A growing community of iNaturalist users—and the artificial intelligence they help power—help observe and monitor more than 229,000 species around the world.
SAN FRANCISCO (August 15, 2019)—One app is changing the way millions of people experience the outdoors, rain or shine. The world’s most powerful citizen science app, iNaturalist—a collaboration between the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society—is celebrating a major milestone: 25 million geotagged, photo-vouchered records of wild plants and animals from around the world. These crowdsourced “observations” of the natural world—from photos of the rarest butterflies to the most common backyard weeds—help scientists track nature’s response to environmental change and search for solutions on a global scale.
“Nearly 700,000 people are using their cell phones to help take a living census of the world’s plants and animals—that’s very exciting,” says Dr. Scott Loarie, iNaturalist co-director. “While the iNaturalist community helps create this high-quality stream of data for science, we’re working to build AI tools that make these efforts stronger and more effective. Our aim is to use technology to connect people to nature while also contributing to a global scientific effort to help us understand and protect the natural world.”
“iNaturalist has unleashed a generation of planetary stewards and improved understanding of biodiversity on a global scale. Every country in the world is now represented on its map,” says Jonathan Baillie, executive vice president and chief scientist at the National Geographic Society. “Through this powerful global network of citizen scientists, we are closer to filling major gaps in our understanding of the planet's biological diversity. We hope that through this partnership, the National Geographic Society can further inspire people around the world to explore, value, and protect our planet."
Artificial intelligence [AI] for nature
Becoming a citizen scientist is simple—download the free iNaturalist app from the Apple App or Google Play stores and snap photos of wild plants and animals you observe while out and about. Geotagged images uploaded to iNaturalist can be identified and verified as “research grade” by an enthusiastic online community dedicated to exploring and understanding the natural world.
Thanks to the millions of observations and identifications shared by the community, the platform uses one of the world’s most powerful artificial intelligence tools to help identify the wild plants, animals, and fungi people observe outdoors. Once users snap and submit a wildlife photo from a local stroll or vacation hike, the platform’s AI can quickly review and suggest possible identifications for said plant or critter—a digital, on-demand field guide for the nature-curious of all ages.
A data goldmine for scientists
iNaturalist’s AI has learned to recognize more than 18,000 distinct types of organisms by analyzing millions of observations uploaded and identified by amateurs and professionals all around the world. The platform capitalizes on the significant effort and contributions of nearly 700,000 motivated contributors—and will only improve with time. As this growing online community helps verify observations, scientists and conservation managers can track global changes (including the spread of invasive species or climate-related impacts) and make better-informed conservation decisions.
Verified iNaturalist observations generate a massive amount of valuable scientific data, providing scientists and conservation managers with much-needed, real-time insight on how the distributions of plants and animals are changing with shifting climate and intensifying land use. The network shares user findings with scientific data repositories like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility [GBIF] to help scientists find and use relevant, verified data. To date, iNaturalist records have been cited in more than 300 scientific publications via GBIF and aided in the discovery of a species of Colombian poison frog, dramatic range extensions of nudibranchs and fiddler crabs, the rediscovery of a Vietnamese snail, an unexpected ocean sunfish, a Colombian weasel, and many more important finds.
Join the movement
Looking to reboot or launch your outdoor exploration? iNaturalist recently released game-changing AI updates to their sister app “Seek”—a free, family-friendly way for people (especially kids) to explore nature, discover more about their surroundings and celebrate curiosity. Children can “collect” wild plants and animals on local treasure hunts by taking photos, earning in-app badges and connecting with their inner-explorer. Loarie calls Seek a “great way to get started exploring and learning about nature.”
“There’s a healthy way to use technology to help you fall in love with the outdoors,” says Loarie. “No matter who or where you are, you’re invited to get outside and explore. You can learn something about the plants and animals in your backyard and contribute to science while you’re at it.”
The Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences is at the forefront of efforts to understand two of the most important topics of our time: the nature and sustainability of life on Earth. Based in San Francisco, the Institute is home to more than 100 world-class scientists, state-of-the-art facilities, and nearly 46 million scientific specimens from around the world. The Institute also leverages the expertise and efforts of more than 100 international Associates and 450 distinguished Fellows. Through expeditions around the globe, investigations in the lab, and analyses of vast biological datasets, the Institute’s scientists work to understand the evolution and interconnectedness of organisms and ecosystems, the threats they face around the world, and the most effective strategies for sustaining them into the future. Through innovative partnerships and public engagement initiatives, they also guide critical sustainability and conservation decisions worldwide, inspire and mentor the next generation of scientists, and foster responsible stewardship of our planet.