Sometimes when Peter Soroye is out on a hike, he’ll stumble upon a plant he can’t identify. When he’s stumped, he might take a picture to upload to iNaturalist, a community platform accessible through an app and a website, designed to map global users’ observations of biodiversity. Over a million people use the app, including both professional scientists and amateur naturalists. So, often, another user will pop in to help name the plant for Soroye.
Soroye can identify plenty of nature sightings in Ontario without the help of an app: he’s a conservation biologist who works in the Key Biodiversity Areas Program at Wildlife Conservation Society Canada. He recently completed a PhD at the University of Ottawa, where he studied the effects of climate change and habitat loss on pollinators.
But although he’s an expert, Soroye has no problem accepting help from amateurs. Throughout his career, he’s appreciated what citizen science apps like iNaturalist, a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, have to offer both trained scientists and generalist users alike.
On the most basic level, Soroye says, citizen scientist apps — that is, apps where a community of users track, log and share information about different types of plants and wildlife — can spark an interest in biodiversity and conservation, introducing users to a variety of plants, insects, animals and birds they may not have known lived closeby.
“The apps are valuable in terms of making people realize that nature is really dope,” he says. “They help you learn more about it and appreciate it.”
I know this is true from my own experience with iNaturalist, which I picked up at the beginning of the pandemic. Unable to travel outside of Montreal, where I live, and reluctant to take public transit within the city, I began to take walks around my neighbourhood, using the app to explore the flora and fauna close to my apartment. I was surprised by how many plants, birds and animals there were to spot nearby.
But Soroye tells me that the apps’ usefulness goes further. In 2018, while still an undergrad, he worked with professor Jeremy Kerr to explore how citizen science apps can be harnessed by conservationists and researchers to perform an even greater feat: track species distribution and the effects of climate change, often over a larger area than researchers are able to cover themselves.
Soroye and Kerr focussed on eButterfly, an online database that launched as a website in 2012, which allows its more than 3,000 active users to report sightings and share information about butterflies across Central and North America and the Caribbean. Through their study, the research pair observed that citizen science apps can enhance researchers’ work, providing troves of data. “There’s a really strong scientific rationale for using these apps,” Soroye says.
He and Kerr examined a dataset that community scientists had built using eButterfly, and compared it to a dataset that was gathered over a similar period of time by experts.
The professionals did a better job at deeply sampling regions and identifying more species overall in a given area. They were also less likely to misidentify species and more likely to provide deliberate, well-organized data.
But Soroye and Kerr also observed that community scientists were able to find uncommon species in unlikely places and to spot some butterflies that experts missed — usually species that were only in certain regions for a short period of time. Because they weren’t constrained by time or budget, community scientists were able to identify species earlier and to sample larger areas.
“The best approach we found was to use both datasets together,” Soroye says.
Working with community-gathered science can pose some challenges, as apps provide huge quantities of data that don’t tend to be well organized — researchers need to have the time and resources to wade through the information.
Still, the effort can be worth it for researchers looking to identify country-wide trends. Soroye points out that in a place as geographically vast as Canada, experts simply lack the time and resources required to canvas large swaths of the land. “Research suffers from this huge collection gap,” he says. “It’s one thing in England to sample every square metre of the country. But Canada is so vast, there’s so much empty space. Community science really fills in those gaps.”
Identifying trends can also be particularly useful to conservationists and other experts studying the effects of climate change. Having a country-wide group of community scientists contributing data can give researchers a better picture of which species are and aren’t appearing in certain areas. Soroye says data from cities and surrounding areas especially can give researchers a stronger understanding of how land use and climate change are affecting biodiversity. “Cities are continuing to expand, and these apps can provide indicators on how that influences different species.”
While researchers like Soroye appreciate the access citizen app users give them to nature they might miss otherwise, budding conservationists like Caleb Scholtens appreciate the access the apps give him to experts. An environmental science student at Redeemer University in Hamilton, Ont., Scholtens has been using apps like eBird and iNaturalist to identify and log plants and wildlife for nearly a decade.
The 23-year-old spends most of his free time birdwatching and exploring biodiversity he finds on hikes, in his neighbourhood and even in his yard. Scholtens has logged more than 11,000 observations on iNaturalist — he likes that the app allows him to keep track of all the flora and fauna he’s managed to spot. “I can just go back to refer to all of my experiences with nature,” Scholtens says.
Sometimes the apps have allowed him to uncover unexpected visitors. Scholtens recalls studying for a high school exam one afternoon about four years ago. Bored and wanting a break, he headed to his backyard to search for insects, turning over rocks and logs to hunt for easily-missed worms, mollusks and insects. Spotting a strange-looking slug he’d never seen before, Scholtens snapped a photo.
After uploading it to iNaturalist, he heard from a user who suspected it was a worm slug, a species from Europe that had previously been spotted on the coast of North America. Scholtens dug around online to find Aleta Karstad, a prominent slug researcher in Ontario, and sent her a photo, hoping she could help to confirm. Karstad, in turn, sent the photo to five other slug experts around the world. Eventually, they all agreed the creature was a worm slug.
“So it was a new species of slug for Ontario, and I found it right in our backyard,” Scholtens says.
In summer 2020, Scholtens got in touch with Will Chatfield-Taylor, a cicada researcher based in Ottawa who had recently learned that a particular genus of the bug had been spotted by the Niagara River for the first time in about 50 years. With most of his summer plans cancelled due to the pandemic, Scholtens spent hours that year trying to catch one of the cicadas for Chatfield-Taylor, who wanted a DNA sample to assist with his research.
Scholtens wasn’t successful (the insects were always nestled too high up in the trees for him to reach) but he says he’ll keep trying. He values how the apps can bring researchers, students and users with only a passing interest in conservation together.
“I want to catch one for this guy,” he says. “It’s great that researchers can connect with everyone in the world who cares about their subjects of interest, and ask them for specimens. And [everyday users] are like, “Oh, cool. I can help with actual science now.”
On one of the first warm April days this spring, I opened up iNaturalist and took a walk around my Montreal neighbourhood. After speaking with Scholtens and Soroye, I had big ambitions. Strolling through Parc La Fontaine, I stopped to overturn rocks and squint up at the bare trees, hoping to catch a glimpse of an exciting bird, an early-season butterfly, an unfamiliar slug. I was frustrated to mostly find the usual suspects: Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), American Robins (Turdus migratorius) and a whole lot of cigarette butts, flattened by months spent under the recently melted snow.
Glancing at the app’s map function, I could easily see what others had spotted at the park over the years, each sighting marked by a coloured pinpoint. Logging observations of my own was equally simple: I just snapped a picture and uploaded it. From there, I could take the quick route and either identify the sighting myself or ask the app’s Artificial Intelligence to suggest an option, leaving some room for error. If I was more patient, I could wait for my fellow Montrealers to jump in and help me out — a more precise option that can sometimes take weeks.
As I continued past the park and wound through the streets and alleyways, I peered more closely at my neighbours’ yards and fences. I found hyacinths, nestled purple and bulbous beside plastic skulls left over from halloween; bright pink heaths and yellow crocuses beginning to brighten the still-dull flower patches; common motherwort, a variety of an herb I later found out was once said to ward off evil spirits, and is now dubiously sold as an anti-anxiety cure. I logged each one on the app.
My observations may not be of much use to scientists like Soroye, but he was right: it was exciting to put names to the fauna I walked by every day. I can’t wait until the weather warms just a little more, so I can meet the other creatures who’ve been living next door to me all along.
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