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

September 27, 2017

(Bonus!) Observation of the Week, 9/26/17

A pair of juvenile conehead mantids, beautifully photographed in France by @imalipusram, is our Observation of the Week!

Sometimes an observation is cool not because the organism it depicts is uncommon or out of range - sometimes it’s a common animal, but one that is seen in a new light. Regardless of its “official” taxon, each observation on iNaturalist is also an observation of a human, and we all see and photograph nature differently - like the photograph at the top of this post, which depicts not the standard colors and surface details of the insects, but captures their shape (that head!) and behavior in a unique way. The diversity of iNaturalist users and their perspectives is pretty awesome.

Jeremie Lapeze (@imalipusram) grew up on a farm in the south of France, among “omnipresent” nature, and has been interested in wildlife since he was a young boy, when he raised mantids and crickets with his brother. The conehead mantis (Empusa penata), he says “has been my favorite insect for a long time. It's a common species of southern France. Common, but it's difficult to find because it a specialist in mimicry, and for many people this species is invisible.”

Jeremie recalls the evening when he took the photo for this observation:

I went in the field to find insects, and this evening the light was especially beautiful with the sunset and the cloudy sky. I found a lot of Empusa pennata, as usual, in my favorite place (a field close to my house). And I started a shooting session of these two specimens. The crazy thing was, on the other side, a rainbow shone in the sky! I shot some photos with the rainbow in the background, but the result didn’t satisfy me [see below], because there was a stain on my lens and the photos weren’t very good. But the shot with backlighting was really nice, and one of the twenty photos was better because one of the conehead mantid tried to “play-leg” with the other.

Conehead mantids range throughout southern Europe, but as Jeremie says they have very effective camouflage and are not often seen. As his photo shows, not only does the “cone” on its head break up its body shape, the protrusions from its abdomen do as well. Combined with a very “shaky” locomotion, it is a master ambush predator. Other unique aspects of this species is its use of pheromones rather than vision as a key method for finding mates, and the fact that its life cycle starts in late summer/autumn and finishes in the spring. “It's one of the only species of insect you can find during winter,” says Jeremie.

While only twenty-two years of age, Jeremie (above, with a young Empusa pennata on his hat) has already completed two entomological internships, with Société Entomologique Antilles Guyane and Museo Entomologico de Leon, in in French Guiana and Nicaragua, respectively. He continues his study of the neotropics and at the moment he is on the island of Guadaloupe where he and the others on the island recently endured Hurricane Maria (which is why this blog post is a bit late). He stresses iNaturalist’s value as a place to share observations and to connect with other passionate naturalists. “It's important for the sciences to share,” he says “to improve knowledge about nature and to protect it!”

- by Tony Iwane

(Note that because Jeremie’s first language is not English, I did clean up some of his quotes for clarity.)


- Jeremie’s got some more great photos on his Flickr page, check them out!

- Because conehead mantids use pheremones to find their mates, males have large, feathery, moth-like antenna - like this one

- The New York Times has a good list of ways you can help islands that have been devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Posted on September 27, 2017 03:50 AM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

September 25, 2017

We've reached 150,000 observers!

2 weeks ago, we celebrated reaching 6,000,000 observations. This week, we have a related, but slightly different milestone to celebrate. We now have over 150,000 'observers' - ie people who have contributed at least one observation*! Here's all 150,000 observers (scaled by number of observations each). A big thank you to everyone who has contributed!

Here's another way of looking at that same data by plotting number of observers on the x-axis and number of observations on the y-axis. The curve shows the number of observers with at least that many observations.


So at the top of the curve we see @finatic in first place with 52,656 observations, @erikamitchell in second place with 36,662 observations etc.... Interestingly, the intersection of the number of observers and the number of observations is just shy of 1,000. In other words, there are just about 1,000 observers on iNaturalist who have each posted at least 1,000 observations.

Both these graphs show the disproportionate contribution that iNat power-users like finatic, erikamitchell, @jaykeller, @sambiology, @dpom etc. have had towards the total pool of 6,000,000 observations posted so far. I'm going to take this opportunity to coin a new unit of measurement which I'm calling the finatic with a current exchange rate of 52,656 observations. That means the picture below of sambiology, @psyllidhipster and @treegrow (courtesy of @muir from the recent 2017 iNat-athon in Southeast Arizona) weighs in at 42,240 (29,454+6,146+6,640) cumulative observations. Or 0.8 finatics.





Likewise, this picture of finatic, jaykeller, sambiology, @silversea_starsong, and @nathantaylor7583 (also muir's & from the iNat-athon) clocks in at 135,928 (3,769+20,372+52,656+29,454+29,677) cumulative observations. Or 2.58 finatics. If anyone can produce a picture worth more finatics than this one, I'd love to see it!



Its fun to joke around with competitions around these stats (I get great satisfaction pointing out to @kueda that he's fallen down to 20th place on the identifier leaderboard while I'm holding on in 18th place...). But it really is the hard work that each of these individual observers has put in recording and sharing observations (combined with the equally important work of the iNat identifier community) that makes all the science coming out of iNaturalist possible. This includes our recent computer vision analyses which is completely trained off of iNaturalist observations and identifications. Also our ongoing work to try to get a handle on the spatio-temporal distributions of organisms. For example, the visualization below of the spring bloom of Yellow trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) across the eastern US is completely driven by iNaturalist observations. And also all of these studies that have used data from iNaturalist shared via GBIF.





Sophisticated analyses like these computer vision and spatio-temporal examples are extremely data hungry, and the iNaturalist data stream has only just grown to the point where really exciting 'big data' analyses are possible. Our computer vision model, for example, is trained up on about 20 thousand species for which we have enough data. This may seem like a lot of species, but it really represents just a tiny fraction of the 2,000,000+ species we know are out there. So we have alot of work still to do!

Hopefully, this is just the tip of the iceberg. If we can sustain the growth rate in iNaturalist observations from the past seven years into the next three years, we'll be dealing with around 50,000,000 observations a year in 2020. While there are a thousand reasons why we shouldn't expect to be able to maintain this growth rate, its exciting to think about what this volume of observations would allow scientists studying life on Earth to do. Imagine the computer-vision and spatio-temporal analyses from the examples above working on hundreds of thousands of species from around the globe - that would be pretty cool!


And to continue this likely shamefully over optimistic projection, in order to reach that 2020 5,000,000 observation goal we'd need contributions from about 1,000,000 observers up from the current 150,000. And before reaching 1,000,000 observers starts seeming like an easy thing to pull off, remember that only represents a tiny fraction of the people iNaturalist would have to reach. For example, iNaturalist is now getting over 100,000 visitors to the website and over 7 thousand app downloads (iOS + Android) each week. But only about 500,000 of these visitors have taken the next step and created iNat accounts. And of these half a million people, only about 1/3 (150,000) have actually posted observations.



What would it take to try to get 1,000,000 people out observing nature by 2020? Is it possible for iNaturalist to scale that much and still be such a polite and knowledgable community of awesome people? I'm not sure 50,000,000 observations in 2020 is a realistic goal, but its kind of a neat number to keep in mind for where we'd be if we were somehow able to stay the coarse for another three years!


*As usual, when I count observations I mean 'verifiable' observations. We've actually had more like 190,000 people post about 7.3 million observations if you include 'casual' observations (that is observations without photos, or of captive organisms, or missing dates/locations etc.)

Posted on September 25, 2017 02:20 AM by loarie loarie | 70 comments | Leave a comment

September 23, 2017

Observation of the Week, 9/23/17

Our Observation of the Week is this Small giant clam, seen in Egypt by @wernerdegier!

Currently an intern at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, Werner de Gier is already on his second project there, revising and figuring “a lot of species of the genus Ptychotrema, a group of African cannibal snails. I used a CT-scanner to examine the internal shell structures and tried to solve the complex taxonomy of these species.” This is already after describing two new species of caridean shrimp in Indonesia, “which were associated with colourful tunicates,” so he’s been busy.

And it was on a vacatoin to Hurghada, Egypt, that Werner (below, “showing my snorkeling mask and sense of holiday-fashion”) found the Small giant clam (Tridacna maxima). After exploring the tidal pools near his resort, Werner says

When I almost decided to head back to the beach, I saw a weird brownish blob a few meters ahead. It was a huge Tridacna maxima, which I had never seen of that size and more importantly, had never seen being above the water at low tide. The living shell was partly contracted, but open enough for me to take some pictures. Armed with my second hand camera and being aware of the waves coming in, I took some overview shots of the shell. When I decided to turn around, I felt a splash of water hitting my back. Apparently I placed my feet to close to the shell, triggering the shell to shoot some water out while closing a bit.

While it is a large bivalve, Tridacna maxima gets its common name from the fact that is the smallest of the giant clams, the average specimen being not much more than 20 cm in length. By contrast, the largest attain a length of 120 cm! Like other bivalves, Tridacna maxima is a filter feeder, siphoning in seawater and digest planktonic organisms. However, it derives much of its nutrients from a symbiotic relationship with algae, who create food through photosynthesis. This is one reason they are found in shallower waters than other giant clams. This exposure to the sun is believed the reason for the incredible colors of its mantle - crystalline pigments possibly give them protection from solar rays. The beauty and small size of Tridacna maxima, alas, makes it a target for the aquarium trade. In fact, try and find a video on YouTube 

“Thanks to a friend of mine (@franzanth) I got into iNaturalist and I have to say I’m even a bit addicted to it,” says Werner. “I really like the format of experts identifying tricky species and love the diversity of the species being submitted...I have recommended this community to a few friends of mine and since we’ll be traveling the world as biologists in a few months, I think this is the perfect way to see what’s everybody been up to.”

- by Tony Iwane


- Not only is Werner a published biologist, he’s also creates some great scientific illustrations

- You can check him out on Twitter as well.

- Interesting article about the importance of giant clams in the reef ecosystem.

Posted on September 23, 2017 11:19 PM by tiwane tiwane | 1 comments | Leave a comment

September 22, 2017

Observation of the Week, 9/21/17

Our Observation of the Week is this Euphorbia ankarensis plant, seen in Madagascar by @fabienrahaingo!

Apologies for the tardiness of this blog post, but this week’s observer, Fabien Rahaingoson, has been busy in the field and wasn’t able to get back to me until now. He’s currently spending most of his time collecting seeds and herbs for the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. “I collect the seeds with local communities and at the same time I also collect these specimen and send them to Kew and TAN herbarium here in Madagascar,” explains Fabien.

Fabien came across this Euphorbia ankarenesis while working with the community of Andavakoera, in northern Madagascar. It was growing in the Montagne des Français Protected Area. He was immediately interested in it, so he photographed it and added it to iNaturalist. Like other members of its fascinating genus, this plant exudes a milky-white toxic sap when cut, and its flowers are minimal, comprised of only the sexual organs needed for reproduction. Leaves and other plant structures have replaced petals and sepals as ways to attract pollinators. Euphorbia ankarensis lives in the rich humus that collects in limestone formations of the Falaise de l'Ankarana mountain range, from which it gets its species name. Fabien’s observation is one of only three that have been uploaded to iNaturalist so far, and the plant is considered Globally Endangered by the IUCN, threatened by fire, habitat loss, and collection for the plant trade.

Fabien and his colleagues add their observations to the Zavamaniry Gasy Plants of Madagascar project, part of a larger initiative funded by a grant from the JRS Biodiversity Foundation. “For this project we try to promote Malagasy plants with support of @TeamKMCC twitter account,” says Fabien. Thus far, over 10,000 observations of 2,418 species have been added to the project, with hopefully many more on the horizon.

- by Tony Iwane


- Madagascar has quite an array of botanical wonders, check out the over 100 faved observations from the Zavamaniry Gasy Plants of Madagascar project.

- Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank is pretty incredible, learn more about it here.

- Several years ago, our own @loarie visited Madagascar and made a short video of the trip! 

Posted on September 22, 2017 12:49 AM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

September 20, 2017

How iNternational is iNaturalist?


iNaturalist is most active in the US, but has observations in over 95% of all countries globally. This chart below orders the countries in descending order by the number of observations. It also displays the top 5 observers and below that the top 5 identifiers in each country which you can click on the observers and identifiers to explore further. Click here to open the chart in a new window:


Posted on September 20, 2017 02:36 PM by loarie loarie | 11 comments | Leave a comment
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