I grabbed my iPhone, which was already open to the iNaturalist app, and snapped a picture. The phone's GPS tagged the photo with my latitude and longitude. I tapped on the screen, typing "lizard" into the text box and then, when I hit "sync," the phone uploaded the photo to the iNaturalist website.
I took a few other images while on my walk in the hills above the San Francisco Bay. I labeled a fern I saw "fern," and then I uploaded a photo of a newt without even labeling it.
I love nature, yet I'm a horrible naturalist. I know that all the plants and animals around me have names -- and fascinating facts about their life histories -- but I can't be bothered to flip through a guidebook to find out. I'd rather just ask an expert.
That night, I received a series of emails from iNaturalist. Other users of the website had seen my pictures and suggested identifications. The first email read, "kueda thinks that your observation of 'something' is California Newt (Taricha Torosa)." I clicked on the link to the species, and was soon reading about the newt via iNaturalist's integration with AmphibiaWeb and Wikipedia (Wikipedia informed me that the newt excretes a neurotoxin that is "hundreds of times more toxic than cyanide.") On the webpage, a tab labeled "range map" led me to a Google map of California with the newt's range overlaid and shaded in red. It showed that the amphibian lives along the coast from just south of Los Angeles to north of San Francisco -- a long, thin sliver on the map, plus an isolated patch in the southern Sierra Nevada.
Continuing through my inbox, I learned that the "fern" I saw was a "goldenback fern," the flower a "western star flower" and the "plant" a "western burning bush." And the lizard? It turned out it's a "Southern Alligator Lizard." Maybe I'm not such a bad naturalist after all.
After a year and a half of owning an iPhone, this crowd-sourced field guide is one of the first apps that I'm truly excited about. Instead of scratching my head and wishing I knew the name of a flower on my street, I can take a picture, upload it and wait for the crowd to tell me. I even recently used the app to find out that the houseplant in my room is native to southeast Asia. (I knew the user had correctly identified the plant not only because the picture matched on Wikipedia, but because the entry read "this is a robust plant that can stand a very high degree of abuse." Yep -- that's the plant that has survived my treatment.)
But as I learned by speaking with one of the website's founders, iNaturalist is much more than just a field guide. It's also a way to determine where species live: by using the power of the crowd it can develop range maps of every species on earth. This knowledge could be incredibly powerful for conservation planners. Planners will need to decide what lands to prioritize as the climate warms and as development encroaches on wild lands. (Note that the location of endangered species are not made public on the website.)
The site was originally the master's project of a few students at the UC Berkeley School of Information, and since then they have teamed up with researchers at Stanford and Save the Redwoods (they even built a special iPhone app just for redwoods). The entire site has been built by naturalists for naturalists, with the hope that it will eventually be the Wikipedia of life and biodiversity. To be sure, both the site and the app are still under development, and there are bugs in each. But the project is growing quickly. Starting this Friday, they are beginning the Global Amphibian Blitz, which they are coordinating with Amphibiaweb, The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, The Amphibian Specialist Group and the Amphibian Ark. The goal is to identify all the amphibians in the world -- and, of course, there is a competition to see which user can identify the most. Right now, loarie is in the lead, but sapito is close behind.
Personally, I'm excited about this website and social network. It uses technology to allow naturalists and non-naturalists to connect with nature, better understand it, and, ultimately -- we hope -- preserve it.
Follow David Kroodsma on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidkroodsma