A Newbie’s Guide to iNaturalist

A 1 Minute Summary of this Post

iNaturalist is an amazing web site that has a corresponding phone app. It represents one of the largest and most accessible citizen science projects in the world, and provides you an opportunity to learn from experts.

Here is how they describe it: “One of the world’s most popular nature apps, iNaturalist helps you identify the plants and animals around you. Get connected with a community of over a million scientists and naturalists who can help you learn more about nature! What’s more, by recording and sharing your observations, you’ll create research quality data for scientists working to better understand and protect nature. iNaturalist is a joint initiative by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society.”

On the surface, it can appear to have a steep learning curve. This post describes what I’ve learned in 2.5 months of heavy use (2000 observations submitted).

A tiny golden-bronze colored Jumping Spider (Buttonhook Leaf-beetle Jumping Spider, Sassacus vitus) that I found in my yard, and probably would never have noticed, much less identified, without iNaturalist.

Irrational Ignorance

I’m pretty tech-literate. I’ve been working in Silicon Valley pretty much since 1998. I took primarily electrical engineering and computer science courses at University. My career has been engineering or engineering management.

However, when I was first introduced to iNaturalist in 2016, I found it kind of overwhelming. And When I was re-introduced to it in 2019, I didn’t give it much of a chance.

A COVID-based Re-introduction

But COVID-19 came along, causing me to work from home starting in March. I saw that many of my friends and family were either out of work, or cooped up at home working.

I was concerned that all of this indoor time would cause me, and my friends, to lose touch with nature. I decided that I’d start a deliberate practice of searching my own yard for animal life. It started with what I was familiar with – the “macro fauna” of my backyard. Birds, squirrels, nighttime raccoons, opossum, etc. And butterflies and dragonflies – the latter are decent in my yard largely because my neighbor has had a large pond for 25+ years.

Then, I started watching the other insects, and an entire new world opened. What were these tiny bee-like insects that hover over their flowers? (Turns out, they are colloquially called Hover Flies). What about all the tiny spiders, only 5-10mm in length?

Oblique Stripetail, Allograpta obliqua, a common hover fly and beneficial pollinator that I learned about through iNaturalist

Enter iNaturalist

I had installed an app called Seek a long time ago at the recommendation of a fellow volunteer at the Open Space Authority. Seek lets you point your phone at an organism and it gives you an ID using Artificial Intelligence (AI). I enjoyed this – but quickly learned that it is very limited. Often, it could only identify at genus, or family, or even order. That wasn’t very satisfying.

A quick aside: Seek is still a great app, and many like to introduce it to kids, since it provides game-like incentives to identify more items, and it doesn’t have any social component like iNaturalist. But I digress…

Then I started discovering some mis-identifications when I’d share my photos.

I don’t remember how or why, but I decided to upload a few photos to iNaturalist, and discovered that it had a more thorough AI. It suggests an ordered list of best guesses, and lets you decide what to go with. And then, other iNat users chime in with confirmation or disagreements, or better suggestions.

Further, iNat offered a ton of data to look at – range maps, other photos, frequency of observations by time of year, and more.

iNaturalist is Life Changing

Yes, this sounds a bit hyperbolic. But through iNaturalist, I’ve been able to satisfy a core need for me – to give a name and category to things I observe. But, unexpectedly, this had led to a much deeper curiosity to learn even more.

This should not be surprising. Awareness is always the key to progressing up the hierarchy to knowledge and caring. Now, when I go hiking, I’m looking for all living things. And I’m never disappointed. No matter the weather, no matter if the trails are overrun with packs of mountain bikers, no matter the location, I can find interesting things that I want to learn more about – and report to iNaturalist.

Suggestions for iNaturalist Newbies

After using iNat for the last 2.5 months, I’m by no means an expert. But I have uploaded close to 2000 observations, and made a few discoveries and more than a few mistakes. So, here is what I’d offer to help you jump-start.

  1. Start with the version you are comfortable with – i.e. phone app if you are addicted to your Android or iPhone. Or website/desktop version if that is your preference. Either way, you’ll have to create a profile and password. See the official iNaturalist Getting Started Guide for the mechanics.
  2. Don’t worry about precise identifications. One of my biggest mistakes, being a birder where you can identify most sightings by sight/photo, was trying to do the same with insects, spiders, plants, etc, which are much harder, and often impossible, to ID to species level without the aid of a microscope, dissection, and/or some other indicator like larval host plant.
  3. Be satisfied with identification to genus, family, order, class, phylum, or even kingdom. Yes, I’m saying the same thing as in #2. Hopefully, an expert will come along to help out. But much of the time, especially with insects, family or genus will be the best you can do.
  4. Don’t blindly trust the AI suggestions. See suggestion #3 and #2. Sometimes the AI thinks it knows the answer, but they are not always species that can be reliably identified by location and photo alone. This is a flaw in the AI, for which iNaturalist is considering various improvements in the future.
  5. When attempting to classify or ID an organism, cross-reference by looking at the range maps for the suggestion. If you live in an area with many micro-habitats, zoom in. For example, I live in San Jose, CA. There is a huge difference between the pacific coast, the Santa Cruz mountains, the Santa Clara Valley, and the Diablo range. And that is all within 30-50 miles. Some species may only be found in one of those locations, but the AI isn’t smart enough (yet!) to differentiate these habitat difference so precisely. The example here is Western Tiger Swallowtail – a butterfly that can easily be confused with other Tiger Swallowtails.
  6. When attempting to classify or ID an organism, check out the “Seasonality” information. If you see something in December that historically hasn’t been seen until June, you should think twice about that ID.
  7. When attempting to classify or ID an organism, check out the “About” information. There isn’t always information here. But sometimes there are gems of details that can help you verify or exclude a species. For example “this species is only found in sandy soil habitats” or other tidbits like that.
  8. When attempting to classify or ID an organism, check out the “Similar Taxa”. The problem with many of us enthusiasts is that we don’t know what we don’t know. We might get a suggested ID, and the seasonality and location and photos all match. But then when we look at the “similar taxa”, find out there are 5 other species that look almost identical in the same range. In this case, find the highest order common taxa – i.e. genus, family, order, etc and go with that.
  9. Don’t blindly agree with suggestions from other uses. Make sure you can convince yourself of their ID. Follow the same steps mentioned above. Perhaps check the user’s profile to see what their area of expertise is.
  10. Have fun. Don’t be too serious. Take suggestions and disagreements as an opportunity to learn. If someone suggests a different ID than you believed, ask them why. Ask them what the distinguishing features are. You’ll be surprised at home many people lend a helping hand.

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