefinitely, so we’ve returned to training on our in-house hardware, allowing Alex to more completely geek out on our custom rig. Here’s a chart showing how long its taken to train each model:

We are grateful to everyone in the iNaturalist community who shares and/or identifies observations that make this possible. We hope that the models become increasingly useful to more and more members of the community. With over a million species in the world and 250K on iNaturalist so far, we have a long way to go. We appreciate the many hours of research insights from Grant Van Horn, and we are grateful for the open source software developed by Grant & Visipedia that powers the training of these models. We’d also like to thank Nvidia and Microsoft for supporting our efforts to provide free automated species suggestions to the world.

Written by Carrie, Ken-ichi, & Alex

Posted on March 18, 2020 04:52 PM by kueda kueda | 72 comments | Leave a comment

March 21, 2020

A Russian Soil Researcher Finds a Possibly Undescribed Spider in Vietnam - (Belated) Observation of the Week, 3/7/20

Our Observation of the Week is this possibly undescribed Gasteracantha spider, seen in Vietnam by @ivanovdg19!

[I apologize for the tardiness of this post, I waited too long to email the participants. - TI]

Another Observation of the Week and, like so many before it, the organism in question is not a taxon which the observer studies or specializes in. Which I think is one of the coolest parts about iNat - it opens up our eyes to things we might never had noticed before.

Dmitry Ivanov is a life-long nature lover, and tells me has “been fond of observation and natural photography since childhood. At first, I was interested in insects, then mushrooms and lichens. As a result, I studied as a soil ecologist, which is what I am now.”

Currently a researcher at the Institute of Ecology and Evolution in Moscow, Dmitry studies soil carbon fluxes in the taiga and tropical ecosystems of Russia and Vietnam, and it was in Bidoup Núi Bà National Park where he found the spider you see above. He didn’t upload it to iNat until he was back home, however, and that’s when @djringer and @michael-gasteracantha saw it. They believe it’s an undescribed species of the genus Gasteracantha, also known as the spiny orbweavers. Michael is working with a friend at Oxford University to revise the genus, and tells me it looks nothing like any of the existing images and descriptions in the literature. He and @djringer started this project, and they wrote a journal post about Dmitry’s spider as well as other likely undescribed species posted to iNat.

“Dmitry's observation is stunning in its own right -- I mean, look at those colors and lines -- and it also illustrates that there are many gasteracanthine species in Asia still lacking a formal scientific description,” David Ringer tells me. 

Of course, the people who have lived alongside this species for hundreds or thousands of years probably have recognized it and named it, but it's unknown in the global scientific literature, as far as we can tell...

There are still big mysteries about the names and relationships of these beautiful animals, but observations that people post to iNaturalist are helping shed new light on them, after a hundred years in the dark...iNaturalist builds community locally and across huge distances, and it opens up whole new worlds of discovery and wonder. 

Unfortunately Dmitry (above, testing soil respiration) won’t be back in Vietnam for a while, but hopes to find a specimen of the spider for study when he returns. He loves nature photography and has quite a archive of photos on his computer.

I was glad to know that there is a site where not only can others help me with the determination of species, but also the data of observations of these species can be used for scientific purposes...This is very important for nature reserves, national parks and other protected natural areas, because often they do not have enough scientists or the data on flora and fauna are almost not distributed in the public domain. New encounters of rare species in such territories further confirm their importance and the need for protection.

By Tony Iwane. Some quotes have been lightly edited for clarity and flow. 

- Dmitry tells me his observation of a Short-toed Snake Eagle in the Central Forest of Russia is the first one documented there in 40 years!

- You can see Dmitry’s research publications here

- And here is footage of a Gasteracantha methodically building its web, set to some classical music.

Posted on March 21, 2020 08:10 PM by tiwane tiwane | 10 comments | Leave a comment

March 27, 2020

An Amateur Naturalist in Greece Posts the first Silene integripetala plant to iNaturalist - Observation of the Week 3/27/20

Our Observation of the Week is the first Silene integripetala plant posted to iNaturalist, by @katerinakalogerini in Greece!

Katerina Kalogerini resides in a small seaside town in southeastern Peloponnese, a region of Greece, where she teaches history and the Greek language, and tells me “I have been in love with animals and nature for all my life.

As a little girl I used to enjoy walks with my father in nature. He would stop from time to time to show me a bird on a tree (he used to love birds!), a turtle, a plant or a flower and every time it was a pure joy for me to discover a piece of the beauty of nature with his help. We both used to love the sea also, so during summer we were looking for fish, crabs, etc. while snorkeling together. He wanted to show me as many species as possible. Maybe the most beautiful memories of my childhood…

She came across her first Silene integripetala three years ago, and says “I found it so beautiful that l was determined to find out its name. After hours of searching on the internet l discovered it on The joy was even greater when l read that the flower is endemic of southern Peloponnese, where I live.” The plant you see photographed throughout this post was observed a few weeks ago while Katerina looked for orchids, and she says “It was the first integripetala of the year for me! When I found out there were no observations of the flower on iNaturalist, I decided to make this the first one.”

Plants in the genus Silene are known commonly as catchflies and campions in English, and according to Intermountain Flora (vol. 2A, p. 447. 2012)

Internodal bands on some Silene stems exude a sticky sap that may trap small insects, thus the common name “catchfly.” The plant cannot utilize nutrients from these trapped insects and is therefore not carnivorous. The function may be to prevent crawling insects from reaching the flowers.

Catchflies are cosmopolitan, but are more abundant in the northern hemisphere, and the genus contains around 700 species. 

Perhaps hearkening back to her childhood, Kateria (above, on Cyprus) still calls snorkeling and walking through nature among her favorite experiences, and says “I am fascinated every time l find a new species to me!” She uses iNaturalist to get identification help, and has some ambitions for it:

I want to post as many species of my area as possible. My town, Neapoli Lakonias, is located at the southeastern end of continental Europe and there are quite a few endemic species here, mostly plants, some of which I hope to find and post on iNaturalist one day.

By Tony Iwane. Some quotes have been lightly edited for clarity and flow. Thanks to @jdmore for the quote from Intermountain Flora.

- There are nearly 40,000 Silene observations on iNaturalist, so why not take a look at them?

- Silene is part of the Caryophyllaceae (pinks/carnations) family, and iNat data from Caryophyllaceae was used in this study of anther-smut records.

- And really, who can forget Marty Robbins’ classic song of heartbreak involving a pink carnation?

Posted on March 27, 2020 09:06 PM by tiwane tiwane | 12 comments | Leave a comment