iNaturalist! How to use it on hikes…

We’ve talked about how much we love #CitizenScience on this blog before. And it’s true. We do. We participated in the Northern California v. Southern California citizen species identification challenge (hope they’re doing it again this year…) and in this current political climate, we can’t do enough to promote science, if you ask us. The website that the NorCal/SoCal challenge used is iNaturalist, and we’ve been figuring out different ways to use it with the kiddos. Here are a couple of suggestions on its usage that will promote knowledge and identification of the various flora and fauna around us.

First, consider how much phone/internet usage you want to have on your hike. If you do not want to be whipping out the phone while hiking, then consider Option 1 & 2. If you are not averse to phone usage while in nature, then consider the later options.

Option 1: This is the most low-tech option, dependent on you, the parent, learning some stuff before you go. Go to the iNaturalist site, and under the “Places” tab, go to “find a place” section, put in the name of the location you are going to visit. This will probably pull up a list of all the species that have been tagged in that area. Look at all the species and figure out which ones you could possibly remember. Then, on the hike/outing, point them out to your hikers. This is how I learned a fair amount of plant names– my mom would constantly tell us the names of plants as we went by them, and more of them stuck than you might have thought. (Helpful hint– if you can’t find a specific place name, then try for the county and use the map to see where plants/animals have been spotted.)

Option 2: Sit with your kids before you go out and show them the list (with pictures) of all the species that have been tagged in the location you are visiting. See who can find the biggest number of identifications while on the trail. The disadvantage of this is needing to remember the plant/animal without picture support, but the advantage is less technology while on trail, which you may find appealing.


Identifying Miner’s Lettuce. Sans smart phone.

Now we get into smartphone usage….

Option 3: Download the iNaturalist app on your phone. From the iNaturalist app, use the “Observe” icon, and take pictures of as many different plants and animals as you can find while out on the trail. To lessen the focus on incessant picture-taking, you could make this a time-bound activity– i.e., how many different species can one spot in a 10 minute period, for example? Make sure, when you’re taking pictures, you turn on the location tracker in iNaturalist so that the species data can be part of iNaturalist’s #citizenscience projects. (I normally turn off my location tracker, but it’s for SCIENCE, friends!) When you get home (you could do this out on the trail, but the point of this is not to spend all your outside time on your phone, mmmkay?), try to identify the species yourself, using the previously tagged species as a guide. Alternatively, you could wait and let the iNaturalist community try to ID your species. It’s pretty cool to take a picture and then notice, maybe 2 hours, maybe 2 days later, that someone has identified the flower that you were thinking was just “a pretty flower” as a “Dwarf Checkermallow.”

Option 4: While on the trail, when you find a cool flower or plant or animal, stop and look up identifications that have been made at the spot you are visiting. Advantages– more likely to identify it immediately. Disadvantages–not necessarily going to work if there is no cell reception, and more screen time in the outdoors. But you might know sooner rather than later that you’re looking at a Dwarf Checkermallow. And that’s something. It also might inspire any youth with you who are tethered to their phones. Do you have a teen who could be responsible for figuring out the flora & fauna around you? Leverage the addiction and learn some species.

You can also play with the filters, looking for threatened species. It makes the concept of conservation more real to understand how many species are threatened that exist just miles from our own front doors.

If you have more ideas for the iNaturalist app, let us know in the comments! We would love to see more ways of connecting this amazing tool with our more mundane experiences outside.

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