Journal archives for July 2021

July 06, 2021

What a Sawfly Larva! - Observation of the Week, 7/6/21

Our Observation of the Week is this Trichiosoma triangulum sawfly larva, seen in the United States by @masonmaron! 

“At first, I tended to use iNaturalist to keep count of the species I was seeing, uploading just about every bird I photographed (and photographing every bird I saw),” says Mason Maron.

However, interactions with iNaturalist as a whole and other members of the community led me to start using the site differently, aiming to photograph species I hadn't paid much attention to before, especially those difficult to ID. It was a lot of fun, working with users like @afid to learn more about tracking down orchids and @aispinsects to learn about identifying flies. I definitely started paying more attention to species I had otherwise been ignoring, and began to derive a lot more fun from both iNaturalist and being a naturalist.

So when he recently visited an area near his house, Mason started to look up at the trees around him and noticed lots of holes in their leaves. 

At that moment, I realized that I had always been ignoring those holes, and had never really stopped to think about what was making them. From that day on, I decided to regularly check the leaves in the area when walking through it.

He found several species, including the impressive larva you see above. 

I immediately recognized it as a sawfly, but I was unsure of the species. However, I was pretty sure the distinct, orangey-red marks on the head would probably help me get an ID. I moved the leaf it was munching on around a bit, and it didn't seem to mind at all, so I took the opportunity to get my macro camera nice and close for a clear, clean shot of the head. Of course, the photo looking nice was a positive, too. I then took some other photos of the body for reference and scale, and left the little guy to keep eating away.

He posted the photos on the unofficial iNat Discord Group and, with the help of @giantcicada, was able to identify it to species. 

Sawflies (Suborder Symphyta) are so named because adult females have a distinct saw-like ovipositor, which they use to cut into plant hosts and then lay their eggs. The larvae of most species are herbivorous, and species in this genus like to munch on alders, ash, birch, elm, and, like this one, willow. Adults can often be distinguished from other hymenopterans as they usually lack the tiny connector between their thorax and abdomen, which you usually see in wasps, bees, and ants. Adult Trichiosoma triangulum grow to about 2.5 cm in length and have clubbed antennae.

Now an undergraduate at Washington State University [Go Cougs! As my mother, a proud Wazzu alumna, would want me to say - Tony], Mason (above) is majoring in Wildlife Ecology (he previously wanted to go into engineering, before getting into birds in 2018 - which is also when he joined iNat).

Now, my interests have expanded far beyond birds (though I still give them high priority). I spend most of my summer nights at my moth sheet, photographing the moths, beetles, and any other visitors I get. I have taken a strong interest in a lot of insects, as well as marine biology, which I hope to pursue an education in later down the line. At my university, I am currently prioritizing my own research project, which was fully funded by one of its labs, where I am collecting, assessing, and identifying ectoparasitic lice on Buteo hawks, including some potentially undescribed species.

Photo of Mason taken by Neil Paprocki, whose research Mason was aiding.

- check out the quite different elm zigzag sawfly larva, which was a previous Observation of the Week!

- and really, why saw into plants with your ovipositor when you can just drill?

Posted on July 06, 2021 09:08 PM by tiwane tiwane | 15 comments | Leave a comment

July 13, 2021

New Computer Vision Model

We’ve released a new computer vision model for iNaturalist. This is our first model update since March 2020. Here’s what you need to know.

It’s a lot bigger

The number of taxa included in the model went from almost 25,000 to over 38,000. That’s an increase of 13,000 taxa compared to the last model, which, to put in perspective, is more than the total number of bird species worldwide. The number of training photos increased from 12 million to nearly 21 million.

We’ve sped up training time

This may sound suspicious given the long delay, but these delays were mainly caused by the pandemic, which stalled our existing plans (see future work below). We have significantly decreased model training time with the new approach we used here.

Our previous training jobs took 4.5 months to train 12 million photos. Our best estimate is that with that approach a new model, given the increased volume of data, would have taken around 7 months. Instead it took 2.5 months (from January to mid-March). We’re very excited about this new approach, getting us back on track to release two models a year moving forward.


Accuracy outside of North America has improved noticeably in this model. We suspect this is largely due to the nearly doubling of the data driving this model in addition to recent international growth in the iNaturalist community. We’re continuing to work on developing a better framework for evaluating changes in model accuracy, especially given tradeoffs among global and regional accuracy and accuracy for specific groups of taxa.

The recent changes removing non-nearby taxa from suggestions by default have helped reduce this global-regional accuracy tradeoff, but there’s still more work to do to improve how computer vision predictions are incorporating geographic information.

Taxon Page Indicator

We’ve also released a new feature for taxon pages on the website which allows you to see which taxa are included in the model. This badge only appears on species pages, not pages of genera, families, etc.

Future work

This new model is the one the iNaturalist website and apps use. Seek by iNaturalist requires an additional step to make a model compressed enough to run on the device. Stay tuned for an update to the Seek model soon.

The pandemic prevented iNaturalist staff from accessing our offices at the California Academy of Sciences for over a year. Unfortunately, we had ordered a new, more powerful machine for training these models just before that happened. The goal was to pilot a new software approach with this new hardware.

While we did lose a lot of time due to uncertainty, @alexshepard ended up developing and testing the new software approach on a jury-rigged machine in his living room, ultimately training the model we are releasing now. Piloting this new software approach worked well and we’re eager to get the next model training using it on the new machine, which we are beginning to set up at the California Academy of Sciences. This new hardware combined with the new software approach should help improve training time.

We’re eager to get the next model training in the next month. One challenge we know we will continually face is finding ways to train efficiently on the rapidly increasing iNaturalist dataset. Here are three ways you can help:

  • Share your Machine Learning knowledge: iNaturalist’s computer vision features wouldn’t be possible without learning from many colleagues in the machine learning community. If you have machine learning expertise, these are two great ways to help:

  • Participate in the annual iNaturalist challenges: Our collaborators Grant Van Horn and Oisin Mac Aodha continue to run machine learning challenges with iNaturalist data as part of the annual Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition conference. By participating you can help us all learn new techniques for improving these models.

  • Start building your own model with the iNaturalist data now: If you can’t wait for the next CVPR conference, thanks to the Amazon Open Data Program you can start downloading iNaturalist data to train your own models now. Please share with us what you’ve learned by contributing to iNaturalist on Github.

  • Donate to iNaturalist: For the rest of us, you can help by donating! Your donations help offset the substantial staff and infrastructure costs associated with training, evaluating, and deploying model updates. Thank you for your support!

  • Here’s an associated forum post with more technical details associated with the new software approach and hardware if you’re interested!

    Posted on July 13, 2021 08:37 PM by pleary pleary | 57 comments | Leave a comment

    A Mite-y Beetle Observation in Austria - Observation of the Week, 7/13/21

    Our Observation of the Day is this mite-covered Burying Beetle, seen in Austria by @karimstrohriegl!

    Currently a student working on his Bachelor’s Degree in Biology at the University of Graz, Karim Strohriegl had the opportunity to visit Austria’s Thayatal National Park last month, on a trip organized by Österreichische Entomologische Gesellschaft (ÖEG), an entomological organization. “The goal,” he says, “was to collect and/or identify as many species as possible and provide a species list to the national park.”

    A Lepidoptera expert installed a light trap and I was taking shots of all kinds of different insects. When photographing a burying beetle of the genus Nicrophorus I was surprised to see that it was full of Gamasina [mites]. I had never seen an insect with that many mites on it and was amazed learning that they had a phoretic relationship.

    Yup, while it looks as though that beetle is being devoured by the mites, it actually flies around with some (although usually not that many!) on its body, hence Karim’s use of the term “phoretic”. Members of the genus Nicrophorus are commonly known as “burying beetles” in English and they do specialize in decomposing dead animals. Using their mandibles and secretions from their mouth and anus, they’ll chew up and preserve the carcass, which they feed to their larvae. 

    However, other carrion eaters like flies often reach the carcass and lay eggs on it before the beetle gets there. That sets up a competition between fly maggots and beetle larvae, which is where the phoretic mites (who are using the beetle as transportation to the carcass) come in. Entomologist Joe Ballenger writes:

    The beetles can take care of some of [the maggots], but not all of them. This is where those mites come in. Those mites are specialists on fly eggs, and hungrily devour the eggs and young larvae. This keeps the flies from stealing the food that the beetles need to rear their larvae.

    This relationship has another aspect, though. The mites can’t feed on anything bigger than they are, so they need the beetles to raise the mite larvae. The mite larvae feed off the same secretions the mother beetles use to feed their babies.

    Beetles, mites, and flies are, of course, awesome, but the study of bees is what Karim (above) is focused on. He’s working on a bee project run by Naturschutzbund Steiermark and says “My main goal is to learn everything about wild bees and to be able to ID as many different species as possible.” He’s started to compile photo resources for bee identification on his website and hopes it will have many more species by the end of the summer.  

    Learning to identify bees is also one of the reasons he uses iNaturalist, in addition to getting ID help and having a public database for his observations. 

    At least half of my knowledge identifying bees I got through iNaturalist and the interactions with other users like @johnascher or @robertzimmermann. I also would like to thank my University Professor Gernot Kunz (@gernotkunz), who I think is the biggest fan of iNaturalist and who brings hundreds of students every year to the platform. His photographs inspired me to get into macro photography and through that I am paying so much more attention to my surroundings. Now I can photograph the smallest of the small and it’s amazing to see how beautiful these little creatures are.

    (Some quotes have been lightly edited for clarity and flow.)

    - There are some pretty good (albeit gruesome) videos online showing Nicrophorus beetles doing their thing. Here’s one from National Geographic, another from the Smithsonian, and this awesome narration-free video with great larvae-feeding and metamorphosis footage.

    - Hopefully this inspires you to set up some lights and participate in the worldwide National Moth Week starting July 17th! More information here.

    - Another phamously phoretic (sorry, I couldn’t resist) arachnid is the pseudoscorpion, and @abhiapc’s photos of some was a recent Observation of the Week!

    Posted on July 13, 2021 11:03 PM by tiwane tiwane | 20 comments | Leave a comment

    July 15, 2021

    An Urban Backyard Observation in Mexico Spurs Description of New Tree Cricket Species!

    Last month, in the Journal of Orthoptera Research, a new species of tree cricket (Subfamily Oecanthinae) was described: Neoxabea mexicana. The co-authors of the paper are Nancy Collins (@nan-cee) and Carlos Gerardo Velazco-Macias (@aztekium_tutor), and this new species description is the result of their collaboration after Nancy noticed an interesting tree cricket observation Carlos posted from his backyard in Monterrey, Mexico. Here’s their story.

    A freelance biologist who often collaborates with his wife Liliana Ramírez-Freire (@biolily) on native bee monitoring, Carlos started out as a botanist focused on cacti, but says that “sometime around 2013 I discovered Naturalista Mexico, and everything changed for me. I have not been able to stop documenting the species around me.” This of course includes his yard (below), which he says is no more than about 30 square meters, both front and back, and where he and his family 

    planted a variety of native wildflowers and some of them just showed up spontaneously. Our basic array of plants are: Ruellia simplex, Lantana camara, Cosmos suphureus, Asclepias curassavica and Helianthus annuus. We also have Croton ciliato-glandulosus, Ratibida columifera, Commelina erecta, among many others. It’s a really crowded garden, but we also added some dead wood logs and rocks and leaves as much bare ground as we can (for native bees of course).

    Thus far Carlos and his family have documented nearly 700 species there (check out the Casa Carlos Aztekium Velazco project); including, of course, Neoxabea mexicana. But it took some time for the right one to come along. “As we started to document every organism we found in and around our garden, some organisms were totally unknown to us,” says Carlos.

    On September 12th, 2018 I found a female tree cricket which I erroneously identified as Neoxabea bipunctata. Almost immediately Nancy Collins, who is an expert on tree crickets, said it could be an undescribed speces. She gave me precise instructions on how to identify the insect [and said a male individual was needed]. Unfortunately, we were not able to locate another individual so no more advances were made until October 9th, 2020, when my father (@jgvelasco / Thanks Dad!) found a new individual. This time it was a male - BINGO!

    While Carlos has spent his professional life as a biologist, Nancy Collins (above) tells me she didn’t have a deep interest in insects until she turned fifty; and of course the animal that changed her life was a tree cricket. “A male Neoxabea bipunctata had chewed a hole in several leaves of a sunflower plant – each hole was the same size, same shape, and on the same spot of each leaf,” she explains.

    He would stick his head through one of these holes, raise his wings that now blocked the hole, and would start singing. Indeed, his trilling was so loud that I was expecting to find a large insect, and was surprised to find one that was only an inch-long. Through my soon to be mentor, Dr. Thomas J. Walker, I learned he was using the leaf as a baffle in order to amplify his sound. After making some recordings of Oecanthus forbesi for Dr. Walker, I was hooked!  

    Since then, Nancy has helped to describe multiple tree cricket species and created a phenomenal website about tree crickets (please check it out!) and focuses on increasing awareness of them. When I asked her why she’s so passionate about these insects, she mentions quite a few charming things about them, like their antennal cleaning habits (“like slurping a piece of spaghetti”) and overall grooming behavior (“they use their hind limbs to groom their head and body, which reminds me of the way a cat keeps itself clean”), the “absolutely adorable” nymphs that emerge after a harsh Wisconsin winter, and that when males sing “the two wings form a heart.” 

    Nancy found out about iNat in 2018, when she wanted to reward Jean-Michel Maes (@jmmaes) for helping obtain specimen permits from Nicaragua. 

    His request to me was to become active in using iNaturalist. There were over 100 pages of images in the tree crickets section awaiting further confirmation, and it took over two months for me to get through them all! It is now a daily task, and I have reviewed over 3,000 tree cricket submissions. More often than not, I try to give tips on what we need to see in tree cricket photos to make a confident ID.

    She’s been keeping an eye out for observations from Mexico in the hopes that Neoxabea formosa (last seen a century ago) would turn up, and at first glance she thought Carlos’s observation might have been a match - but it turned out to be something previously unknown!

    When describing a new tree cricket species, Nancy tells me “song pattern, song rate, song frequency, black markings on the first two antennal segments, width of the male’s wings, male’s metanotal gland and internal genitalia configurations, and coloring as well as size” are often needed, and it can be difficult to ship specimens across borders. “Thankfully,” she says, “Carlos was more than eager to do the necessary measurements and get the needed photographs and song recordings.”

    “When the time came to make dissections under the microscope,” explains Carlos (below, in Penang)

    Nancy sent us detailed slides on how to work our way to and extract the male genitalia. Note that I never had done this before, so she talked to us on live chat during the dissection. I sent her photos of what I was doing during the process and she gave me advice on what I was doing. The entire process was done in our home during the pandemic, and I think this is a great example of how people can connect and collaborate to advance science!

    Nancy took the lead on the writing and review process and their paper was approved for publication in about one and a half months then finally published in June of 2021.

    “Conservation can start at your garden or your local park,” says Carlos. “We do not need to climb mountains or go deep into pristine forest to discover new species and actually take care of them. It can start at your doorstep.”

    (Some quotes have been lightly edited for clarity and flow.)

    - Nancy has also collaborated with Isabel Margarita Coronado González and Bruno Victor Alfons Govaerts (@coronadogim) via iNaturalist to describe two other new tree cricket species from Mexico! The iNat observations can be found here and here, and you can check out the papers here and here, respectively.

    - Don’t forget to take a look at Nancy’s tree cricket website,!

    - Not only is Carlos a freelance biologist, he’s also part of CONABIO’s network of Naturalista Mexico’s tutors and works with National Geographic Explorers, helping them use iNaturalist so they can engage and empower their local communities.

    Posted on July 15, 2021 08:53 PM by tiwane tiwane | 15 comments | Leave a comment

    July 19, 2021

    New Limits to Place Creation

    For some time now, iNaturalist has included the following text in an alert box on the place creation page:

    New places are one of the biggest sources of slowdowns on iNat, so please consider not making a new place...

    For what it's worth, we will have to restrict the conditions under which people can add places in the future given iNat's current rate of growth. 

    iNaturalist is still growing rapidly and place creation remains one of the biggest sources of slowdowns, so today we added some new restrictions to place creation.

    - No user can create more than three new places in a 24 hour period.

    - The polygon drawing tool has been removed, meaning that new places can now only be created from a KML polygon upload. 

    Why these changes?

    The place creation limit was implemented because until now users could make dozens of places very quickly, which slows down iNaturalist for everyone. We’re hoping the quota will diminish these kinds of performance impacts.

    We removed the polygon drawing tool to make it harder to create places, for exactly the same performance reasons. People make a lot of places that are essentially rectangles, or crude polygon boundaries of places that already exist, and we think that’s partly because the drawing interface we had made it hard to draw complex places and easy to draw simple ones. Requiring KML files will hopefully convince people jonesing to make yet another Texas that it’s not worth the effort. For everyone else, Google Earth and QGIS are both free software packages that can be used to author KML documents. 

    We hope to eventually reduce the need for place creation with a better search interface (polygon tools, etc) but for now these restrictions should reduce the impact of place creation while still allowing the community to make them when necessary.

    Posted on July 19, 2021 11:21 PM by tiwane tiwane | 3 comments | Leave a comment

    July 27, 2021

    A Naturalist in Trinidad and Tobago Spots a Black-veined Hairstreak in her Backyard - Observation of the Week, 7/27/21

    Our Observation of the Week is the first Black-veined Hairstreak (Atlides polybe) posted from Trinidad and Tobago! Seen by @sheneller.

    “I’ve been working from home due to the pandemic, which has been very stressful,” says Shenelle Ramkhelawan, an engineer living in Trinidad and Tobago. 

    During my lunch breaks I like to go for walks in my backyard for fresh air. I saw a dragonfly perched on a branch and on my way to take its photograph, I saw a red dot under my pomerac tree. Upon closer observation, I noticed it was a stunning butterfly. I took photos of it and soon my dogs gathered around me. To save it from being trampled by my dogs, I gently placed my hand in front of it and it easily jumped onto my hand. It was very calm and didn’t fly away. I placed it on a tree and took more photos. This was the first butterfly I interacted with that was very calm and didn’t seem to fear me.

    The butterfly Shenelle photographed was of course the black-veined hairstreak you see above. This species ranges from Mexico down through Argentina, but this is the first observation of one on any Caribbean island posted to iNaturalist. Like many other hairstreaks, it has “tails” extending from its hindwings. 

    “Although I am an engineer by profession,” says Shenelle (above), 

    I enjoy spending time in nature as a hobby. I enjoy going to beaches, hiking to waterfalls, and adventuring in the rainforest. I love being in nature as it helps me to self-reflect, heal and escape from the stresses of life. It helps me to remember that my problems aren’t as big as they seem.  

    A friend of mine introduced me to iNaturalist. At first, I used it as my way of sharing my finds with my friend. Since then, it has evolved into a hobby and an escape. After joining iNaturalist, my perspective of my surroundings has changed. iNaturalist has a very friendly and well-educated community that truly cares and values nature. With their help, I am now more cognizant and knowledgeable of the fauna around me. iNaturalist helps me gain an appreciation for nature and learn to be kinder to my environment.

    Most of my photos are taken in my backyard. If I am able to observe such beautiful species in my backyard, imagine what lies beyond.

    - A big thanks to @brystrange for letting me know about this observation!

    - Last year we featured another iNatter from Trinidad and Tobago, @zakwildlife, in an Observation of the Week post!

    - There are over 115k hairstreak obervations on iNaturalist, check ‘em out!

    Posted on July 27, 2021 07:21 PM by tiwane tiwane | 7 comments | Leave a comment

    July 30, 2021

    Meet Cheng-Tao Lin (@mutolisp), an iNaturalist Monthly Supporter

    This is the second interview in a series getting to know members of the iNaturalist community who are also Monthly Supporters.

    Cheng-Tao Lin (@mutolisp) is an Assistant Professor at National Chiayi University, Taiwan. As a vegetation ecologist, he saw the value of iNaturalist and started promoting it in Taiwan. He has extensively translated the iNaturalist website and mobile apps into Traditional Chinese on Crowdin. In addition to incorporating iNaturalist into his university teaching, he has given more than 30 presentations about iNaturalist and supports a Facebook group for iNaturalist users in Taiwan (you can see a recording of a recent workshop). His translation and outreach efforts have contributed to the rapid growth in activity there since 2018 through cooperation and partnership with the Taiwan Forestry Research Institute, Endemic Species Research Institute, The Society of Wilderness and Yushan National Park Headquarters. Taiwan now has over 1 million observations total and is on track to pass 1 million verifiable observations later this year (check out this blog post from 2019 for some recent history).

    How did you first get into iNaturalist?
    I acknowledged iNaturalist was around in 2014, but I did not actually use it. In October 2017, I first introduced iNaturalist to our “environment and nature conservation” course in our curriculum of environmental education. I thought the iNaturalist platform would be a good place for students to observe, collect and identify organisms, and I designed a lesson plan for discovering invasive species in our campus. For most of the students, they only know invasive species in the textbook, such as the green iguana (Iguana iguana) and bitter vine (Mikania micrantha). Through the course task, students can explore and identify possible invasive species by themselves. Some species seem normal or unharmful, but when the students observe, search and read the details on iNaturalist, they just realized the species are invasive. After this small teaching experiment, I realized that iNaturalist is a good biodiversity and collaboration platform and has high potential to engage people organizing projects to do citizen science and promoting nature knowledge.

    What made you want to donate monthly, in addition to everything else you do with iNaturalist?
    I think iNaturalist is a wonderful platform for ecologists, nature observers, conservationists and educators. Through the collaboration between the public and scientists, we can explore, record, and understand many species around us, even sometimes we could find newly recorded species or rare ones. These data are valuable for biodiversity and ecological research, and everyone could use them for any purpose. And the most important thing on iNaturalist platform is “free” — one side is free for use, and the other is the free data. So I think I can contribute my best to support such a great biodiversity platform, and I hope there are more and more people who can support the maintenance of iNaturalist to keep it sustainable.

    What keeps you motivated?
    I think the main reason to keep using and contributing to iNaturalist is the “open data/source” policy. Openness, in other words, transparency, is quite important for science and conservation policy. Some people think the biodiversity/ecological data they collected is their property and want to keep the ownership. However, I think I am only the observer to record these ecological or biodiversity data, I do not have the ownership and it should belong to everyone on this planet. Through such an “open data” concept, the citizen scientists and scholars can collaborate and use such a large data set to concatenate every small water drop into a mainstream, and apply scientific methods to analyze, interpret and provide evidence for conservation policies. In the past few years promoting iNaturalist in Taiwan, I am glad to be a connector among the NGOs, educators, and the government agencies. Many government agencies have already seen the potential of iNaturalist and try to cooperate with local communities and organizations, which is an important step for biodiversity research and biodiversity mainstreaming. I think if more and more people are aware about our environment and organisms surrounding us, we can achieve a sustainable and healthy society soon.

    What’s something that you’d like more members of the iNaturalist community to know or do?
    Keep learning and exploring! I think iNaturalist is just like a virtual museum for everyone to learn about biodiversity, especially under the pandemic of covid-19, most people were quarantined at home and we can view many fantastic organisms all over the world virtually via iNaturalist. Although we are limited by the pandemics, we can try to help other people to identify organisms, organize local checklists, write biodiversity knowledge for popular science, and even dig up photos from your disks to upload observations!

    Thank you to @mutolisp and all of the Monthly Supporters! iNaturalist Monthly Supporters give automatic, recurring charitable donations and can be recognized on their profile pages, if they choose to from their account settings. Monthly Supporters are a critical part of our community and help ensure that iNaturalist is freely available to people all over the world. You can become a Monthly Supporter by giving your first recurring donation online. Thank you!

    iNaturalist thrives thanks to deeply dedicated and enthusiastic community members like Cheng-Tao. We’re grateful to everyone who is generous with their time, expertise, and other gifts. For the rest of 2021, we'll profile several different Monthly Supporters to highlight members of the community and why they support iNaturalist.

    Become a Monthly Supporter
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    iNaturalist is a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. All donations will be received by the California Academy of Sciences, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt not-for-profit organization based in the United States of America (Tax ID: 94-1156258). Gifts can be made online in more than 40 different currencies via bank account, credit/debit card, or PayPal.

    Posted on July 30, 2021 09:37 PM by carrieseltzer carrieseltzer | 11 comments | Leave a comment