Half-a-Million Milestone

Wohoo! Congratulations, New York City!

A major milestone––

Who says New Yorkers don't love Nature? One half million plants, animals and fungi is a lot of affection! Five hundred thousand observations in just four years is pretty remarkable. How does that compare to other urban areas? Climate, total area, population, regional biodiversity, and other factors make direct comparisons difficult. But just for fun... Our neighbors up the coast in the Greater Boston Area (GBA) are also doing well with 480,000 observations. The GBA is four times the size of NYC, but has about half the population. On the opposite coast, the San Francisco Biodiversity Project, home of iNaturalist, has "just" over 211,000 observations. When will New York City reach 1 million observations? The charts and graphs here provide some clues.

The Chipmunk did it!––

Congratulations to Elliotte Rusty Harold (@elharo) and the Eastern Chipmunk for getting us over the half-million mark. When not laboring in his secret identity of a mild-mannered software developer, Elliotte Rusty Harold watches birds, photographs insects, and writes stories. His short fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, and numerous anthologies. He’s also authored over twenty non-fiction books, most recently Java Network Programming, 4th edition, and JavaMail API, both from O’Reilly. His house is Ravenclaw. The Chipmunk, when not foraging for acorns, fungi and berries, is busy enlarging its underground burrow, making room for winter food stores and a growing family.

Less than a Coon's age––

This graph shows the cumulative number of iNaturalist observations made in New York City since 2017 and the projected growth following the trend line. The New York City EcoFlora got started in the spring of 2017. Under the stewardship of then- project assistant, Ben Mertz, long-time NYBG volunteers were recruited and trained to use iNaturalist. They began making observations in earnest about May of that year which can be seen in the steady rise in observations. Every month an average of 15 new members join the New York City EcoFlora. On average, throughout the year, more than 1,000 New Yorkers make 10,000 observations per month. Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, 2020 saw a doubling in the rate of increase, rising from about 100,000 observations per year to 200,000 per year in 2020. In January of 2020, four hundred and thirty observers made 3,498 observations. In January 2021, five hundred thirty-two people made 7,764 observations. Based on the data to-date, our very rough estimate is that we will reach 1 million observations on Tuesday, March 14, 2023 at 9:23 AM. It's too early to say who the critter will be.

As season for everyone––

As expected, the average number of observations (and observers) rises during the warmer months and plunges every winter with sharp monthly peaks corresponding to outreach efforts and nature events. April and September are the months with the highest average number of observations and observers, corresponding to spring and fall bloom cycles, bird migrations and outreach events. Could they be related? Overall, the number of observers and observations each month are rising steadily year over year. The City Nature Challenge is a global competition to see which community can make the most observations, record the most species and engage the most number of participants. Originally between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the challenge went national in 2017 and global in 2018. Kelly O'Donnell of CUNY'S Macauley Honors College has led the New York City effort from the beginning. Every year, more organizations throughout the City join the fun. The competition was paused in 2020, but New Yorkers still participated by making observations inside their homes and gardens. This year, the event will take place from April 30 to May 3, 2021. Coordinators in every borough should be sought in your local New York City Park and nature center. Numerous organizations in New York City sponsor bioblitzes and other outreach activities encouraging more New Yorkers to use engage with Nature and use iNaturalist. EcoQuests, developed by the New York City EcoFlora and launched in August of 2017 are month-long events focused on a particular plant species or group of plants (like a genus or family) and their role in the ecology of New York City. Informed by in-depth and accessible information about the plant(s) in focus for that month, community scientists search their neighborhoods (and beyond) for as many individuals as they can find. Email alerts (sign up here) and EcoFlora journal posts are released on the first of each month with instructions on how to participate.

Conservation is fun––

In August 2017, the New York City EcoFlora launched the first EcoQuest Challenge, MONARCHS AND MILKWEEDS. Seventy observers made 325 observations of Monarch Butterflies and five species of Milkweed plants. The first EcoQuest Challenge was followed by POKEWEED PURSUIT. One hundred and fourteen participants made 1,109 observations of American Pokeweed throughout the City, driving a definite spike in the number of observations (see chart above, A season for everyone). The July 2018, TRACKING TREE OF HEAVEN EcoQuest challenge was followed in October of that year by WATCH FOR WHITE SNAKEROOT in which 181 participants observed a whopping 16,373 White Snakeroot plants. The emerging invasive Italian Arum was thoroughly documented during the ARUM ALERT EcoQuest which resulted in publication of the first report of the species as invasive in North America. Wrongly maligned as a cause of hay-fever, Goldenrods are a diverse group of fall-blooming wildflowers providing vital nutrients to pollinators late in the season as other food sources become scarce. One hundred and sixty-four New Yorkers participted in the GO FOR GOLDENROD EcoQuest, making 1,670 observations. The State of New York City's Plants 2018 catalogs nineteen Goldenrod species recorded since 1819. Keen observers found seventeen of them, including two species that had not been seen in decades (Elm-Leaved Goldenrod, not seen in New York City since 1964 and the Cut-Leaf Goldenrod, not seen since 1936). In the first project to document the uniquely urban habitat of walls in New York City, the CLIMBING THE WALLS EcoQuest challenge, documented 283 species, including eighteen species of ferns, four of which are quite rare in the City, and many plants not previously recorded as wild (e.g., Butterfly Bush, Oak Leaf Hydrangea, Russian Sage, Japanese Painted Fern and several others). For the first time ever, the February, 2021 EcoQuest challenge, SALUTE SKUNK CABBAGE has gone two weeks without a single observation. Read about these plant's amazing powers and their ecological role in the species summary here. In total, 1,136 EcoQuest participants have made 72,392 observations of 500 species. Some of New York City's super-naturalists like Kevin Sisco (@nycnatureobserver) and @elizajsyh have contributed tens of thousands of observations to every EcoQuest and are among the City's top observers and species spotters. See the EcoQuest umbrella project page here.

Battle of the Boroughs––

Is it surprising that Manhattan has twice as many observations as the next borough, the Bronx? Does Manhattan have the highest concentration of naturalists in the City? Does it have more species than any other borough? Could Central Park have anything to do with it? These are intriguing questions worth asking. The data presented here are accurate, but lack the precision necessary to reach firm conclusions on these questions. Keep in mind that observers and species are not exclusive to each borough. Multiple observers made observations in many or all of the five boroughs, so these observers and species are counted more than once. That's why the number of observers in each borough exceeds the total number of observers for New York City (17,645). Likewise the species numbers exceed the 9,223 species observed in the City. Nevertheless, with a little analysis, we can make some general conclusions. As can be seen in the table below, 123,853 of the 500,000 observations (25%) were made by the top five observers. And it just so happens that all five live in Manhattan. Staten Island accounts for less than 10 percent of the observations, but nearly equals Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx in the number of species observed. The borough also has by far the fewest number of observers. This suggests that either the diversity is so much higher on Staten Island that a handful of observers can record the same number of species as Brooklynites who are five times more numerous. It could also mean that the few observers on Staten Island concentrate on finding unique species (eg., @cbarron). Maybe it's both. These are fun and interesting findings and they point to fruitful lines of inquiry regarding outreach, engagement and the distribution of biodiversity in New York City.

Top Observers

Top Species Spotters

Top Identifiers

New York City's super-naturalists––

The naturalists in the charts above are some of New York City's super-naturalists. They account for 41.4 percent of the total observations made in New York City. Note that some observers have made relatively fewer observations but found significantly more species (e.g., @zihaowang who is number 25 in observations, but number 3 in species). And note who tops both the observer and species lists (@susanhewitt)! Susan has a keen eye for species and boundless enthusiasm for the wild members of our community. She has discovered several new plant records for New York State, all non-native species either escaped from cultivation or introduced inadvertently and hiding in plain sight. Not all of New York City's super-naturalists live in the five boroughs. Our top identifier, Sandy Wolkenberg (@sadawolk) actually lives in New York City's sixth borough, New Jersey as does another of our top observers and identifiers, Sara Rall (@srall). Wayne Fidler (@wayne_fidler), New York City's third top identifier is originally from New York state, but currently lives at Guantanamo Bay. To date, more than 17,600 individuals have observed at least one plant, animal, fungus or other organism in New York City. During the summer and fall months, around 2,000 people make an average of 15–20,000 observations per month. Through all the months of the year and from year to year, the number of observations per month, divided by the number of observers is remarkably constrained at about 13 observations per individual per month. Super-naturalists not withstanding, is there a way to increase this number? More and better outreach?

New York City's notorious twenty––

These are not necessarily the most common or abundant Aves, Amphibia, Reptilia, Mammalia, Actinopterygii, Mollusca, Arachnida, Insecta, Protozoa, Plantae, Fungi and unknowns in New York City. They are the ones we humans photograph the most. Every one is a wild member of our community and all adults and school children should be able to identify them. Note the dominance of plants among the top twenty. Plants and Fungi comprise 61 percent (303,331) of the 500,000 observations.

Notorious non-plants––

These are not necessarily the most common or abundant non-plants and fungi in New York City. They are the ones we humans photograph the most. Fourteen of the top twenty are indigenous to NYC. It's a myth that there are more Rats than there are people in New York City. These data don't prove that, but just so you know, the Brown Rat comes in at number 86 with just 325 observations.

Notorious plants and fungi––

These are not necessarily the most common or abundant plants and fungi in New York City. They are the ones we humans photograph the most. All but two of these (Violet and Dandelion) were the subject of EcoQuest challenges. Thanks to the Clean Air Act, passed in 1970, Lichens have made a remarkable comeback in New York City. Highly susceptible to air pollution, only a handful of species could be found in the region before 1970. In recent years, community scientists have documented ninety-seven species. See the Lichens of New York City project for more information. Looking for intact salt marsh habitat? Let the plants be your guide. The Groundsel Tree is a native tree or shrub that typically grows around salt marshes, just above the high tide line. At the water's edge, inundated by the tides twice a day are Cordgrasses and just behind them (at the highest tide line) is the Marsh Elder shrub. And just out of reach of the highest tides, inland of the other two is where you'll fine the Groundsel Tree. Have you ever wondered why the forest in your park has a large grove of Sassafras trees? These pioneer species with their thick, corkey bark are adapted to fire and wherever you find a large, even-aged stand is a good indication that the area had burned sometime in the past. The age of the trees can be used to approximate the date of the fire. Did you know there are eleven species of Milkweed indigenous to New York City? Only five are commonly found today. Learn more about New York City's Milkweeds here. Tree of Heaven is the preferred host of the dreaded Spotted Lantern Fly, a recent import from Asia with potential to cause great harm to parks, farms and forests. Nearly 6,000 trees are documented in NYC with pin-point accuracy, enabling pest managers to monitor where outbreaks of the pest might occur.

Thank you––

The New York City EcoFlora is a community resource. You, the naturalist community of New York City are the main contributors and beneficiaries. You decide what to observe and what it means to you. The New York City EcoFlora helps organize the information and inspire more New Yorkers to get outside and discover Nature. iNaturalist is the world's leading platform community scientists use to document Nature. It's free, easy-to-use tools enable us to share our sightings and communicate with Nature lovers around the world. Where would we be and what could we do without it? Love iNaturalist as much as we do? Please consider becoming a monthly supporter. The New York City EcoFlora was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services [MG-70-19-0057-19].

Posted by danielatha danielatha, February 16, 2021 15:58


Way to go @susanhewitt! And thank you, @danielatha for the awesome statistics.

Posted by srall over 1 year ago (Flag)

I could not do it with our your help @srall!

I still hope we can get out to Staten Island together, some time in the next year maybe... I wanna get to those good beaches!

Posted by susanhewitt over 1 year ago (Flag)

me, too!

Posted by srall over 1 year ago (Flag)

Great post! I love all the figures. Excellent work @danielatha and NYC EcoFlora participants!!

Posted by klodonnell over 1 year ago (Flag)

Thanks, Kelly @klodonnell It takes a community. You've been a leader from the beginning. Our new EcoFlora associate, Lydia Paradiso crunched the numbers and made the cool graphs. Let's make the CNC spike the chart!!

Posted by danielatha over 1 year ago (Flag)

Wonderful post with outstanding data and first rate information graphics! Special thanks to Daniel Atha of NYBG for spear-heading this effort and to all EcoFlora participants for a job well done. Now it's on to 1M observations and perhaps a few undocumented NYC species!
Ken Chaya
The Linnaean Society of New York

Posted by kenchaya over 1 year ago (Flag)

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