Journal archives for September 2021

September 07, 2021

Identifier Profile: @nathantaylor

This is the fourth in an ongoing monthly series of blog posts highlighting the amazing identifiers of iNaturalist.

Plants of Euphorbia Sect. Anisophyllum, often called “sandmats”, can be found throughout much of the world and of the over 53,000 verifiable observations of this taxon on iNat at this time, Nathan Taylor (@nathantaylor) has added identifications to 43,569 of them - by far iNat’s top identifier of the section. He’s also identified over 81,000 observations of all observations in the genus Euphorbia and has provided extensive resources for anyone looking to identify these plants (and others).

When his family moved from the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex to rural Lamesa in West Texas, Nathan Taylor at first started learning the lizards and snakes in the area. “I had initially wanted to become a herpetologist, a fascination that came out of looking at lizards such as frilled lizards in books and catching organisms like horned lizards (Phrynosoma cornutum) and southern prairie lizards (Sceloporus undulatus),” he says. “I even had a notebook documenting their head scale patterns of the iguanids to tell different individuals apart and gave many of the lizards names.”

But after moving to another property nearby, Nathan soon changed his focus to plants.

Everyone around me viewed the land of the region as a barren wasteland [and] even referred to as the "armpit of Texas" or worse. But that spring, after moving, the sandy hillsides were covered with wildflowers (especially spectacle pod, Dimorphocarpa candicans).  Given the clear disparity between what I was seeing and what other people's impressions of the land were, I had to identify every flower I could. So, I borrowed my dad's digital camera, got some field guides in the library and almost unknowingly spiraled into a broad understanding of the plants around me.  

Nathan’s interest in sandmats was due to his mentor at the time, Burr Williams, saying he didn’t identify sandmats to species. “I basically took that as a challenge,” says Nathan. “But, what kept me fascinated by Euphorbia was how difficult they are to identify and how frequently they were misidentified in herbaria.

Identification of Euphorbia is complicated. In my early days of learning the plants, I tried to key the Euphorbia species. I stumbled over concepts like stipules, seed ridges, and glandular appendages. When I started my Bachelor's Degree and continued in my Master's Degree, I started learning the species properly and eventually found misidentifications in the Sul Ross State University herbarium. Some later proved to be new species. It's this lack of understanding of how to ID the group that really drives me to continue studying it...

Every little detail tells its own tale about what makes Euphorbia unique and how the plants have been shaped over the many years of evolutionary adaptation. Today, I might be fascinated that Euphorbia is the only genus with CAM, C3, C4, and the intermediary C2 photosynthesis and that sandmats utilize three of those. Tomorrow, I might be fascinated by anisophylly and how that helps plants avoid self-shading in Euphorbia sect. Anisophyllum. These get me excited and, most importantly, help me get other people excited about the plants I study. Ultimately though, these are exciting little steps towards a deeper understanding of how to identify my organisms of interest.

Nathan was first introduced to iNat at a digitization conference, when a speaker discussed the Herps of Texas project. “I didn't think much of it at the time, he says.

I didn't even think it would apply to me since all the characteristics used in the key to distinguish species in Euphorbia sect. Anisophyllum species are so small and that was essentially the only thing I was interested in at the time. But, I created an account and added some observations for the fun of it. It wasn't until later that I realized, not only were people uploading observations of sandmats, but I could ID almost all of them from their photographs. At that point, I was hooked. Within a few years, I would have access to photos of plants in the field from all over the world to connect to what I learned from herbarium specimens.

Until recently, when he started in a PhD program Mark Fishbein's lab in the Plant Biology, Ecology, and Evolution department at Oklahoma State University, Nathan curated sandmats worldwide, Euphorbia in the United States, Crotons in Texas, and plants in the Llano Estacado region. He’s had to step away a  bit due to lack of time but notes that @trh_blue and @janeyair have been helping a lot with Euphorbia IDs on iNaturalist. 

When he does identification work, though, Nathan has several different workflows. If he wants to add basic, easy identifications he has some filters and URLs already set up, but if he wants to learn a new taxon or area, he uses a bunch of resources.

For instance, I have a spreadsheet that functions as an atlas for all the major continents. If I break it down to country, I can often limit the number of possible species to less than 20. From there it's a matter of looking up the type specimen on JSTOR Plants or other herbaria to see which is the best fit. For complex species, I may need to get a sense of the populational variability. For that, I usually turn to GBIF and filter by specimens.  I rarely use photos in the process because the rates of misidentification of photos are usually much higher than those of specimens because of the characteristics used in the keys.  You're not going to find it easy to distinguish Euphorbia glyptosperma and Euphorbia stictospora from a photo if the couplet you stumble on is seed shape regardless of how different they look in the field.

For sandmats, I use exclusively primary literature sources and many of them (my current database has over 100 taxonomic sources). For Euphorbia in general, I use Flora of North America, but there are several taxonomic uncertainties and a few points where I disagree. This generally comes from communication with other experts or my own understanding of the morphology. For any US IDs other than Euphorbia, I'll use any good local floras that are available but fall back on BONAP to limit my options if there isn't one. BONAP tends to overestimate the number of habitats and bioregions that species occur in even though it underestimates the counties. If you're familiar with these bioregions, you can get a sense for what possible species you should consider. From there, a combination of floras and/or monographs are used to figure out the differences.

In addition to identification work, Nathan uses iNat in a few other ways. 

The main one is finding new populations (sometimes even new species) of Euphorbia.  However, I also use it for recording data for herbarium specimens, recording identification notes, looking for places to find plants I haven't seen, and to get a sense for what species grow in a given area. It also can be a wonderful place to connect with other botanists to discuss interpretations of morphology and species limitations. For example, two prominent Euphorbia experts (@spurgeckr and @vicsteinmann) have come onto the site over the last couple of years, and I have greatly enjoyed discussing interpretations of the morphology and species.  This kind of discussion helps me to make better identifications in the future.

- Nathan’s created an extensive list of resources over the years, which is available here.

- Need help photographing a euphorb? Check out Nathan’s guide.

- The In Defense of Plants podcast featured Nathan in their episode Spurge is the Word.

- And you can see Nathan’s herping skills at work in the Southwest Texas iNat-a-thon video (he was known then as nathantaylor7583).

- Here are the most-faved Euphorbia observations on iNat!

- And Nathan was consulted for this Observation of the Week post about a tantalizing sandmat find by @nelson_wisnik.

- If you have suggestions for identifiers to profile, please message @tiwane (don't add them in the comments). Thanks!

Posted on September 07, 2021 05:56 PM by tiwane tiwane | 33 comments | Leave a comment

A Volcanic Vaccinium in Costa Rica - Observation of the Week, 9/7/2021

Our Observation of the Week is this Vaccinium poasanum plant, seen in Costa Rica by @jorbogmont!

Currently living and working in the Washington, DC area, Jorge Bogantes Montero grew up in Costa Rica and was able to visit the country’s many different habitats and ecosystems. “For an ADHD nature loving boy,” he explains, “it was paradise! Those experiences in the great outdoors really shaped me and helped me become a biodiversity conservation professional.” After obtaining a degree in natural resources, he’s worked in the conservation field both in Costa Rica and the United States for the past nineteen years.

I started doing a lot of plant-related work in Costa Rica: vascular plant inventories, tree planting projects and such, but have always had a deep interest in wildlife too. I was into bird watching for a while, then mammals, herpetofauna, and freshwater fish. I have always looked for ways to get involved with and learn more about wildlife conservation. 

He photographed the plant you see above way back in 2003, when creating a plant inventory of Poás Volcano National Park. “Coincidentally this is the type locality for the species,” he explains.

The photo was taken within a stones throw of the mighty, and active, Poás Volcano (below, in 2003), in the forests of the national park. Vaccinium species (blueberries or heaths in English) are commonly known as “arrayanes” in Costa Rica. Some species are edible, but I don't recall them being a popular wild edible there. 

They grow only in the highlands and are a reminder of the biogeographical melting pot that the flora of Costa Rica is, being located in a geologically young land between two continents and two seas. I remember the foggy and chilly highland days looking for plants in the national park, occasionally smelling sulphur from the fumaroles or occasionally hearing sounds from the volcano. By sleeping in the park I had the chance to see the crater early in the morning before the tourists flocked. And in those years the crater used to have a beautiful bright green lake, a color it doesn't always have due to changes in chemistry and activity.

Jorge (above, in Costa Rica) works as a Natural Resources Specialist with the Anacostia Watershed Society and tells me that while he’s basically a generalist, he has become very interested in freshwater ecology due to his current work. One of his projects involves freshwater mussel propagation in the area. He uses iNat in his work, “organizing bioblitzes and documenting local biodiversity in the Anacostia River watershed in DC,” and to of course help him identify unfamiliar organisms and keep a life list of what he’s seen.

[iNaturalist] has changed my understanding of the natural world by helping me learn about that plant or critter I've always wanted to know what it is but didn't always have an easy way to discover it. I always recommend the app to people and have gotten some people to start using it.

- You can see some of the bioblitzes Jorge has helped organize at the Anacostia Watershed Society’s bioblitz page, and their ongoing project can be found here.

- Jorge discusses outreach in the Latinx community in this interview from 2012 and in this panel discussion from 2019. And here’s first person footage of a mussel survey he conducted.

- He was also interviewed for the Oyster Ninja podcast.

- Check out the most-faved Vaccinium observations on iNat here.

Posted on September 07, 2021 11:45 PM by tiwane tiwane | 10 comments | Leave a comment

September 14, 2021

Worm Wars in the Intertidal - Observation of the Week, 9/14/21

Our Observation of the Week is this worm-on-worm action - a New Zealand Paddle Worm (Eulalia microphylla) attacking a Flatworm (Phylum Platyhelminthes)! Seen by @dave_holland.

Last month, Dave Holland explored the intertidal area in West Auckland with Oscar (“another ‘nature addict’”), who he’d recently met. “He was showing me all the super cool spots around his home base,” says Dave.

This particular day we ended up flipping rocks in the intertidal zone - a great way to find all sorts of unusual critters. Normally any critters living on the underside of the rock exit stage left as fast as possible, but this time something very very interesting happened.

As he was recording video of a flatworm on the rock, Dave saw New Zealand paddle worm came across it and “the light green stuff exploded out and grabbed the flatworm then would shrink back into the [paddle worm] if the flatworm wriggled out!” Forgetting that he was shooting video, Dave started snapping photos with his camera instead, and those are what you see in this blog post. 

A member of Family Phyllodocidae, the paddle worm is a polychaete, also known as bristle worms due to the chitinous bristles (called chaetae) protruding from each segment. A polychaete can evert its pharnyx, or in some cases a longer proboscis, for hunting and feeding, and this one’s nice and bright green!  

While a fan of all nature, Dave (below, in Australia) says his current interests lie with New Zealand’s over 100 native reptile species, accurately identifying Vespula germanica and Vespula vulgaris (both invasive to the islands), and finding newly naturalizing exotic plant species. 

New Zealand already has literally the worst weed problem on Earth with over two and a half thousand species of exotic plant [having] escaped cultivation and invading/diluting/replacing our native ecosystems. Myself and other iNatters are discovering new plant species escaping every day, some of these are the new generation of climax weeds that will invade, overtop and replace the huge areas of newly created habitat of urban native plantings that are being created around cities as the ecological consciousness of the urban population improves.

He also recently started the Bird Dispersed Weed & Potential Weeds NZ project to bring awareness to non-native plants being dispersed by birds.

While acknowledging that it’s “far from perfect,” Dave thinks iNat “has the power to educate, education has the power to change consciousness, changing consciousness has the power to change the future.” And also, “using iNat has further decreased my speed [when out in nature]. I was pretty damn slow before because I have always seen cool stuff, but using iNat has made my progress through the world gastropodially slow, because now I am looking at nature through a macro lens.”

(Photo of Dave by Kaddi Bitcher)

- Take a look at some of the remarkable most-faved polychaetes and flatworms on iNat.

- This video of Los Angeles County marine worms has some nice footage of a polychaete everting its pharyx at around 2:10.

- Check out two past wormy Observations of the Week - this enormous polychaete and this land planarian!

Posted on September 14, 2021 11:05 PM by tiwane tiwane | 12 comments | Leave a comment