• © California Academy of Sciences
    © California Academy of Sciences
  • © California Academy of Sciences
    © California Academy of Sciences
  • © California Academy of Sciences
    © California Academy of Sciences

SAN FRANCISCO (April 13, 2016) — Dodgers and Giants, move aside—there’s a new rivalry in town! The California Academy of Sciences and Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County are pleased to announce the 2016 City Nature Challenge, a friendly competition that encourages citizen scientists from the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County to explore their local environments for a good cause. Beginning at noon on Thursday, April 14, local residents are invited to use the free app iNaturalist to document the plants and animals that thrive in the busiest urban streets to sprawling open space preserves. The winning city with the most iNaturalist observations will be announced on Friday, April 22.

From hikers to hunters, birders to beach-combers, the world is filled with naturalists—many of whom record what they find. Centered around Earth Day and the first-ever National Citizen Science Day, the City Nature Challenge will highlight California’s world-renowned biodiversity and the power of communities to contribute to scientific wildlife tracking. April’s citizen science festivities set the scene for the National Park Service Centennial Bioblitz—also powered by iNaturalist—in every American National Park on Friday, May 20–Saturday, May 21.

“San Francisco is a unique and special place in so many ways, and I’m so excited to have residents of our City and Bay Area region take a closer look at the irreplaceable nature around them,” said San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. “Our Citizen Scientists came to California for the Gold Rush, stayed for the fascinating natural world around them, and formed the California Academy of Sciences. And I believe this gives us the edge to beat LA!”

iNaturalist how-to

iNaturalist—the popular citizen science platform available on mobile phones—connects people to nature through technology. Participants use cameras or mobile devices to snap photos of animals and plants observed in their natural habitats, like red-tailed hawks in San Francisco and California poppies in Los Angeles, and share them with a global online community of naturalists. These observations are publicly available, are shared with the leading global biodiversity database (Global Biodiversity Information Facility, known as GBIF), and add to our understanding of biodiversity—and its complex shifts—for scientists and non-scientists alike. Naturalist's searchable maps highlight the planet’s biodiversity on an enormous, connected scale.

“Citizen science isn’t just insanely fun—it’s critical to our shared future,” says Dr. Jonathan Foley, Academy Executive Director. “Tools like iNaturalist and local bioblitzes enable everyone, everywhere to enjoy nature and help scientists fill gaps in species knowledge. Now more than ever, it’s crucial to appreciate the wildlife all around us.”

By inspiring the public to easily record their encounters, iNaturalist has generated a massive amount of valuable scientific data, providing scientists with new insight on how the distributions of plants and animals are changing with climate and land use. Since its launch in 2008, the app has been accessed by millions of people around the world, with nearly 2.5 million observations to date. Observations from the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County during the City Nature Challenge will add to scientists’ understanding of what lives where. iNaturalist is housed and financially supported by the California Academy of Sciences.

Celebrating California’s diversity

Seasoned naturalists and new citizen scientists from across the state have good reason to explore. Both San Francisco and Los Angeles are located in a large swath of nearly unparalleled biodiversity called the California Floristic Province. Like the island of Madagascar and the Tropical Andes, this special portion of the West Coast encompasses one of the richest—and most threatened—regions of plant and animal life on Earth. Higher-than-normal temperatures from this year’s El Niño event combined with a record-setting drought make this spring a crucial time for citizen scientists to help track what they encounter.

“It’s no surprise that natural history museums are leaders in citizen science,” says Dr. Rebecca Johnson, a manager of the Academy’s Citizen Science program. “The California Academy of Sciences and the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History were founded with the goal of understanding, documenting, and celebrating California’s biodiversity. Combining iNaturalist with the community-building power of our institutions allows us to generate data and connect people in ways we couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago.”

Citizen scientists—everyday volunteers who participate in local bioblitzes, log their own iNaturalist observations from their backyards, or make a serious habit of roaming and reporting what they see—help make a difference in tracking and protecting California’s precious wildlife. When Californians submit location-tracked photos of the plants and animals they encounter, scientists can use that important data to develop a new baseline of the state’s ever-changing natural landscape.

“California has lost an estimated 75% of its original habitat,” says Johnson, “but citizen scientists can make a difference in tracking and protecting biodiversity everywhere they find it—from National Parks, open spaces, and farms to your nextdoor park.” Large pools of data, including those built by iNaturalist and natural history museums, help authorities make informed conservation decisions that allow humans to sustainably coexist with regional plant and animal life.

Tracking change in real time

San Francisco’s thriving citizen science scene is no stranger to new discoveries. Groups of Bay Area volunteers were among the first to document and raise flags about a surprising—and extremely pink—sea slug population explosion in fall 2014, tracking their nature observations on iNaturalist. Citizen scientists, including participants in the Academy’s intertidal monitoring program led by Johnson and Alison Young, snapped photos of the nudibranch species Okenia rosacea outside their typical range, which were logged with date, time and geographical data on iNaturalist’s global interactive map.

“While we were excited to see a gorgeous bloom of normally-rare nudibranchs, this distribution shift raised concerns about the long term consequences of our changing coastal environment,” says Johnson. “Warming seas impact all marine ecosystems—often for the worse—and we need help from citizen scientists to track the changes that contribute to conservation planning.”

Just last week, an Academy volunteer citizen scientist found what is suspected to be a newly-introduced nudibranch species never before seen in the San Francisco Bay. Dendronotus orientalis—a showstopping translucent slug with yellow lines, brown speckles, and bizarre streamer-like body parts—has only been documented in Japan, China, and the Philippines. The flashy slugs are ideal for tracking relatively rapid changes in ocean conditions because they grow fast, live for about one year, and tend to spend their adult lives in a small patch of the ocean floor. Invasive species can also quickly impact surrounding ecosystems, highlighting the need for tracking help from curious citizen scientists.

Make a date to explore

City Nature Challenge events are simply a small slice of the Academy’s upcoming citizen science offerings. Save the date for an upcoming Bay Area bioblitz or plan a trip to one of 58 National Parks this May, and discover exciting new ways to enjoy the outdoors and contribute to critical scientific tracking.

Would you like to help out-observe Angelenos during this month’s City Nature Challenge? Register to join Academy scientists and Nerds for Nature in exploring McLaren Park on Saturday, April 16—the site of one of the first grassroots bioblitz-gatherings—and discover how this scenic space has changed since the last large-scale survey in 2013.

There are more ways to participate! After uploading observations to iNaturalist from April 14–21, represent your civic pride on social media by sharing your plant and animal images with the hashtags #NatureInTheBay or #NatureInLA. Only one winning city will be chosen on April 22, but every citizen scientist—new or returning—is a winner in the race to explore, explain, and sustain life on Earth. The Academy joins the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in encouraging volunteers nationwide to explore their local environments with iNaturalist all year round.

When: Noon Thursday, April 14–noon Thursday, April 21 (Sign up for iNaturalist)
Winners announced: Friday, April 22
​San Francisco bioblitz in McLaren Park: Saturday, April 16
​More Academy-led bioblitzes

About the California Academy of Sciences

The California Academy of Sciences is a renowned scientific and educational institution dedicated to exploring, explaining and sustaining life on Earth. Based in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, it is home to a world-class aquarium, planetarium, and natural history museum, as well as innovative programs in scientific research and education—all under one living roof.

About Research at the California Academy of Sciences

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 400 distinguished Fellows. Through expeditions around the globe, investigations in the lab, and analysis 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.

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