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Nature Sparks Civility in iNaturalist

By December 14, 2022No Comments

Screenshot of New York Times article

By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Marketing, Communications & Blog Coordinator

Who would have thought that a smart phone app would be held up as a model of collaboration and civility? That iNaturalist is lauded in a recent article in the New York Times. That should, however, come as no surprise to NANPA members. Many of us have been using iNaturalist for years, and NANPA has a number of iNaturalist collection projects going, from this past summer’s Nature Photography Day Bioblitz to “Lost Words” to a series of regionally-based projects.

What is iNaturalist

The iNaturalist app was created by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society to get more people involved in nature. Users can upload a photo of an organism and the community will do its best to conclusively identify that plant, animal, fungus or whatever.

Say you’re out on a walk and come across a plant you can’t identify. Take a photo and upload it to iNaturalist, along with the time and location (for sensitive species or areas, location data can be turned off). The more than one million users will then identify the species and, once there is agreement, your observation becomes “research grade,” and becomes part of a data set that scientists worldwide can use in their research. Plus, you now know what it was!

The same process happens when you already know or think you know the species. Upload the photo with your tentative identification. Just be sure that your observation isn’t captive or cultivated. iNaturalist is intended for the collection of data about the natural world.

screenshot of iNaturalist app showing participants identifying an animal

Screenshot of iNaturalist showing various members identifying an American mink.

Naturally positive, naturally polite

What the New York Times found remarkable was the civility of the collaborative process of identifying species. On iNaturalist, you’re likely to encounter mild disagreements on species identification. “I think it’s this.” “Well, based on the tail, I think you might have misidentified it and I think it’s that.” Politeness instead of poison. You don’t get posts like, as the Times put it, “You dumbass, get off the internet. I can’t believe you thought that was an immature red-tailed hawk.”

The courtesy extends across politics, culture, geography, war and peace. Observations and identifications continue to come in from Ukraine, for example.

That’s due, in part, to shared aims. Identifying species. Adding to the scientific record. But I think it’s also due, at least partially, to the calming effect that being out in nature has on people. Many studies have shown measurable positive mental and physiological effects on people when they are outdoors experiencing nature. Even looking at pictures of nature triggers some of those same positive effects. See our articles on the health benefits of nature and why nature is good for you for details. So, we may enter these discussions in a better frame of mind.

How to join

There are specific instructions on how to sign up for and participate in iNaturalist here. And there’s a video (below) that walks you through the process and shows the value of this massive, worldwide community-science project.

NANPA collection projects

At any time during the year, NANPA members are engaged in several collection projects. Some are based on the region in which you live and/or photograph. Some are specific to certain events, like Nature Photography Day or Endangered Species Day. Some are general, looking for all types of observations. Some are looking for observations of certain species. An example of the latter is the Lost Words collection project. Inspired by the disappearance from a widely-used children’s dictionary of many common plant and animal names, from acorn to wren, this project (and future e-book) seeks to document just how frequently we come across these common organisms and rejuvenate interest in the words and species. Check out all of NANPA’s iNaturalist collection projects here or on iNaturalist.

And, in the meantime, get out into nature. Enjoy the experience of being outside with your camera. And, if you see anything interesting or timely, share it with a NANPA iNaturalist collection project!

Frank Gallagher is a landscape and nature photographer based in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in providing a wide range of photograph services to nonprofit organizations. He serves as NANPA’s Interim Marketing and Communications Coordinator and manages NANPA’s blog. He can be found online at or on Instagram @frankgallagherfoto.