Learn about plants and animals easily

“Do you think Frank recognizes us?” my 10-year-old asked one afternoon as we peered over the railing of a bridge along the greenway in our neighborhood. Frank, naturally, is the copperhead snake who lives around the stream bed below the bridge. From a very safe distance, we check in on him (or her) during our regular bike rides. 

When we first spotted Frank’s tan skin and reddish hourglass markings, we thought it might be a copperhead. But how to make sure? If you’ve ever tried to take a picture of a plant or animal and Google it to find out what it is, you’ll know how frustrating and unhelpful the experience can be, especially for a non-scientist. 

Instead, to confirm our neighborhood snake species, we submitted a photo to the app – a wildlife observation tool that uses image recognition technology in conjunction with a strong community of users to identify plants and animals in pictures that users share. The photos submitted to iNaturalist fuel citizen science projects around the world. Tapping into that collective bank of expertise, in addition to the app’s powerful algorithms, confirmed that our local serpent was indeed a copperhead. It was one gratifying observation of many.

During these past months of COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns when our home became our focus, logging observations into iNaturalist has become a go-to activity for my daughter and me. If you’re trying help your kids learn to enjoy nature, some subtle gamification can go a long way.

Don't know how to tell trees apart? There's an app for that.

Image: sarah lindenfeld hall

Don't know how to tell trees apart? There's an app for that.

Image: sarah lindenfeld hall

I’ve never been much of a naturalist myself, but iNaturalist has given us a reason to notice the world around us — and to connect in a way our pre-pandemic busy schedules never allowed. 

For the average person like me who suffers from – an inability to distinguish tree species from each other – it’s a tool that can help radically increase what you really see. And, as author Jenny ODell wrote in her book How to Do Nothing, it cultivates a rootedness that stands in contrast to our tech-enabled work-anywhere lifestyle. While using your phone to get off screens can seem counterintuitive, Odell writes that iNaturalist enabled her to be more comfortable outside in her surroundings and learn quickly about new places she visited.

It’s the same experience for us. Together, my daughter and I snap photos of rabbits, ferns and mourning doves. When other users rate our pictures as research grade, which means they’re shared to the world-renowned and could be used by scientists in their research, we’re spurred to snap more pictures of the plants and animals around us, learning about each along the way. 

In contrast to the time spent on other kinds of apps and social media, increased engagement with iNaturalist doesn’t feel like such a bad thing. Now, when my daughter reaches for my iPhone, it’s probably because she wants to capture the Carolina wren sitting atop a fence in our yard.

Easy identification of plants and animals • Gets kids and families outside • A type of screen time you can feel good about

You’ll need a steady hand for animal photos

A fun and engaging way to learn about the natural world

How to use iNaturalist

Launched in 2008, iNaturalist, now a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, lets anybody — from expert biologists and naturalists to people like me who have trouble remembering what poison ivy looks like — contribute their photos. 

Even though the pandemic has shut down many parks and hiking trails – obvious spots for tracking species on iNaturalist – use is on track to double this year, just as it has every year. “It’s interesting to think why,” said Scott Loarie, iNaturalist’s co-director. “Obviously, people’s behavior is totally different, but we still have a totally similar pattern to what we expect.” 

The free app is easy to use. Just set up your account, click on the “observe” icon and snap a photo of the flora and fauna around you or pull in a photo you’ve already taken on your phone or camera.

Once you’ve submitted a picture of a purplish flower, for example, the app offers suggestions of what species it might be, and you might learn it’s periwinkle. To make suggestions, the app relies on computer vision technology, which identifies what a photo might feature based on previous observations on the site. Right now, about 30,000 species are included in the model. If the app can’t get you to the species, it can at least narrow down the class of the organism in question. 

From there, you click a button to share your photos with other citizen scientists and naturalists, who can verify your observation and give it research-grade status if it meets all the qualifications. On the iNaturalist website, you also can start your own citizen science project and browse other projects on the site. You’ll want to have location services on while using the app, as the process to put in the photo location manually is cumbersome.

Don't know how to tell trees apart? There's an app for that.

Image: Sarah lindenfeld hall

Don't know how to tell trees apart? There's an app for that.

Image: sarah lindenfeld hall

Screen time that doesn’t need limiting

For my daughter and I, part of the allure of iNaturalist are those confirmations that we get from other users about our photos. The social network within the iNaturalist community is strong, said Loarie, as observers comment and ask questions about each other’s observations. It’s a critical part of its success. iNaturalist currently has 2.5 million registered users and 38.2 million observations. 

But that social aspect also triggers child privacy rules, requiring users to be at least 13 years old to create their own account. Kids, like my daughter, often get involved by making observations through their parents’ account. This adds a layer of safety, as parents can monitor how kids are using iNaturalist and any messages that are exchanged. If, on the other hand, your child has a phone and wants to identify organisms on their own, try the newer app , which includes quick identifications of the plants and animals you see minus the social network. 

Chris Goforth, head of citizen science for the in Raleigh, N.C., is a longtime iNaturalist user and helps kids and families use it. “It gives them an excuse to nerd out a little bit and actually interact with nature in a way they don’t on a regular basis,” she said. At the same time, kids can get their screen-time fill while exploring outdoors.

To take photos that will have a better chance of becoming research grade, Goforth has three tips. Don’t rely on the zoom; get as close as you safely can. Make sure the subject fills as much of the frame as possible. And try to submit photos that are in focus. 

That’s easier said than done in our experience. Chipmunks don’t really like to pose. Brown thrashers will quickly flit away. Thankfully, copperheads like Frank are a bit easier to photograph. So, on our next bike ride, my daughter and I will stop at the bridge and check in on him again, along with all the other creatures who live around him — and share what we find on iNaturalist.

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