20 de marzo de 2024

The value of iNaturalist data for scientists

I'm often asked, as a scientist, why use data from participatory science? Or more specifically, why do I love iNaturalist? I'm a big fan, for example, see this New York Times article: https:/www.nytimes.com/2022/12/09/us/inaturalist-nature-app.html__;!!DZ3fjg!8HXKZ7vYWJu-fDcSRPQ6Ky2m1_giDKC4ojN0GInaemTZDg78Qc-wmD3iYi0xZnKNphnk9mj6Y_cM6J0$

iNaturalist's mission is to “build a global community of 100 million naturalists by 2030 in order to connect people to nature and advance biodiversity science and conservation.” A lot of people focus on the first two aspects of building community and connecting people to nature. Some people focus more on advancing science and conservation (usually these people tend to be professional scientists). Some people see this as a reason to argue; others recognize that everyone getting along makes iNaturalist a more enjoyable place to spend time.

But really, why do I participate in iNaturalist when I could be out catching mountain lions?

We seem to live in an age of growing disconnection between people and nature, where environmental and societal crises give rise to apathy and feelings of hopelessness. Participatory science platforms (like iNaturalist) play a pivotal role in bridging this disconnection between people and nature by actively engaging individuals in ecological monitoring and data collection that directly contributes to scientific research and conservation efforts (Dickinson et al. 2010 is a great paper on this).

This direct involvement of people with the natural sciences fosters a deeper understanding and appreciation of the natural world, empowering individuals to learn about and become stewards of their local environments, while having meaningful interactions with nature that transcend traditional academic or professional boundaries. More broadly, democratizing scientific inquiry and inviting individuals of all backgrounds to actively participate in ecological research helps cultivate a sense of ownership and responsibility for the health and well-being of Earth’s ecosystems. These benefits make participatory science inherently valuable to human culture, but there is also value for science and conservation in the large amount of community-generated data from such projects. But it comes with drawbacks.

Specifically, concerns regarding the reliability of observations and identifications in participatory science are frequently raised by scientists. On iNaturalist concerns focus on observations that are often made by non-experts and verified by a community of volunteer identifiers who may lack specialized taxonomic knowledge. Essentially, how do you know you can trust the data from iNaturalist to make important conservation decisions?

@loarie and the iNaturalist team have been doing great with examining the accuracy of identifications on iNaturalist and finding very positive results. For more details, see:

I find this really encouraging. But as a professional scientist, I feel there is more work to be done. Most scientists are skeptics at heart, and in other participatory science projects scientists often want at least a dozen confirming identifications before accepting it (Snapshot Serengeti is probably the gold standard). On iNaturalist, it just takes one original identification and one confirming identification to research grade. But to increase the standards would likely encourage the gamification of iNaturalist.

Other considerations include the uncertainty measurements on observations (if the uncertainty circle is larger than the range of the species, how valuable can the observation really be?), and if drawings should be allowed as evidence of an organism (they currently are, and naturalist have a long history of using drawings to record nature observations, but they can be harder to confirm). This isn't to detract from or criticize iNaturalist. I bring these points up to help make the data more usable, so more scientists are willing and excited to use data to help wildlife conservation.

Publicado el marzo 20, 2024 01:37 MAÑANA por maxallen maxallen | 1 comentario | Deja un comentario

12 de agosto de 2023

Effects of snow leopards on the marking behavior of Pallas's cats

In our recent research article
we assessed the scent-marking behavior of Pallas' cats.

Pallas's cats are an understudied species, with little published research on their ecology and behaviour. This is especially true of their scent-marking behavior - which has only been documented in the wild in one previous study. Scent-marking is used by many solitary carnivores to delineate territories and communicate with potential mates and competitors.

We studied their olfactory communication and visitation at scent-marking sites using camera traps in two study areas in Mongolia. We documented four types of olfactory communication behaviours, with olfaction (sniffing) the most frequent. We also documented urine spraying, head/body rubbing, and the flehmen response.

What was particularly interesting was that Pallas’s cats used olfactory communication most frequently at sites that were not visited by snow leopards (Panthera uncia), and when they used communal scent-marking sites, they were more likely to use olfactory communication when a longer time had elapsed since the last visit by a snow leopard. This suggests that Pallas’s cats may reduce advertising their presence in response to occurrence of snow leopards, possibly to limit predation risk.

Publicado el agosto 12, 2023 10:37 TARDE por maxallen maxallen | 1 observación | 0 comentarios | Deja un comentario

17 de abril de 2020

Limits of using geography for species identification

A recent observation highlighted the limitation of using geography to determine species on iNaturalist. If you take a close look at the photograph in https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/41662271 you may note that animal exhibits the characteristics of a mule deer rather than a white-tailed deer. However, the location makes it nearly inconceivable that it is a mule deer.

This is a conundrum that scientists often run into when using citizen science data. What can be inferred from a given observation, and how do you ensure the accuracy of it? It is generally more accurate to base identifications on field marks (physical characteristics) than location. This is the essence of birding and why people get so excited about rare birds showing up in odd locations. If people just ignored field marks and just considered geography, most of these rare birds would never be documented. But why do we ignore this principle with mammals?

In the deer example, as noted by @sambiology, the habitat in the photo doesn't fit north Dallas. This makes it most likely it is a mule deer and the location is simply wrong. But what happens when we know the location is accurate? Should we look at field marks or just consider geography? Take a look at 2 other observations and see what you think.

1) https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/18767407
In this case, we have what appears to be an American marten (with known location). But American martens are endangered in Wisconsin, and are unknown to occur in this area (before this observation). The field marks suggest American marten. The geography suggests it is actually a mink or fisher or some other mustelid or maybe a squirrel. Based on this observation, @lincolndurey extended the range map for American martens. But what if we had just labeled this as a squirrel and moved on without considering the field marks?

2) https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/20912284
Similar to #1, here we have what appears to be a fisher (with known location). But fishers are endangered in California and the population at the southern edge of the Coast Range is considered basically non-existent (before this observation). Specifically, the last fisher sighting this far south was made by Joseph Grinnel nearly a century ago. The field marks suggest this is a fisher. The geography suggests it is a mink or squirrel. Based on this observation, fisher researchers have extended the known range of fishers in the Coast Range of California. But what if we had just labeled this as a squirrel and moved on without considering the field marks?

Publicado el abril 17, 2020 04:32 TARDE por maxallen maxallen | 6 comentarios | Deja un comentario

07 de marzo de 2019

Southernmost coastal fisher since Joseph Grinnell

Fishers (Pekania pennanti) are a forest-specialist mesocarnivore and are a species of special concern in California (CDFW 2015a, 2015b). In comparison to the Sierra and Cascade populations, the coastal population is under-studied and the southern extent of its range is not clearly documented (Zielinski et al.

We documented a fisher at the southern edge of Lake County. This is the southernmost documented fisher sighting since Joseph Grinnell. Grinnell, in his review of fisher locations in 1937, noted that fishers may extend as far south as Marin County, but had no definitive proof.

The full documentation of this sighting is available at http://publish.illinois.edu/maxallen/files/2019/01/Allen-2015-Fisher-Range-Expansion.pdf

Publicado el marzo 7, 2019 12:50 MAÑANA por maxallen maxallen | 1 observación | 2 comentarios | Deja un comentario

05 de marzo de 2019

American Martens in the Apostle Islands

This photo is part of our discovery of American martens on the Apostle Islands. Martens were reintroduced to the Apostle Islands by the State of Wisconsin in the 1950's, but were not seen after the 1960's. Using camera trapping over the past few years we detected American martens at 28 of 87 functioning camera trap sites on 5 of 13 monitored islands and documented the existence of American martens in APIS in Wisconsin for the first time in over 50 years.

Full story: http://publish.illinois.edu/maxallen/files/2018/11/Allen-2018-Marten-Discovery-Apostle-Islands.pdf

Publicado el marzo 5, 2019 12:39 TARDE por maxallen maxallen | 1 observación | 0 comentarios | Deja un comentario

02 de diciembre de 2018

Fresh Puma Kills

This observation is rather typical when investigating fresh puma (also called mountain lions) activity (using data from GPS collars). While hiking in on the nearby ridge I found an older bed (about 36 hours old) with fresh scat, evidence that the mountain lion had indeed been there. I then began searching more carefully and soon found the remains of the deer that the puma (82M) had killed and eaten. He also rested for some time while apparently grooming (note the large size of the bed compared to a sleeping bed) in a bed with a scenic view (see second photo). Note how the bed is dry while the surrounding area is wet, it had stopped raining 30 minutes before as I began my hike into the area...

Publicado el diciembre 2, 2018 02:10 MAÑANA por maxallen maxallen | 1 observación | 0 comentarios | Deja un comentario