Rebecca Johnson giving a presentation at Effie Yeaw Nature Center on California Biodiversity Day

Every iNaturalist observation you make becomes a record showing where and when a species was present. These records can be used by scientists and decision-makers to answer questions about biodiversity and how best to protect it.

Sometimes, a single observation is enough to “re-discover” a species thought to be extinct, track a species’ recovery from disease, or even describe species that are new to science. In other cases, scientists can combine large numbers of observations with environmental data to predict where species are, and how they might change over time.


Finding new species and re-discovering lost ones

Biodiversity is everywhere. Luckily, so are community scientists! With so many eyes on the ground, community scientists are often the first to notice unusual and uncommon species. Here are some inspiring examples from recent years:

  • In 2020, during the City Nature Challenge, a high school student in Arlington County, Virginia, made an observation of a white-spotted slimy salamander during the City Nature Challenge. This species had not been seen in Arlington County since 1977, many years before the student was born!
  • In 2019, two high school students from the San Francisco Bay Area found an iNaturalist observation of an unidentified scorpion that had been made many years earlier. Another similar unknown scorpion was observed in 2021, and the students were able to tell that these two unknown species were related. In collaboration with the Academy’s Curator of Arachnology, Dr. Lauren Esposito, these students were able to formally describe and name these two scorpions.
  • In 2018, a community scientist in Oakland, California, made an observation of Diversibipalium multilineatum, a species of hammerhead worm. This turned out to be the first time this non-native species had been observed in the United States.

Creating a crowdsourced species atlas at Pillar Point

In 2007, a marine protected area (MPA) was established on the west side of Pillar Point in San Mateo County, 20 miles south of San Francisco. This means that all tidepool species, such as mussels and sea urchins, are protected from harvesting in that area. Pillar Point reef on the eastern side was intentionally excluded from this protection to serve as a control site for comparing the effects of this protection. However, there was no known list of species for the site at the time.

To fill this knowledge gap, Academy scientists partnered with a group of volunteer community scientists to document the biodiversity of Pillar Point reef through bioblitzes and community monitoring. To date, over 800 species have been recorded at Pillar Point, and the project has effectively created a crowdsourced species atlas for the site. Over 38,000 iNaturalist observations have been made at Pillar Point, making it the most observed tidepool location on the California coast.

  • mosaic of many images of iNaturalist observations
    A mosaic of some of the 800 species recorded at Pillar Point reef.
  • volunteers walking on the tidepool reef at sunset
    Community scientists explore tidepools during a bioblitz at Pillar Point in San Mateo.

A community-powered early warning and forecasting system for the California coast

Academy scientists are using the vast numbers of tidepool species observations (450,000 and counting!) collected by community scientists during the annual Snapshot Cal Coast campaign to make forecasts about how biodiversity is changing.

In collaboration with our partners at the California Ocean Protection Council (OPC) and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), we’re using these crowdsourced biodiversity records to build species distribution models that can predict which species are most likely to shift with climate change, and where those changes are most likely to happen. These models will also help us mobilize our partners and volunteers to collect more data in the places we need it the most.

Our ultimate goal is to provide resource managers with the information they need to help slow or stop biodiversity loss in California’s coastal and marine habitats, and to support California’s long-term MPA Monitoring Action Plan and the Ocean Protection Council's Strategic Plan.


Urban biodiversity in the San Francisco Bay Area

Conservation organizations in the Bay Area have not yet recognized the extent to which urban lands provide habitat for important conservation species like coyote (Canis latrans), soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum), and slender salamanders (Batrachoseps sp.). Crowdsourced biodiversity data from iNaturalist, however, reveals that many of these species are frequently observed in urban landscapes.

We are using regional iNaturalist records, environmental data (e.g., climate, altitude, distance to streams, etc.), and species distribution modeling (SDM) to assess the extent to which urban landscapes provide habitat for species of conservation importance.

Our research shows that urban landscapes in the Bay Area provide habitat for a number of conservation target species. The most important environmental characteristics for the habitat of species is highly variable, but winter temperature and distance to 10-acre greenspaces were consistently important. The maps we produced will be included in the next iteration of the Conservation Lands Network.

  • person using phone to take a photo of a plant in urban park
    A community member takes photos at Crissy Field in San Francisco.
  • Coyote walking across road in park
    A coyote walks across a road in a Bay Area park.
  • Slender salamander in leaf litter
    A slender salamander hanging out in leaf litter