November 18, 2017

Observation of the Week, 11/18/17



Our Observation of the Week is this fungus growing out of a Euryrus leachii millipede, seen in Ohio by hazelsnail!

hazelsnail remembers “the summer when I was three years old, and I got to experience the emerging of 17-year periodical cicadas. I was obsessed with them, and I have been obsessed with invertebrates ever since.” Now a 17 year-old herself, she’s already taking college courses while still in high school and plans on going into the field of genetics “so that I can continue to learn about [snails, millipedes, isopods, fungi] and more...by continuing to share photos of the species I encounter, and the art I make that is inspired by them, I try to show others the beauty of the small, often overlooked parts of the natural world.”

The photo above, she says, is an example of that.

The species of the millipede in the picture, Euryurus leachii, is found in large numbers throughout the woods around my home. Because of this, it was one of the first millipede species I ever encountered, making it partially responsible for the interest I now have in them. When I discovered the dead millipede with the fungus under a piece of bark, I was very excited. It is always amazing to see the ecosystem in action, and this was a perfect example. Not only that, but it showed a beautiful little interaction between two of the groups I am the most passionate about, so I had to get a picture to share.

So far the iNat community hasn’t been able to identify the fungus beyond being in the Zygote family; some members of the family are parasitic, while others grow on decaying matter. The millipede species is a colorful one (when it’s alive) and like most millipedes is detritivore. According to BugGuide, it’s found almost only under and within rotting logs of non-coniferous trees.

hazelsnail (above, on a trip to Hocking Hills), says that

since joining iNaturalist [earlier this year], my identification skills have greatly improved. I also use observations to know what areas to go to see the species I am interested in when I travel. This is very handy, and has made planning trips much more efficient. Before, I would just stop at random parks and hope for the best, but now when pressed for time, I can know where the target species has been seen, and focus on that specific area. Even though I am not the most talkative person, being able to connect with others who share my interests through iNaturalist has been amazing, and something that does not often happen otherwise. I wish I had discovered it sooner!

- by Tony Iwane


- You can check hazelsnail’s drawings and nature photos on Instagram!

- Like some other millipedes, Euryurus leachii fluoresces under UV light.

Posted on November 18, 2017 07:12 PM by tiwane tiwane | 2 comments | Leave a comment

November 14, 2017

Observation of the Week, 11/14/17



This pair of blackmouth catsharks, seen off of Spain by @gmucientes, is our Observation of the Week!

A marine biologist who’s currently researching the spatial ecology of pelagic sharks, Gonzalo Sandoval is often far away from the mainland while at work, off of the Azores or Cape Verde, so last month’s research excursion just off of northwestern Spain, was a pretty short sojourn for him.

He was conducting a survey about blue sharks, and recalls taht “while waiting for the blue sharks to appear we wondered what shark species live at the very bottom. We were able to capture two Galeus melastomus [blackmouth catsharks] individuals at 700 meters depth.” Gonzalo uses “rod and reel and longliners” to capture sharks for his surveys, and says

juveniles live in shallower waters than adults, this explains why I found these juvenile sharks in not very deep water. Adults can [dive to] 1400m. This shark is abundant in the northeast Atlantic continental slope. It is oviparous and can have several mature eggs in oviduct simultaneously. Despite fishing pressure (by-catch) populations don't seem to decline.”

Named, unsurprisingly, for the black color of its mouth tissue, blackmouth catsharks are generalist feeders, who often swim along the muddy bottoms and use the the ampullae of lorenzini in their large snouts to suss out prey - often crustaceans, fish, and cephalopods. They grow to about 67 cm (26 in) in length, and weigh about 1.4 kg (3.1 lb).

As these juvenile sharks were not a target species for Gonzalo, and were very small, they were let go without being tagged. In addition to blue sharks, he also studies shortfin mako sharks, and says he is “currently conducting a PhD in spatial ecology, feeding and fisheries of the mako. In combination with my academic activity, I regularly get involved in scientific surveys and other research projects as a professional diver or biologist consultant.”

Gonzalo (above, tagging a mako), explains that

since I was a kid, I enjoyed watching animals in their habitats and trying to understand their behaviours. First close from home. Later, on bigger exploration trips across mountains, jungles and the open ocean... I consider myself a passionate life watcher in my free time and a marine biologist at work...iNaturalist is the perfect tool to organise my field data and contribute to the ecological pool knowledge and share these observations with other people interested.

by Tony Iwane


- Here are videos of a tagged mako being released, as well as a group of juvenile blue sharks from Gonzalo’s work. 

- Gonzalo is the co-founder of Ecologia Azul, an association of people dedicated to research, exploration and conservation of nature.

Posted on November 14, 2017 11:31 PM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

November 10, 2017

Observation of the Week, 11/9/17

Our (belated) Observation of the Week is the first spotted harlequin snake post to iNaturalist! Seen in South Africa by @alexanderr.

This Observation of the Week is actually for two weeks ago, but observer Alex Rebelo was out in the field and we weren’t able to connect until this week. Growing up “with a botanist as a father and an ecologist as a mother in South Africa,” Alex says he “was out in the field so often and could gain insight from my parents, [so] I became interested in nature.” He earned a Masters of Science in Biology with a special interest in herpetology, and is currently an intern at Bayworld Museum in Port Elizabeth, “mainly to gain experience with Werner Conradie and the herpetology collection. I'm interested in Biogeography and Ecology, not quite sure about Taxonomy yet.”

On a July weekend this year, Alex “decided to go scratch around in a nearby Nature Reserve in Port Elizabeth,” which is where he found the spotted harlequin snake under a rock. “I wasn't expecting to find it and it was a pretty surprise, luckily very chilled out so I could get some pictures.”

Spotted harlequin snakes, which are endemic to southern Africa, are semi-fossorial and love to dig and burrow in soft sand and soil, so looking under rocks is commonly how they’re found. They specialize in eating snakes and small lizards, especially legless skinks. The snakes do possess venom but are not known to be aggressive at all, and humans who have been bitten usually suffer headaches and localized swelling.

“I use Citizen Science to contribute towards Conservation and Science, but also acknowledge its value to education and public interest,” says Alex, above. “I have used Citizen Science distribution data and it is very valuable (for biogeography and climate change monitoring and others), especially in an era when Scientists/taxonomists do not go out into the field and collect specimens. It forms a major part of Red List Assessment criteria, and distribution data is sorely lacking for many species.”

- by Tony Iwane


- Here’s a nice little short video of a spotted harlequin snake in the wild.

- In Afrikaans, it’s called Gespikkelde Harlekynslang.

Posted on November 10, 2017 12:34 AM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

November 04, 2017

Observation of the Week, 11/4/17

Our Observation of the Week is this Crassula pyramidalis plant, seen in South Africa by @sallyslak!

iNat has recently received a raft of new users from South Africa who’ve been providing some fantastic observations, including the incredible plant you see above, which was documented by Sally Adam. Sally says “I can't remember a time when I wasn't [interested in nature]. My parents report having found me sitting on the back step (aged 2) with a caterpillar on a lollipop stick - when asked, I informed them I was training the creature to walk along the stick. I'm interested in anything outdoors and am always amazed at how much is going on right under one's nose - one hardly needs leave one's garden to make interesting observations.”

Sally counts himself lucky to live on 100ha of bush, “so I spend a lot of time documenting what lives on the property (project "Slakplaas"),” and is a member of CREW (Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers), a group which monitors rare plants on the Southern Cape.

During a recent break, Sally stopped on a farm in Matjiesfontein in the Great Karoo.

It has been very dry in that area and the weather was miserably cold and windy but I decided to spend a few hours wandering around the koppie (small hill) to see if any flowers were braving the conditions. There were several species of Crassula in full bloom but just the one pyramidalis - I had not seen the species before and was delighted with its squat look and orange moptop.

Crassula pyramidalis, also known sometimes as pagoda mini jade, is a fascinating succulent. Its leaves are so closely overlapping (“imbricated”) that the stem is all but hidden. The leaves’ axils are themselves are covered with hairs, which trap moisture. Once it’s done flowering, however, it will wither and die. Probably the most well known of the Crassula plants is the jade plant, which is very common in households.

An iSpot user for several years, Sally (above, with a cat friend) has only recently started up with iNaturalist and says “ I'm finding it a great place to get identifications, to store a record of things that I see and learn from what other people post. The app is fantastic for instant uploads while I'm out and about and often there's an ID before I get home.”

Using platforms like iSpot and iNaturalists has “undoubtedly” changed the way Sally has interacted with nature, and he loves the connections he makes with other naturalists:

I'm much more likely to document something knowing that there's someone out there who will be interested, while at the same time I get an identification and often additional information from an expert. I recently posted some pics of dead ants on the tips of grasses - after some nudging from fellow citizen scientists, I ended up sampling the ants and sending them off to a researcher in the field of ant entomopathogenic fungi in the US. Without the interface provided by these platforms it's unlikely I would even have photographed the ants, let alone get them into the welcoming hands of a scientist. I'm not alone when I say I would be quite lost without this site!

- by Tony Iwane


- There are nearly 900 Crassula observations posted to iNat, check out the crazy diversity of this genus!

Posted on November 04, 2017 11:06 PM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

November 03, 2017

SoCal Squirrels and iNat

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLA) is really doing some cool urban wildlife biology work with iNaturalist. I wrote a blog post about Greg Pauly and his RASCals project a few months ago, and wanted to highlight his colleague Miguel Ordeñana’s (@mordenana) outreach work here.

An urban wildlife biologist who specializes in mammals, Miguel discovered the famed mountain lion of Griffith Park, P-22, and also researches coyotes, bobcats, foxes, bats, and many other elusive animals - most of which can only be regularly documented using camera traps. However, he is also enlisting southern Californians to document their sightings of those ubiquitous urban rodents, squirrels. The common native tree squirrel of southern california is the western gray squirrel, but it has not adapted well to urbanization and to an introduced species from eastern North America, the fox squirrel, which is aggressive and quite at home in the city.

The Southern California Squirrel Survey, started by Miguel and his colleague Jim Dines (@jdines), is a way for anyone to contribute sightings of squirrels and help Miguel and Jim track the spread of the fox squirrel and study the western gray squirrels’ response. They’ve already amassed nearly 3,000 observations from nearly 800 contributors and the data corresponds quite well with previous “old-fashioned” scientific surveys. With continuing contributions from iNat users, they’ll be able to get up-to-date range maps and keep an eye on the western gray squirrel’s status. And as Miguel writes, “This is an opportunity to educate southern Californians about nonnative-native species ecology and the natural history of a group of mammal species that many people see almost every day.”

I had the opportunity to talk with Miguel earlier this year, and here’s a video of part of our conversation about the squirrel survey project. He’s speaks about how consistent engagement is key for maintaining strong projects, and is excited about the data they’re getting. He’s also passionate about engaging communities that otherwise might feel barriers between themselves and the scientific community, which he touches on here.

- Tony Iwane


- Here’s a profile of Miguel from the LA Weekly, and an interview with Latino Outdoors.

- iNat squirrel observations were used in this study, which projects probable squirrel range expansions in the greater Los Angeles Metropolitan area.

- Check out the trailer for The Cat that Changed America, a documentary about P-22, featuring Miguel and many others. 

Posted on November 03, 2017 06:59 PM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

October 21, 2017

Observation of the Week, 10/20/17

Our Observation of the Week is this snow leopard, seen in India by pfaucher!

Famous for being one the most elusive of the big cats, a photograph of a living, breathing snow leopard has not been posted to iNaturalist until last week, when Peggy Faucher added the above image (taken by her husband Marc) from their trip to Hemis National Park, in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

No strangers to travel, Peggy says “we have spent the last 31 years exploring the world’s wild places and incredible diversity of life. My passion for wildlife and Marc’s expertise in photography are the perfect combination allowing us to not only view animals but to capture images to share with others.” The couple are now retired allowing them to expand the scope of their travels and maintain a blog of their adventures.

This trip started out at an elevation of 11,562 feet (for acclimatization) before they set out to Hemis National Park (home to about 200 snow leopards) with their guides Dorje Skiu and Dorje Tsewang. After two days of scanning the ridges (at 15,000 feet!) to no avail, “we decided to head up the Rumbak Valley in search of the hard-to-find felines. Suddenly our assistant local guide shouts ‘Snow Leopard!’  Somehow he had spotted a Snow Leopard sitting on the top of a ridge about a mile and a half away!”

Through our binoculars and a spotting scope we could get a good view of the cat. Marc was able to get a reasonably good photo with his new 500mm lens with an 1.4x teleconverter. Hauling all this heavy camera equipment finally paid off.

We watched the leopard for about 15 minutes before he disappeared behind the ridge...and an hour and 40 minutes later he made a second appearance! He walked along the ridge, stretched and began stalking [it’s favorite prey], blue sheep. We watched in anticipation as two groups of blue sheep moved closer to his location. Surely we would witness a kill... The snow leopard was in the perfect position and the blue sheep were unaware.  

Suddenly, all the blue sheep ran over the ridge and disappeared. Had they detected the cat? Had the cat made a kill on the other side of the ridge out of our view? The guides went down valley and briefly saw the leopard again so apparently he hadn't made a kill. Oh well, it was a thrilling encounter just the same!

Ranging through the mountains of South and Central Asia, snow leopards are well adapted to their cold habitat. A thick grey coat, large snowshoe-like feet, and a large tail used for balance and fat storage help them survive in the frigid mountains. Because of its secretive nature and rugged home terrain, researchers have had difficulty accurately determining the snow leopard’s world population, but an estimate from 2016 “proposed a population of 4,700 to 8,700 individuals across only 32 percent of the species' range, suggesting that the total number of snow leopards was larger than previously thought.” (Wikipedia) That number, however, is in dispute. It’s thought that climate change, human retaliation to (rare) leopard attacks on livestock, and poaching are the main factors contributing to the cat’s population decline. It’s currently listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN.

“iNaturalist has provided us a platform to catalog many of our observations of wildlife and to share our findings with the scientific community,” explains Peggy. Ecuador is their next destination (“Stay tuned for more observations,” she says) and they’re currently delving into their past photos and adding them to iNat as well. “We have a big project in front of us as we have seen many amazing creatures over the past 31 years!”

- by Tony Iwane


- Here’s Peggy and Mark’s blog post about the snow leopard sighting!

- The BBC has fantastic footage of a snow leopard on the hunt. 

- The Faucher's trip was arranged by Indian naturalist Avijit Sarkhel, who runs Vana Safaris.

Posted on October 21, 2017 02:13 AM by tiwane tiwane | 3 comments | Leave a comment

October 13, 2017

Observation of the Week, 10/13/17

It’s a three-fer Observation of the Week, with a lingcod whose stomach contained both a yelloweye rockfish and an octopus! Seen in Alaska by @rolandwirth.

“The lingcod is known to be a voracious feeder and local fisherman are always curious to see what its most recent meal might have been,” explains Roland Wirth. He and his partner Michele have lived on Sitka for 27 years now, and says “we have enjoyed intertwining our love of outdoor adventure with the local subsistence traditions in gathering food from the surrounding pristine land and ocean environments...Each season brings with it, our eager anticipation for collection of some wild food to fill our freezers and share with friends.” 

Roland had set up up a subsistence halibut line, which is what snagged the lingcod. “In this case, one could conjecture that the lingcod had consumed an octopus and then the “yelloweye”, as they are locally named (turkey-red rockfish), with the yelloweye perhaps trying to get in one last bite of octopus while residing in the lingcod’s stomach. But the sequence of events will remain a mystery… What is amazing is that the lingcod was still hungry enough at this point to bite a baited hook.”

As Roland said up front, lingcod are known as voracious eaters and will pretty much snag anything they can fit in their mouths, including rockfish and octopus, two of their favorites. A good sized lingcod can reach lengths of 120 cm and 32 kg, so it’s a mighty beast whose main non-human predators are pinnipeds such as seals and sea lions. And while not a ling or a cod, it gets its common name due to its outer appearance resembling the former and its white, flakey flesh resembling that of the latter. Interestingly, its flesh is a blue-green color before it’s cooked.

Roland and Michele are using iNat to “[fulfill] our dream of cataloging the inventory of species observed on the one-acre island where we have built our home,” as well as joining in the Sitka Island Big Year project and their further travels. “iNaturalist has become a great tool for me to learn more about my surroundings, encouraging me to make more careful observations, and by gaining new insights through the postings of other naturalists,” says Roland. “I view my contributions as a lifelong endeavor which will continue to enhance my appreciation of our natural world.”

- by Tony Iwane


- Check out this lingcod trying to swallow a very large rockfish!

- A chef at the Monterey Bay Aquarium prepares pan-seared lingcod. Most lingcod is listed as “Best Choice” on their Seafood Watch sustainability guide.

Posted on October 13, 2017 10:25 PM by tiwane tiwane | 1 comments | Leave a comment

October 10, 2017

iNaturalist Community Guidelines

Hello all. As I'm sure you're aware, iNat is growing. As you may not be aware, the bigger we get, the more unpleasant behavior we see. Site admins like me deal with more of it than most because we get asked to step in and mediate. It's not a huge problem yet, but it does get more prevalent as we attract more people. To help keep iNat the fun and friendly place it has been for years, we'd like to adopt a set of community guidelines like most other social media platforms do. These are guidelines for how we all expect each other to behave on iNaturalist and on iNat-related forums like the Google Group. However, we, the site admins, don't want to simply impose them on everyone by fiat. Instead, we're publishing them here as a draft for you to review and comment on:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1G89KdkrhCZKKh_aMFGbPxgoMW6usWQ5lV8zuWfNsw98/edit?usp=sharing

Please let us know what you think! You should be able to comment on that Google doc (I'm not sure that's the best way to solicit a lot of feedback, but let's see) and you can also comment on this blog post. I've written this original draft with input from the admin team, but I definitely want to hear about other ideas. Also, please note that the Guidelines refer to some functionality that hasn't been released yet, like Blocking and Muting. These proved to be somewhat controversial when we broached the subject in the Google Group, so we wanted to release them with these guidelines so everyone knows how to use (and not abuse) them.

Posted on October 10, 2017 12:55 AM by kueda kueda | 137 comments | Leave a comment

October 07, 2017

Observation of the Week, 10/7/17

Our Observation of the Week is a tiny dot-seed plantain, seen in California by @silversea_starsong!

After writing this blog for about two years now, I’ve read a lot of iNat users fondly recalling that nature books or David Attenborough documentaries were what got them into nature, but James Bailey is the first one to credit his passion for nature to a video game!

“My first introduction to nature was through a video game called Animal Crossing,” he tells me, “when I was around 6 years old.”

One feature was that you could catch fish and bugs which appeared randomly throughout the world. There was a field guide to fill in, and you could donate them to a museum where they became living exhibits, similar to those tropical butterfly houses...Looking back, it is interesting how eerily similar some events in the game were to what I face today as a naturalist. Nonetheless, this interest quickly translated to real life, except for one big difference: in Animal Crossing, there were only 48 types of bugs. In real life, there were plants, birds, not to mention all the other thousands of bugs in the world. This was my first exposure to "listing", something that has probably founded my hobby more than I'd like to admit.

James tried various ways to visualize his natural history data over the years, but couldn’t find a satisfactory solution. He explains, “this problem made it hard for me to appreciate what I was really doing, and my interest actually fell, and I spent way more time indoors.” He eventually discovered iNaturalist in 2015, however. “It was a slow start, but my interest in the hobby was eventually rekindled. Now that the data side was taken care of automatically, I could actually open my eyes and appreciate the natural world...The hobby started out as mere recreation of sorts, but it now became a real, invested journey. Not to mention that iNat opened my eyes to a lot of groups that I had previously overlooked, like snails and mosses.”

His hobby brought him to the Valido Badlands of southern California this summer, where he was mapping plant populations and stumbled up on the puny plant in the above photo. It wasn’t even his favorite find of the day.

“I had knelt down, hesitantly, since the white sand was boiling in the summer heat, to photograph a colony of pincushion plant (Navarretia hamata). Before standing, I had a quick look around for ants, and noticed some odd "blobs" out in the sand. To my surprise, it was not just another piece of dirt, but Plantago! I spend a lot of time on the ground looking for things like springtails and liverworts, so I guess I have an eye for the little guys. I remember that outing most for the leucistic roadrunner!

Currently James calls himself “the epitome of a generalist.” But like the plantain, he says he finds beauty in the small and the not often noticed. “My main focus though is looking for micro-habitats and studying small-scale ecology. There are many tiny little communities that you can't appreciate from standing up, and they often have the most interesting species.”

- by Tony Iwane


- James specializes in North American ladybugs and even created an iOS app about them!

- In case you wanted to watch someone playing Animal Crossing for 50 minutes...

- James started a fantastic Amazing Aberrants project, check it out!

Posted on October 07, 2017 10:59 PM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

October 05, 2017

Observation of the Week, 10/4/17

This owlfly larva, seen in Hong Kong’s Sha Tin district by @portioid, is our Observation of the Week!

“I was hiking up a monastery here in HK with my girlfriend, with my camera in my backpack, when she pointed to a small animal on the side of the track,” recalls portioid, describing the moment when he found the beast seen above. “I was only half-joking when I told her she discovered an alien, as I had absolutely no idea what it could be (normally I at least roughly know). At home, I guessed antlion, and later learned that something called an owlfly exists :)”

Owlflies and antlions are both families in the order Neuroptera, which also includes other cool families like lacewings and mantidflies, so portioid was pretty close to the mark here. And like the larvae of those families, owlfly larvae are predatory, possessing large mandibles, as you can clearly see from the photo! Adults are predatory as well, and look somewhat akin to dragonflies in what is believed to be a form of batesian mimicry. Big eyes and crepuscular habits are what garnered owlflies their common name.

portiod has recently rekindled his hobby of photographing small animals, telling me that he noticed some “cool wasps catching grasshoppers” while at the beach with some friends. “I accidentally discovered iNaturalist when looking for an ID,” he says, “and have been hooked ever since! This website is a long-hedged dream come true, and I'm convinced this is only the beginning. Fed up with having to use my phone camera, I invested in some semi-professional camera equipment.” He uses Canon’s MP-E65 at times, but says his Sigma 150mm “hits the sweet spot of catching small animals from 20cm to several meters away.” portioid also posts his photos under a Creative Commons license, explaining that “[photos locked up behind copyright] greatly harm science, art, and culture in general. I want everyone to be able to create new works, such as nature guides, without having to run after every single picture.”

“I'm kind of addicted to iNaturalist!” he admits. “It's a perfect place to organize observations; great people will help with identifications; I can revisit observations, getting a feeling for the species in the area, and learning the taxa. It gives me the feeling I'm part of something big: mapping Life on this planet. Also, I'm feeding the AI algorithm, I can't wait for it to grow up!”

- by Tony Iwane


- Check out portioid’s spectacular macro work on his Flickr photostream.

- Here are the top owlfly observations on iNat!

- Like the larvae of lacewings and antlions, some owlfly larvae attach detritus (like dead bodies) to themselves as a form of camouflage. Apparently, this strategy can be traced back to the Cretaceous period.

Posted on October 05, 2017 04:50 AM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment