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Earth Notes: iNaturalist

Kaibab National Forest

What happens when students fan out into the woods with cellphones in hand? For biologists with the Kaibab National Forest, it means they’re getting lots of data collected by young citizen scientists to help them make more informed land management decisions. 

Forest staff have teamed up with the Williams Middle School in northern Arizona to form an iNaturalist club. Students go outdoors and use phones and digital cameras to record the natural world—and contribute to research.

iNaturalist is a free smartphone application that lets contributors share photos of plants and animals with a community of 500,000 other users all over the world. Each photo includes location and date of the observation, giving it real scientific value.

The software compares each uploaded picture to an enormous database of other observations, much like facial recognition software. iNaturalist then suggests the most likely species identification. The software “learns” from each observation and becomes more accurate, while at the same time the observer learns the names of local plants and animals.

A single observation, multiplied millions of times, becomes part of a vast dataset that can be mined by scientists. They can probe important questions like how changing climate is affecting the movement of species, or whether an organism’s population is thriving or declining.

With iNaturalist, students and people of any age can turn a hike in the forest or a dog walk in town into a mini research expedition.   

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