The iNaturalist App Is Kind Of Like Pokémon Go For Wildlife | KERA News

The iNaturalist App Is Kind Of Like Pokémon Go For Wildlife

Aug 10, 2016

Not everyone wandering around outside with their phones is searching for Pokémon. Some people are searching for real, rare wildlife.

Urban biologists are tracking down everything from raccoon families to migrating moths, and the public is invited. Across Texas, citizen scientists using a free app called iNaturalist to document the hidden species in their neighborhoods.

Check out upcoming citizen science events with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at the bottom of this post.

It's dusk at Lochwood Park in East Dallas and Sam Kieschnick has turned on a small generator. It’s connected to lights aimed at a white sheet that flutters like a ghost in the wind.

“The white sheet makes it looks like a huge light,” he explains. “So we’re kind of tricking the moths into jumping up onto that cloth there.”

It’s actually part of Kieschnick’s job to manipulate moths. He’s an urban biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife. These days, he’s spending a lot of time with regular folks tracking down insects in backyards and concrete jungles across the state.

The technology that’s made all this possible? Phones.

“Everyone has one,” Kieschnick says. “So as naturalists we can be terrified of these devices or we can use them as hooks to get people outside.”

A handful of people have been reeled into this “moth-ing” event tonight – and like Pokémon Go players, they’re holding up their cameras and phones as soon as tiny creatures appear.

Like a lot of bug fanatics, Annika Lindqvist of Dallas doesn’t just take photos of moths -- she uploads them to iNaturalist. It’s like a social network for wildlife. When you upload a photo of a moth or bird, it posts your location. Then both amateur and expert naturalists help identify the species.

Lindqvist has uploaded more than 2,000 observations on her profile.

“Bugs have become my obsession,” Lindqvist says. “And the more you look have to look at the tiny things and when you blow them up the more you see that they are gorgeous.”

In the past few years, iNaturalist has grown exponentially. There are nearly 250,000 users and about 3 million observations.

Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist Sam Kieschnick says an individual photo might not be groundbreaking, and true, you’re not getting any PokéCoins, but each observation adds to our understanding of biodiversity. Like a mosaic or pointillist painting.

“It’s just a single dot if you look up close, but when you start to take a step back, you can get to see patterns that start to develop,” Kieschnick says.  

There have been major discoveries as a result of photo sharing on iNaturalist. In 2013, for example, a man in Colombia uploaded a photo of a bright red and black frog. A poison frog expert in Washington, D.C. spotted it and eventually determined it was a brand new species. The pair co-authored the results in the peer-reviewed journal Zootaxa.

Scott Loarie, who helped develop iNaturalist, says another contributor happened to upload a photo of a snail while traveling in Vietnam.

“A couple of weeks later, a Vietnamese scientist who was a specialist in snails and slugs was going through and looking at pictures and said ‘Wow! I recognize this,” Loarie says.

It turned out it was a snail described on one of Captain Cook’s voyages in the late 18th century. It had been drawn, but never photographed.

Loarie says the developers are trying to make science fun, to gamify it. The challenge is pleasing such a mixed crowd. You have to entertain both the world’s foremost beetle expert and the 13-year-old kid who just wants to explore his front yard.

“I think that’s possible,” Loarie says. “If you think about it, natural history really is a game. It’s going out there and trying to learn as much as you can about the things that you’re finding in nature.”

And with more than 8 million species on earth, there’s little risk that you’ll “catch ‘em all.” 

Citizen Science Events In North Texas

Aug. 13: “Prairie Sky/Star Party” Tandy Hills Natural Area, Fort Worth, at Dusk – There will also be a moth set-up and Sam Kieschnick will encourage everyone to document what they find. More information here. 

Aug. 20: “BioBlitz with Rio Brazos Master Naturalists” Acton Nature Center, 8:30-10:30 a.m. – The event will document as many species as possible using iNaturalist.