Journal archives for July 2020

July 07, 2020

A Japanese Naturalist Documents Their Country's Native Plants - Observation of the Week, 7/6/20

Our Observation of the Week is this Aquilegia buergeriana var. buergeriana flower, seen in Japan by @skycat!

[skycat doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Japanese, so both of us relied on Google Translate here. I’ve cleaned up Google Translate’s version of  skycat’s responses, hopefully not too much was lost in translation in either direction.]

“I've always loved living things since I was a kid, and I used to collect beautiful flowering plants from nearby mountains and grow them at home,” recalls skycat. That passion continued into adulthood, and they’ve been gardening for quite some time now. 

After years of looking at plants that have been bred to be pretty, skycat now wants to show off the beauty of wild plants as well, and has been photographing plants unique to Japan, hoping to one day see them become as popular as the standard garden plants from the country, such as the Golden-rayed Lily (ヤマユリ) and the Japanese Camellia (ヤブツバキ).

One such plant is the native Aquilegia buergeriana, which skycat says is widely distributed in Japan’s mountainous regions. Many members of this species have red sepals, but skycat says in the Tokai region, where they reside, the flowers have whitish-yellow sepals. 

The genus Aquilegia, known in English as “columbines”, contains around 70 species and is native to the northern hemisphere, especially in areas of higher elevation. The flowers of this genus are striking, with five sepals and five petals. The petals have five nectar spurs reaching past the back of the flower, giving the columbine flowers a distinctive look.

skycat tells me they use iNaturalist as a record of “my own images taken in the past. 

I like the fact that I can easily retrieve past images...I take photos so that other people could understand not only the flowers of the plant, but also the leaves, the overall appearance, and the way it appears in its habitat. As I have used iNaturalist, I’ve begun to carefully observe even smaller flowering plants that I had not noticed before.

- by Tony Iwane

- The U.S. Forest Service has a thorough article about the co-evolution of North American columbine flowers and their pollinators (primarily hawk moths and humming birds in North America).

- Differences in columbine nectar spur length are due not to the number of cells in the spur, but to the elongation of those cells.

Posted on July 07, 2020 04:42 AM by tiwane tiwane | 13 comments | Leave a comment

July 10, 2020

The Plant Life Project, iNat, and Exploring Nature While Black - iNat User Camisha Butler

[Last month, a few weeks after iNaturalist released its Black Lives Matter statement, we received an email from Camisha Butler, (@camcamcam, below) a Black iNat user who hails from the Atlanta area in the United States. Camisha wrote about her lifelong relationship with nature, her use of iNat for her Plant Life Project, and some of the experiences she’s had being Black while out in nature. She said she’d be happy to share her story, so we exchanged a few emails and I used her responses for what follows. - Tony]

While Camisha Butler grew up in the city (Atlanta’s West End, to be exact), she spent many of her childhood summers about one and half hours away in Hancock County, with her grandmother and her cousins. “[My grandmother’s house] was surrounded by a large field and I often spent my time running around barefoot and climbing trees,” she recalls. “I still love walking around barefoot in the summer and feeling my toes dig into the grass and moist soil.” And at around the age of twelve she and her family would join her brother’s Boy Scout activities, like hiking and camping, “and that is when I first became excited about being outdoors and realizing that it was an interest and lifestyle.”

However, Camisha has had negative experiences while out exploring, and in her experience this is often due to the misconception that Black people don’t enjoy the outdoors. She’s been told “I didn't know black people camped,” by an acquaintance, and says

I have experienced curious stares from whole families on hikes and even at the showers while camping, [and] although it's not particularly harmful behaviour, it feels restrictive and that makes me feel uncomfortable, as if I'm not entitled to enjoy a mountainside or gaze out on a rushing creek in peace...In my adult years, I have found a community of black women and men who hike regularly and we often share different trails or pictures from our hikes. I think it's important to have representation everywhere as no race is a cultural monolith and nature belongs to the Earth, which means it belongs to everyone. 

About nine years ago, Camisha learned that her great-great-grandmother, Susie Reaves, was both a midwife (“she personally delivered over 200 children in her lifetime”) and someone who treated others with medicinal herbs. “She would prepare various teas, tinctures and salves which she also kept in her home for her family and patients,” says Camisha. 

This really inspired me. Although I loved being outdoors and being amongst the trees and other greenery, it struck me that I did not know anything about them, I didn’t even know their names. I desired to grow an understanding of the plants around me, not so much for medicinal purposes, but just because I felt it my birthright and responsibility to develop a knowledge of greenery around me so that I can continue our family relation to Mother Earth.

“I’m a serial collector. I collect records, concert ticket stubs, museum pencils and I've even had a paper bag collection,” Camisha explains, “[so] around 2012, I thought I would begin ‘collecting’ plants. Not physically, but through identifying plants around me through photography, and that was the birth of The Plant Life Project.” So she started identifying and learning about the naturally occurring plants she encountered, particularly weeds. Her favorite is the American trumpet vine (above), which is native to eastern North America. 

Last summer, I first saw the trumpet vine on the side of the highway and I became obsessed. I happened to find some growing off an old building in the city and I stretched my arm AND camera zoom to capture a pic so I could learn its name. I’m happy to say that just yesterday, I spotted some vines growing over a very accessible bridge up the street from my house. I went home, dressed properly in my boots, sweats, long sleeves and gloves and I came back and down around the bridge to get my first up close picture. They are so beautiful in color and shape, they appear melodic, the name is quite fitting. It was the highlight of my weekend.

After years of using various resources for identification, Camisha started on iNat in 2018, and appreciates the computer vision suggestions and the corrections, as well as helpful comments from other users. Her goal is to have at least 150 observations by year’s end, with the majority being research grade. She’ll also break out the iNat app while shopping for house plants to get some care tips and information. “The iNat community,” she says, 

is super inclusive and diverse in cultures and interests. It's exciting finding iNat users near and far. There's a comfort in the diversity on the platform because it shows that we're together in our common love of nature. There are biologists, nature photographers and observers from around the world with varied reasons for using iNat, some love plants like me and some enjoy fauna. The community really provides a well rounded view that anyone can be a naturalist. And because IDs are crowdsourced, you have an opportunity to interact with many knowledgeable people from anywhere.

- You can follow Camisha and her #PlantLifeProject on Instagram at nutellabrownbaby.

- Coincidentally, it happens to be #BlackBotanistsWeek! Follow the hashtag on Twitter and Instagram.

Posted on July 10, 2020 09:37 PM by tiwane tiwane | 34 comments | Leave a comment

July 18, 2020

Less Agreeable Observations, More Agreeable Text Formatting

Hey all, just wanted to let you know about two recent changes. First, we've removed the "Agree?" buttons on the website when 1) the observation is Research Grade and 2) the identification you're agreeing with isn't "leading." We did this to discourage people from adding redundant identifications to observations that don't need them, i.e. observations that no longer "need IDs" because there's already a community consensus at the species level. I suspect most people add IDs like this because they're fixated on increasing their identifications count. To be clear, the point of adding identifications is not to make a little number increase. It's to help people first, and to improve the accuracy and precision of the taxon associated with each observation second. And yes, I'm well aware that the identifications "leaderboards" might be the biggest factor motivating people to behave like this, but fixing that is a bit more challenging (it will require taking the site down for an evening, at least; I'd prefer to just remove them, but I'm guessing that would not go over well). And also yes, I'm aware some people do this "defensively" to prevent people from shifting the Community Taxon in the future, and still other people add IDs like this because they rely on the system recognizing their ID when extracting data from iNat. That's why we didn't make adding these kinds of IDs impossible, but things are a little harder for you now. It's a tradeoff. I'm hoping this change will also reduce the amount of "thank you" IDs people add. It's great to express gratitude, but a nice comment is a better option than an ID. Anyway, if you're not seeing an "Agree?" button where you were expecting one, this is why.

The other change is the new support for Markdown in comments and IDs and the formatting buttons. For those not familiar with Markdown, it's a more convenient formatting scheme than HTML that builds on how you may already express things like emphasis in plain text. You can use the buttons that now display when you add comments and IDs on the website to see how this formatting works, but here's on overview:

Code Output Keyboard Shortcut
*italic* italic CMD-i / CTRL-i
**bold** bold CMD-b / CTRL-b
[link]( link CMD-k / CTRL-k
* an
* unordered
* list
  • an
  • unordered
  • list
1. an
1. ordered
1. list
  1. an
  2. unordered
  3. list

> block quoted text is a nice way
> to quote external sources
block quoted text is a nice way

to quote external sources

But wait, there's more!

Code Output
`code` code
this is
a table

The important bit is the row of hyphens below the header row.

We're supporting most of basic Markdown formatting, plus the tables extension, even though we don't have buttons for all those things.

It's also worth noting that we're supporting Markdown on comments, identifications, journal posts, and mostly on user profiles and project descriptions (you may run into trouble if that text is being truncated as it is on the project detail page). We're also supporting Markdown in the mobile apps for comments and IDs right now, even though we don't have the formatting buttons there. Mobile support for Markdown in user profiles, project descriptions, and journal posts is a work in progress (bold, italic, and links work fine, lists and tables not quite). We're still supporting HTML like we used to, but we're parsing it a bit more striclty than we used to. There are also a few weird cases where past text may now be formatted incorrectly, e.g. if you (like me) were in the habit of listing traces through keys like this,

1. Hairy patella
4. Red tail
18. Falcate toes

you'll need to switch to something like

1\. Hairy patella
4\. Red tail
18\. Falcate toes

Finally, thanks to everyone who chimed in on the Forum about this. Also, huge kudos to todtb for contributing the keyboard shortcuts for the text editor and for adding it to Identify (he's also working on making the text editor available when editing comments and identification remarks). He just volunteered to do both and did a great job, so thank you!

Posted on July 18, 2020 01:46 AM by kueda kueda | 208 comments

July 21, 2020

A Pair of Vultures in Kenya, Photographed by a Nature Enthusiast from India - Observation of the Week, 7/21/20

Our Observation of the Week is this pair of griffon vultures - Rüppell's on the left and white-backed on the right - seen in Kenya by @rujutavinod!

A resident of Pune, just east of the Western Ghats range (also known as the Sahyadri mountains), Rujuta Vinod recalls first becoming seriously interested in nature in the 1980s, when local environmentalists began raising awareness about the ecological issues of the mountain range - one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. “Thereafter,” she says, “I kept a track of news about continued devastation of nature-wilderness-wildlife in India, with lot of concern.”

By the mid-nineties, she started visiting local natural areas, such as the wetlands in her district, and tells me “I got terribly fascinated by the winter migratory birds. WWF India, Pune division was the organization, which conducted field trips and weekly free classes, where renowned naturalists presented their work and expressed concern over the rapidly declining number of wildlife species in India.” However, balancing work responsibilities (she practiced anesthesiology and psychotherapy), parenting (she was raising two sons) made wildlife study and documentation difficult. And by the year 2000 or so she was discouraged by her “inability to stop the speed and extent of loss of wildlife,” so she stopped her field visits.

But in 2013, after retiring from her position as a psychotherapist, Rujuta says 

[I] restarted pursuing my real passion of documenting wildlife. I now started using cameras. Side by side, I started learning and then contributing in eco-restoration. I got my life back when I saw forests and wetlands and grasslands and deserts and saw the wildlife again with my own eyes and captured the species in my camera. The whole experience was of “healing from within” as my practice had drained my energy.

She started uploading her observations to the India Biodiversity Portal (7,500 so far), eBird, and more recently iNaturalist. Then, last June, after years of watching documentaries about the great migrations in Africa, a dream came true for Rujuta when she visited the Maasai Mara in Kenya.

The vultures you see above were photographed after she and her tour group watched spotted hyenas drive away two lionesses from a wildebeest carcass.  

We saw Black-backed Jackals, many species of vultures (Lappet-faced, Rüppell's Griffon and, African White-backed), Marabou stork, and of course a clan of Spotted Hyenas around that carcass. [The] Hyenas were so hungry that the whole time they claimed the meat and crushed the bones (I still remember the sound), they did not allow anybody to come closer.

However, the jackals and Marabou stork were sneaky and snatched the meat while the hyenas were busy pulling the parts of that carcass. Vultures continued to stand at the periphery and tried to get a few pieces whenever the road was clear for them. I saw those wonderful vultures for the first time and liked the design on the feathers of Rüppell's Griffon and the head & face of Lappet. This shot was the only one I got with good clarity of the animal in the focus.

A very large bird, with a wingspan of about 2.26 to 2.6 meters (7.4 to 8.5 ft), Rüppell's griffons are thought to fly at a higher altitude than any other bird, as evidenced by one colliding with a plane flying at about 11,300 meters (37,000 ft). They’re known to often soar at at 6,000 meters (20,000 ft) and use vision only to spot their next meal. According to the IUCN, the wild population of Rüppell's griffons is about 22,000, and their main threats are habitat loss, hunting, and poisoning. White-backed vultures aren’t as large or known to fly as high as the Rüppell‘s griffons, but they are unfortunately vulnerable to the same threats, and their population is in decline as well.

Rujuta (above, in the Maasai Mara) uses iNaturalist to create an electronic public biodiversity record, “and to help indirectly the forest department and biodiversity officials to protect the habitats, critically endangered and endemic wildlife.”

[The] more I work on this portal with my heightened enthusiasm, my feeling of hope replaces my frustration. I get a good peaceful sleep at night.

I have joined many projects on iNaturalist, which has a worldwide database. I see wonderful high resolution Macro images uploaded by people around the world. I get inspired by those who have identified thousands of images and those, who have uploaded hundreds of thousands of observations. When I see a record of a single species in many thousands – I feel amazed at the hours and energy spent by those individuals.

- Sir David Attenborough shows us how Rüppell's griffons use warm air to take flight.

- This short piece in The Hindu reflects on the Save the Western Ghats march of 1987.

Posted on July 21, 2020 04:28 PM by tiwane tiwane | 9 comments | Leave a comment

July 27, 2020

A Bright Pink Mushroom in Tasmania! - Observation of the Week, 7/27/20

Our Observation of the Week is this Porpolomopsis lewelliniae mushroom, seen in Australia by @franklinhermit!

“I often warn people that if you see a pretty mushroom be careful, because you may develop symptoms of a lifelong disease called Mushroom Madness/ aka Fungi Fever!" says Heather Elson (aka franklinhermit). “I’ve seen it happen to literally hundreds of people over the years, who start out only wanting to know if they can eat them, but on learning more about them, then finding a new appreciation for them in their role in ecosystems and their stunning beauty. It is great to see a growing interest in fungi around the world in more recent years.”

Heather has been photographing and studying fungi for about 15 years, and this year is working with Dr. Genevieve Gates from the University of Tasmania, 

[who] has kindly offered to mentor me to learn to identify fungi through microscopic characters so that I may be able to further identify the fungi that I find and perhaps one day I may be able to further contribute to science by describing new species...Compared to plants and animals, we really know so little about fungi. For example, in Australia alone, it is estimated that only 5% of around 250,000 species of fungi have been formally described.

Heather resides in a tall, wet eucalypt forest in far south Tasmania, and that’s where she found the fungus you see above. “[It’s] one of many found on the property over the years, she says,

Tasmania's Gondwanan heritage and diverse ecosystems carved from climatic, physical and biological impacts has created unique habitats with equally unique fungi. I have been recording observations of fungi on the property with the aim of providing this data to Fungimap for their research, policy and conservation.

Found in eastern Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand, Porpolomopsis lewelliniae is a small (its cap measures about 3-6.5 cm) common mushroom that often grows in leaf litter during fall and winter. While there are other pink mushrooms about, this one’s cap splits right down the gills as it grows.

Heather (above), tells me she uses iNaturalist “to support the work of Fungimap - an Australian non-profit organisation who raise awareness, educate and advocate around the important role fungi play in our environment.” After ten years of observing fungi, she’s happy to have found a platform where she can finally share her archive of observations.

I have begun entering years of these fungi observations to the iNaturalist Fungimap Project, so that I can ensure these observations are of some value to the scientific and general community rather than sitting on my computer! Uploading to iNaturalist also provides the added bonus of serving as an online backup of these images and information so that they do not get lost in the event of a digital disaster at home which is also one less thing for me to worry about! I really encourage others to use iNaturalist so that their sightings can reach a broader audience and help science.

- You can check out Heather’s website here, and the Tasmanian Fungi Facebook group, which she admins, here.

- I interviewed iNat user and mycologist @leptonia a few years ago, and he has some tips for finding and photographing mushrooms in this video.

Posted on July 27, 2020 11:37 PM by tiwane tiwane | 16 comments | Leave a comment