October 21, 2021

New Vision Model Training Started

We've started training on a new model, which will be our first model update since July 2021. Here's what you need to know.

It’s bigger

iNaturalist data continues to grow. This time around we went from 38,000 to 47,000 taxa, and from 21 million to 25 million training photos.

We’ve sped up training time again

iNaturalist has new computer vision hardware!. We have two more NVIDIA RTX 8000 GPUs, again granted to iNaturalist by NVIDIA. Based on early experiments, three GPUs seem to train about twice as fast as a single GPU in flat-out training speed. We also have a new computer vision server to house these GPUs, which has 4x the RAM, a hugely faster CPU, and really fast disks (at this scale, reading photos from disk and writing data back to disk is a limiting factor).

This training run is starting with the last checkpoint from the previous training run, rather than starting from the standard ImageNet weights like we did for the previous training run. Basically, this training run gets a head start in understanding what kinds of visual features are important for making iNaturalist suggestions.

We changed a few things about how we generate training data

Hybrid species are no longer included. The previous training run was the first time where we had a significant amount of training images for some avian hybrid taxa (mallard hybrids, for example), and including them as training categories really confused the model. Despite mallard being the most commonly observed species on iNaturalist, the most recent model had a hard time getting mallard suggestions right, struggling to tell the difference between mallards and the various mallard hybrids. Excluding hybrid species from the training set should keep the computer vision model on the task of trying to distinguish between visually distinct taxa.

The number of photos from an individual observation that could be included in the training set has been capped to a max of 5 photos per observation. Previously, in very rare instances, a single observation with hundreds of nearly identical photos could have dominated the training data for a single taxon, potentially causing the model to learn visual features from just those photos, to the detriment of generalizing well to others’ photos.

We changed one thing about how we train the model

Label smoothing is back in our training config. Label smoothing sets the “true” training labels to “softer” values like 0.9 instead of “harder” values like 1.0. Basically, when the model is shown a photo to learn from, we’re now saying “we’re very confident that it’s species X” instead of saying “we’re 100% convinced that it’s species X.” It’s designed to reduce overconfidence in model scores. This is something that we’ve done with some models in the past, but this configuration got lost in the transition for the previous training run.

When will it be ready?

This new model will take a few months to train, and then a few weeks to test / validate before we decide it’s ready for deployment. The increase in training images is slowing us down, but the new hardware is speeding us up. Starting from a checkpoint from our previously trained model also reduces the amount of training work that needs to be done.

Future Work?

The main priority is to get to our stated goal of training 2 models a year.

We're trying to be more transparent about when and how we train new models, so we’ll be working on changes for that. This post is a start, but you can expect a dashboard with more details and charts coming soon.

We have a grant from Amazon to explore ways to improve how we export and train our models, and we’ll be working on that before the end of the year.

Finally, we now have two computer vision systems, one dedicated to production training runs like this one, and another which we can use to run experiments to improve future training runs and explore other machine learning-based features for iNaturalist.

Posted on October 21, 2021 21:33 by alexshepard alexshepard | 18 comments | Leave a comment

October 19, 2021

A Cross-Country Cicada Fungus Collaboration! - Observation of the Week, 10/19/21

Our Observation of the Week is this Massospora diceroproctae-infected Florida Keys' Scrub Cicada (Diceroprocta biconica), seen in the United States by @oridgen10!

During the Brood X mass periodical cicada emergence in North America this year, many cicada watchers noticed a strange affliction on some of the emergent adults - their rear ends were gone and had been replaced by a crusty looking fungal mass. This was likely Massospora cicadina, a parasitic fungus that parasitizes only periodical cicadas. There’s a lot we don’t know about these fungi, but what we do know is pretty amazing. 

It’s thought that Massospora spores infect cicadas when they’re still underground, in their mature nymph stage. This is known as a Stage I infection. After they metamorphose, the fungus spreads into the adult host’s abdomen, eventually making part of it slough off and basically “replacing” it with a mass of spores. Even more amazing, at least some Massospora species alter the behavior of its host via chemicals. For example, some infected male cicadas begin behaving like females, causing amorous males to attempt mating with them and thus contracting the spores. This results in a Stage II infection, and the now-infected adults spread the spores that will fall onto the ground and eventually infect the nymphs. You can read more about some of these behaviors here

Not all cicadas, however, are periodical - many are “annual,” with emergences happening every year and not as staggered as the periodical species. And of course, there are Massospora species which host on annual cicadas.

Which brings us to Owen Ridgen, currently a student at the University of Toronto, who credits his dad (who in turn was inspired by his dad) for his interest in nature. “I began as mainly a birder,” he says, “but as I've grown older I've branched out and begun to appreciate all forms of life. I have a special interest in odonata (dragonflies and damselflies), lepidoptera, fishes, reef life, freshwater mussels, and reptiles and amphibians.”

While vacationing in the Florida Keys in August, Owen went mothing - “essentially just setting up a white sheet and reflecting a UV or mercury-vapour bulb off of it in order to attract moths, which can then be photographed” - and noticed that a good number of cicadas were also being drawn to his sheet. 

I began to notice that a significant proportion of these cicadas seemed to be missing the back half of their abdomens. One of them even had some chalky-looking material attached to this area. So I uploaded an observation of this cicada to iNat.

Cicada researcher @willc-t noticed Owen’s observation and recognized that the cicada had a Massospora infection. So he in turn emailed Matt Kasson (@millipedeeats, below), a professor at the University of West Virginia.

Dr. Kasson and his lab have been studying this genus since 2016, and in 2020 his lab published the first phylogenetic study of these fungi. Their Massospora diceroproctae specimen came from a Diceroprocta semicincta cicada collected in Arizona - thousands of kilometers away from the Florida Keys. He tells me

The original description for the Massospora from D. semicincta, M. diceroproctae, also listed D. biconica [which Owen observed] as a potential host but the author questioned if it was really the same fungus given the wide stretch of real estate between the Keys and Arizona. In 2006 one of my former grad students photographed a Massospora-infected Diceroprocta biconica with the same purple-colored fungal plug we see from D. semicincta. But his observations were a decade before my lab even started studying these fungi.

So, Dr. Kasson reached out to Owen. 

When I reached out I was disappointed he had not collected the specimen (why would he) but was ecstatic when he said he was still in the area and could go back to where he made the observations and secure several more if possible. We exchanged messages via iNat and he was able to collect us several specimens.

[Once the specimens arrived], my post-doc Dr. Brian Lovett and my PhD student Angie Macias, both who work with me on this group of fungi, processed the samples and we made both slides for microscopy and extracted DNA for our molecular work. Since Angie had already built a nicely resolved phylogeny and deposited representative sequences into GenBank it was just a matter of BLASTing our sequence date we generated to see the percent sequence similarity with M. diceroproctae.

A cross-country collaboration via iNat confirmed a new host for this fungus! 

Owen (above) says he’s not currently studying anything but has some ideas for future projects. He has been on iNat since 2017 and tells me

I typically use iNat every day of my life. Pretty much anything I see that I can get a good picture of, I will upload. But it's more than that, it is also a community that I love to participate in. iNaturalist has inspired me to be far more attentive to the natural world, and seek out organisms that I knew little about before. It's helped me gain a much more holistic view of my environment overall.

(Photo of Dr. Kasson by Amy Metheny. Photo of Owen by David Ridgen.)

- @willc-t is also part of this cicada rediscovery from last year!

- Entomologist Samuel Ramsey discusses cicada mating and Massospora in this video.

Posted on October 19, 2021 21:34 by tiwane tiwane | 6 comments | Leave a comment

October 12, 2021

A Jumping Spider Takes Down a Spotted Lanternfly - Observation of the Week, 10/12/21

Our Observation of the Week is this Bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax) and its Spotted Lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) prey, seen in the United States by @mo0nsgreenthumb!

“I have always been interested in nature and considered myself somewhat of a ‘tree hugger,’” says Rita Tomassetti (@mo0nsgreenthumb), “although I have to confess I used to be terrified of any and all insects, and especially spiders. This all changed last year when I turned my failed efforts at gardening into a success by planting native plants.”

Originally from the Dominican Republic, Rita moved to Pennsylvania in the United States about eight years ago. She wanted to attract butterflies and other pollinators to her garden but found that the pretty non-native plants weren’t doing the job and instead became overrun by weeds. “It was very discouraging until 2 years ago when I attended a native plant sale and bought a Butterfly Garden in a box. It contained 2 beebalms, 1 coreopsis and 1 butterfly milkweed. I planted them in my front garden bed and suddenly I found 3 monarch caterpillars, then found their chrysalis and saw them fly off as butterflies.”

[In 2020] I joined a Facebook group called Gardening for Pollinators and Wildlife Conservation where I learned about all the different kinds of native plants I could plant to attract all the pollinators. I prepped the back garden, went plant shopping and planted densely. Everything did very well and that year I saw my previously sterile garden teeming with life. I learned all about the importance of all the insects visiting my garden, even the scary ones like spiders and hornets and wasps…[it’s] the one positive outcome from Covid and the lockdown.

I am very passionate about native plant gardening and taking care of this amazing Earth we have been blessed with and using iNaturalist I have been able to share with others on my Instagram and Facebook not just the benefit of planting natives but the benefit of having the myriad of insects visit the garden. How we don't need to be afraid of that bee or wasp or fierce looking beetle because they have an important role as pollinators and/or predators, and if we spray them to death we are not just harming them but we are harming ourselves in the long run.

However, the photo you see above was not taken in Rita’s garden (the one below was, though!). She was participating in the Amazing Arthropods 2021 project but

it was a very busy week for me and I barely had time to go out to my garden, but sometime that week I had stopped at a local bakery, on my way to pick up my son from school, and out of the corner of my eye, on a hydrangea leaf, I saw the bold jumping spider and spotted lanternfly so I snapped a quick picture and went on my way. I live in Pennsylvania and as you are all well aware I'm sure, the spotted lanternflies have been a major problem...I had also seen jumping spiders feasting on them before, so I was not surprised to see this spider enjoying its spotted lanternfly meal.

As Rita alluded to, the spotted lanternfly is having a bit of a moment in the United States press. Pieces about this invasive species have popped up in The New York Times, Science Friday, and many local outlets in the northeastern part of the country. Originally from parts of mainland Asia, it was first confirmed in the United States 2014, in Berks County, Pennsylvania but has spread to several other states. Check out the gif @kevinfaccenda posted on our forum

A type of planthopper, the spotted lanternfly’s preferred host is tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima) but it will feed on many other plants, including important agricultural ones such as grapes, stone fruit, hardwoods, and hops. When large numbers of them feed on a plant (they suck out its sap), they can damage it by overfeeding or by excreting honeydew, which promotes mold growth that can be lethal the plant. 

Rita’s observation of this bold jumping spider dining on a spotted lanternfly has been added to the Spotted Lanternfly Predation in the U.S. project, where it’s currently one of nearly 100 observations. I reached out to project creator @robizzy, who told me 

Folks were snapping the occasional photo of birds and insects munching on a spotted lanternfly, which was a welcome sight as more and more of Pennsylvania was becoming overrun with them since they arrived a few years back. When lanternflies first showed up in Pennsylvania the fear was that there wouldn't be predators here to eat the invasive insects, so seeing that some things were at least willing to try offered some hope that we had some natural allies. iNaturalist lends itself really well to crowd sourcing these types of observations, so we decided to create a project to document any instances of other organisms taking down lanternflies. 

Around the same time a grad student at Penn State, Anne Johnson, was looking into reports of birds eating lanternflies, so we were happy to contribute this data to her research. The hope is that these projects help us better understand how native, and some non-native, organisms might be able to help us minimize damage from the lanternflies, and help us appreciate allies like our native birds and jumping spiders that much more!

- The US Department of Agriculture has information about spotted lanternflies in the US and what you can about them if you see one there.

- Spotted lanternflies are also an agricultural pest in South Korea, where they were first spotted in 2004.

- I didn’t write much about the the jumping spider part of Rita’s observation, but like all spiders, jumping spiders are awesome! Here are some of the most-faved jumping spider observations on iNat.

Posted on October 12, 2021 21:21 by tiwane tiwane | 14 comments | Leave a comment

October 05, 2021

Tiny Tiny Choanoflagellates- Observation of the Week, 10/5/21

Our Observation of the Week is this group of Salpingoeca protozoans on Hydrodictyon algae! Seen in Spain by @vicentefranch.

While most of Vicente Franch’s observations come from southeastern Spain, where he resides, the organisms you see above were found at the Guadalix reservoir in the Sierra de Guadarrama north of Madrid when he was on a family visit. 

The day before it had rained in the Sierra, so the water accumulated in the reservoir at a level a little higher than usual in summer. However, I could get to the edge of the water by wetting my boots.

In the sample I have found a very rich microdiversity. Among them was a precious network of the alga Hydrodictyon used by this group of Salpingoeca, a relatively common sessile coanozoan, as a substrate.

Also known as water nets, algae in the genus Hydrodictyon grow in colonies which often form hexagonal or pentagonal structures. It reproduces both sexually and asexually and can grow quickly, making it a nuisance in some areas. The Salpingoeca protozoans found on this colony are choanoflagellates, which are thought to be the closest unicellular relatives to animals. These prey on bacteria and other biological matter.

Vincente (above, in Valencia lagoon) says he’s always been interested in small animals, which 

awakened in me a certain fascination. My parents bought me a children's microscope with which I spent hours in my room gutting cockroaches and trying to find strange and wonderful things in the dirty waters of the puddles.

This led to him studying biology, but throughout his professional life he wasn't able to interact with nature as much as he wanted to. Now that he’s retired, he’s been able to reconnect with his old hobby, and tells me that “for several years I have been able to improve my observation equipment and spend more time on microscopic life.”

- Here’s a video showing aHydrodictyon colony at various focus settings.

- Go, flageullum, go!

- Let’s go back to April of 2016 and our Observation of the Week blog post featuring @sarka and a totally different algal colony.

Posted on October 05, 2021 21:58 by tiwane tiwane | 11 comments | Leave a comment

October 04, 2021

Identifier Profile: @michelledelaloye

This is the fifth entry in an ongoing monthly series of blog posts highlighting the amazing identifiers of iNaturalist.

Born in the Neuquén Province of Argentina, Michelle Delaloye tells me “I have been interested in nature since I can remember.”

My parents can tell you how I used to go out to look for frogs in the stream, or how I collected bugs in jars. There is something about nature and its inhabitants that has always fascinated me, which is why I dedicated myself to learn about them. Fortunately, my parents always encouraged me, buying encyclopedias, taking me camping, or tolerating the jars with small animals that I had at home to observe them closely and then release them.

During my teenage years, thanks to a book very dear to me (El Gran Libro de la Naturaleza Argentina), I became fascinated with the landscapes and species of my country. Before that, documentaries and encyclopedias only told about species from other countries and continents, and I hadn't been able to learn much about native nature till that time.

After deciding to study biology, Michelle moved to La Plata, Buenos Aires, as there weren’t opportunities in her home region. She’s wrapping up her undergraduate degree in the Licenciatura en Biología con orientación en Zoología program at Universidad Nacional de La Plata (see her academic page here) and her current interest is “mostly Argentine butterflies; their distribution, diversity, habits, ecology, conservation and biology.” She’s currently the top identifier of butterflies in both Argentina and the continent of South America overall.

Butterflies, though, are a bit of recent interest for Michelle. In 2012 she started birding (see her eBird profile here) and tells me her classmates assumed she was going to study birds. Yet her partner (whom she met through a birding club) gave her the Mariposas de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires y alrededores field guide as a present. “I feel that it was there that my particular interest in that group of arthropods arose,” she says. 

Sometimes during birdwatching trips when someone asks me why I like butterflies, I always comment that they would be the equivalent of birds, but in insects. Not only do they have a diversity of colors and shapes, but they can also have territorial behavior, courtship, migration and other interesting behaviors. They are intimately related to the environment through their nutritional plants, and of course, have metamorphosis, one of the most fascinating processes in the natural world. It should also be mentioned that except for some naturalists such as Núñez Bustos, the study of butterflies has been very underdeveloped in the country for several decades, something that I consider raises my interest in the group, despite the difficulties involved in learning about them with the limited bibliography available.

After seeing a Facebook post for the 2018 City Nature Challenge (La Plata and Buenos Aires were the only Argentinian cities participating that year), Michelle signed up for an iNaturalist account. 

Although I uploaded very few photos to iNat for the CNC that year, I ended up staying for the infinite possibilities it allows. Among them the most interesting thing is to be able to create a database of local biodiversity at different scales, almost like a constantly updated online encyclopedia containing species, their common names, distribution, flowering times, life stages, etc. An absolute wonder.

Now, most of her iNaturalist activity consists of making identifications for other users. “Although I know about plants, birds, and other insects in addition to butterflies,” she explains, “the usual thing I concentrate on is butterflies, which is where I can contribute the most since there are not many users yet who are dedicated to identifying Argentine species.” She tries to add IDs daily (except during exam times) and often starts through her Mariposas y Polillas de Argentina project but will also search for butterflies in other parts of the continent as well as review and correct (if necessary) Research Grade observations. “As I expand my expertise,” she says, “I also expand the map of southern South America a bit more to review.” Sometimes she’ll let observations of difficult genera or tribes accumulate, then she’ll pore over specific literature as she goes through them, and she’s also created notebooks to help her with making identifications (below).

“There is something enjoyable about helping other people name what they observed,” Michelle says, when asked why she identifies observations on iNat.

Even more so when I see, over time, that they learn to recognize many of these species, and begin to add their own identifications. I consider it almost a duty to transmit the knowledge that one possesses to other people, it is something that I always embrace in the birdwatching outings - and as a would-be biologist - and anyone who wants me to explain how I came to the identification, I will always comment on it…

On the other hand, I also learn by identifying the observations of other people: there are entire groups of species that I do not know in person yet, or that are in places that I have not visited yet, and thanks to the observations that other users upload, I can practice recognizing them. In truth we learn both, the observer and the identifier. Finally, thanks to the observations that users upload (and that I and other users identify), not only do I learn more about Argentine species, their distribution, life stages and host plants, but we all learn, and contribute to our knowledge of the country's biodiversity.

(Photo of Michelle taken by Natalie Dudinszky)

- Michelle will be part of a panel discussing insect observations this Wednesday, October 6th, at 6 pm Buenos Aires time. This a series of videos being created by ArgentiNat in the run up to the Great Southern Bioblitz. Check out their blog post for more information and links to recordings of past tutorials.

- When asked what her favorite butterfly taxa are, Michelle replied “It's hard to pick, but I do find interesting the myrmecophilous species, such as Aricoris arenarum, fed and tended by Camponotus ants. Morpho epistrophus is the southernmost Morpho species, reaching as far south as General Madariaga Partido, in Buenos Aires Province, away from any tropical forest (as one would typically expect for a Morpho). Itylos titicaca is one of the smallest butterfly species, with only 10-16 mm of wingspan; it flies in the High Andes, between 3000-4500 m. I find stunning the silver color of Argyrophorus argenteus and the golden one of Argopteron aureipennis. I like Ancyloxypha nitedula, Doxocopa laurentia, Cissia phronius, Heliopetes americanus, Panca subpunctuli and the Butleria and Dardarina species. It's really hard to choose!”

- In addition to her notebooks, Michelle uses both websites and printed guides, as well as a collection of PDFs, checklists, photos, and such. She also uses Butterflies of America’s lists, which she notes are sometimes out of date but are still very useful.

- ArgentiNat is the Argentina node of the iNaturalist network, and it’s managed by Fundacion Vida Silvestre Argentina. You can read more about it here.

Posted on October 04, 2021 20:17 by tiwane tiwane | 27 comments | Leave a comment

September 14, 2021

Worm Wars in the Intertidal - Observation of the Week, 9/14/21

Our Observation of the Week is this worm-on-worm action - a New Zealand Paddle Worm (Eulalia microphylla) attacking a Flatworm (Phylum Platyhelminthes)! Seen by @dave_holland.

Last month, Dave Holland explored the intertidal area in West Auckland with Oscar (“another ‘nature addict’”), who he’d recently met. “He was showing me all the super cool spots around his home base,” says Dave.

This particular day we ended up flipping rocks in the intertidal zone - a great way to find all sorts of unusual critters. Normally any critters living on the underside of the rock exit stage left as fast as possible, but this time something very very interesting happened.

As he was recording video of a flatworm on the rock, Dave saw New Zealand paddle worm came across it and “the light green stuff exploded out and grabbed the flatworm then would shrink back into the [paddle worm] if the flatworm wriggled out!” Forgetting that he was shooting video, Dave started snapping photos with his camera instead, and those are what you see in this blog post. 

A member of Family Phyllodocidae, the paddle worm is a polychaete, also known as bristle worms due to the chitinous bristles (called chaetae) protruding from each segment. A polychaete can evert its pharnyx, or in some cases a longer proboscis, for hunting and feeding, and this one’s nice and bright green!  

While a fan of all nature, Dave (below, in Australia) says his current interests lie with New Zealand’s over 100 native reptile species, accurately identifying Vespula germanica and Vespula vulgaris (both invasive to the islands), and finding newly naturalizing exotic plant species. 

New Zealand already has literally the worst weed problem on Earth with over two and a half thousand species of exotic plant [having] escaped cultivation and invading/diluting/replacing our native ecosystems. Myself and other iNatters are discovering new plant species escaping every day, some of these are the new generation of climax weeds that will invade, overtop and replace the huge areas of newly created habitat of urban native plantings that are being created around cities as the ecological consciousness of the urban population improves.

He also recently started the Bird Dispersed Weed & Potential Weeds NZ project to bring awareness to non-native plants being dispersed by birds.

While acknowledging that it’s “far from perfect,” Dave thinks iNat “has the power to educate, education has the power to change consciousness, changing consciousness has the power to change the future.” And also, “using iNat has further decreased my speed [when out in nature]. I was pretty damn slow before because I have always seen cool stuff, but using iNat has made my progress through the world gastropodially slow, because now I am looking at nature through a macro lens.”

(Photo of Dave by Kaddi Bitcher)

- Take a look at some of the remarkable most-faved polychaetes and flatworms on iNat.

- This video of Los Angeles County marine worms has some nice footage of a polychaete everting its pharyx at around 2:10.

- Check out two past wormy Observations of the Week - this enormous polychaete and this land planarian!

Posted on September 14, 2021 23:05 by tiwane tiwane | 10 comments | Leave a comment

September 07, 2021

A Volcanic Vaccinium in Costa Rica - Observation of the Week, 9/7/2021

Our Observation of the Week is this Vaccinium poasanum plant, seen in Costa Rica by @jorbogmont!

Currently living and working in the Washington, DC area, Jorge Bogantes Montero grew up in Costa Rica and was able to visit the country’s many different habitats and ecosystems. “For an ADHD nature loving boy,” he explains, “it was paradise! Those experiences in the great outdoors really shaped me and helped me become a biodiversity conservation professional.” After obtaining a degree in natural resources, he’s worked in the conservation field both in Costa Rica and the United States for the past nineteen years.

I started doing a lot of plant-related work in Costa Rica: vascular plant inventories, tree planting projects and such, but have always had a deep interest in wildlife too. I was into bird watching for a while, then mammals, herpetofauna, and freshwater fish. I have always looked for ways to get involved with and learn more about wildlife conservation. 

He photographed the plant you see above way back in 2003, when creating a plant inventory of Poás Volcano National Park. “Coincidentally this is the type locality for the species,” he explains.

The photo was taken within a stones throw of the mighty, and active, Poás Volcano (below, in 2003), in the forests of the national park. Vaccinium species (blueberries or heaths in English) are commonly known as “arrayanes” in Costa Rica. Some species are edible, but I don't recall them being a popular wild edible there. 

They grow only in the highlands and are a reminder of the biogeographical melting pot that the flora of Costa Rica is, being located in a geologically young land between two continents and two seas. I remember the foggy and chilly highland days looking for plants in the national park, occasionally smelling sulphur from the fumaroles or occasionally hearing sounds from the volcano. By sleeping in the park I had the chance to see the crater early in the morning before the tourists flocked. And in those years the crater used to have a beautiful bright green lake, a color it doesn't always have due to changes in chemistry and activity.

Jorge (above, in Costa Rica) works as a Natural Resources Specialist with the Anacostia Watershed Society and tells me that while he’s basically a generalist, he has become very interested in freshwater ecology due to his current work. One of his projects involves freshwater mussel propagation in the area. He uses iNat in his work, “organizing bioblitzes and documenting local biodiversity in the Anacostia River watershed in DC,” and to of course help him identify unfamiliar organisms and keep a life list of what he’s seen.

[iNaturalist] has changed my understanding of the natural world by helping me learn about that plant or critter I've always wanted to know what it is but didn't always have an easy way to discover it. I always recommend the app to people and have gotten some people to start using it.

- You can see some of the bioblitzes Jorge has helped organize at the Anacostia Watershed Society’s bioblitz page, and their ongoing project can be found here.

- Jorge discusses outreach in the Latinx community in this interview from 2012 and in this panel discussion from 2019. And here’s first person footage of a mussel survey he conducted.

- He was also interviewed for the Oyster Ninja podcast.

- Check out the most-faved Vaccinium observations on iNat here.

Posted on September 07, 2021 23:45 by tiwane tiwane | 10 comments | Leave a comment

Identifier Profile: @nathantaylor

This is the fourth in an ongoing monthly series of blog posts highlighting the amazing identifiers of iNaturalist.

Plants of Euphorbia Sect. Anisophyllum, often called “sandmats”, can be found throughout much of the world and of the over 53,000 verifiable observations of this taxon on iNat at this time, Nathan Taylor (@nathantaylor) has added identifications to 43,569 of them - by far iNat’s top identifier of the section. He’s also identified over 81,000 observations of all observations in the genus Euphorbia and has provided extensive resources for anyone looking to identify these plants (and others).

When his family moved from the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex to rural Lamesa in West Texas, Nathan Taylor at first started learning the lizards and snakes in the area. “I had initially wanted to become a herpetologist, a fascination that came out of looking at lizards such as frilled lizards in books and catching organisms like horned lizards (Phrynosoma cornutum) and southern prairie lizards (Sceloporus undulatus),” he says. “I even had a notebook documenting their head scale patterns of the iguanids to tell different individuals apart and gave many of the lizards names.”

But after moving to another property nearby, Nathan soon changed his focus to plants.

Everyone around me viewed the land of the region as a barren wasteland [and] even referred to as the "armpit of Texas" or worse. But that spring, after moving, the sandy hillsides were covered with wildflowers (especially spectacle pod, Dimorphocarpa candicans).  Given the clear disparity between what I was seeing and what other people's impressions of the land were, I had to identify every flower I could. So, I borrowed my dad's digital camera, got some field guides in the library and almost unknowingly spiraled into a broad understanding of the plants around me.  

Nathan’s interest in sandmats was due to his mentor at the time, Burr Williams, saying he didn’t identify sandmats to species. “I basically took that as a challenge,” says Nathan. “But, what kept me fascinated by Euphorbia was how difficult they are to identify and how frequently they were misidentified in herbaria.

Identification of Euphorbia is complicated. In my early days of learning the plants, I tried to key the Euphorbia species. I stumbled over concepts like stipules, seed ridges, and glandular appendages. When I started my Bachelor's Degree and continued in my Master's Degree, I started learning the species properly and eventually found misidentifications in the Sul Ross State University herbarium. Some later proved to be new species. It's this lack of understanding of how to ID the group that really drives me to continue studying it...

Every little detail tells its own tale about what makes Euphorbia unique and how the plants have been shaped over the many years of evolutionary adaptation. Today, I might be fascinated that Euphorbia is the only genus with CAM, C3, C4, and the intermediary C2 photosynthesis and that sandmats utilize three of those. Tomorrow, I might be fascinated by anisophylly and how that helps plants avoid self-shading in Euphorbia sect. Anisophyllum. These get me excited and, most importantly, help me get other people excited about the plants I study. Ultimately though, these are exciting little steps towards a deeper understanding of how to identify my organisms of interest.

Nathan was first introduced to iNat at a digitization conference, when a speaker discussed the Herps of Texas project. “I didn't think much of it at the time, he says.

I didn't even think it would apply to me since all the characteristics used in the key to distinguish species in Euphorbia sect. Anisophyllum species are so small and that was essentially the only thing I was interested in at the time. But, I created an account and added some observations for the fun of it. It wasn't until later that I realized, not only were people uploading observations of sandmats, but I could ID almost all of them from their photographs. At that point, I was hooked. Within a few years, I would have access to photos of plants in the field from all over the world to connect to what I learned from herbarium specimens.

Until recently, when he started in a PhD program Mark Fishbein's lab in the Plant Biology, Ecology, and Evolution department at Oklahoma State University, Nathan curated sandmats worldwide, Euphorbia in the United States, Crotons in Texas, and plants in the Llano Estacado region. He’s had to step away a  bit due to lack of time but notes that @trh_blue and @janeyair have been helping a lot with Euphorbia IDs on iNaturalist. 

When he does identification work, though, Nathan has several different workflows. If he wants to add basic, easy identifications he has some filters and URLs already set up, but if he wants to learn a new taxon or area, he uses a bunch of resources.

For instance, I have a spreadsheet that functions as an atlas for all the major continents. If I break it down to country, I can often limit the number of possible species to less than 20. From there it's a matter of looking up the type specimen on JSTOR Plants or other herbaria to see which is the best fit. For complex species, I may need to get a sense of the populational variability. For that, I usually turn to GBIF and filter by specimens.  I rarely use photos in the process because the rates of misidentification of photos are usually much higher than those of specimens because of the characteristics used in the keys.  You're not going to find it easy to distinguish Euphorbia glyptosperma and Euphorbia stictospora from a photo if the couplet you stumble on is seed shape regardless of how different they look in the field.

For sandmats, I use exclusively primary literature sources and many of them (my current database has over 100 taxonomic sources). For Euphorbia in general, I use Flora of North America, but there are several taxonomic uncertainties and a few points where I disagree. This generally comes from communication with other experts or my own understanding of the morphology. For any US IDs other than Euphorbia, I'll use any good local floras that are available but fall back on BONAP to limit my options if there isn't one. BONAP tends to overestimate the number of habitats and bioregions that species occur in even though it underestimates the counties. If you're familiar with these bioregions, you can get a sense for what possible species you should consider. From there, a combination of floras and/or monographs are used to figure out the differences.

In addition to identification work, Nathan uses iNat in a few other ways. 

The main one is finding new populations (sometimes even new species) of Euphorbia.  However, I also use it for recording data for herbarium specimens, recording identification notes, looking for places to find plants I haven't seen, and to get a sense for what species grow in a given area. It also can be a wonderful place to connect with other botanists to discuss interpretations of morphology and species limitations. For example, two prominent Euphorbia experts (@spurgeckr and @vicsteinmann) have come onto the site over the last couple of years, and I have greatly enjoyed discussing interpretations of the morphology and species.  This kind of discussion helps me to make better identifications in the future.

- Nathan’s created an extensive list of resources over the years, which is available here.

- Need help photographing a euphorb? Check out Nathan’s guide.

- The In Defense of Plants podcast featured Nathan in their episode Spurge is the Word.

- And you can see Nathan’s herping skills at work in the Southwest Texas iNat-a-thon video (he was known then as nathantaylor7583).

- Here are the most-faved Euphorbia observations on iNat!

- And Nathan was consulted for this Observation of the Week post about a tantalizing sandmat find by @nelson_wisnik.

- If you have suggestions for identifiers to profile, please message @tiwane (don't add them in the comments). Thanks!

Posted on September 07, 2021 17:56 by tiwane tiwane | 33 comments | Leave a comment

August 31, 2021

Spinner Sharks! - Observation of the Week, 8/31/21

Our Observation of the Week is this Spinner Shark (Carcharhinus brevipinna), seen off of South Africa by @veld_mens!

A scientific marine and fisheries observer on fish and seismic vessels, Carika van Zyl was on a trawler off the coast of South Africa and tells me 

I was doing data entry on the bridge and a splash caught my eye. I then saw another splash. I grabbed my camera and tried to take some pictures to identify the species. At first I thought it was a dolphin but it soon became apparent that it was a shark. I was completely amazed as I have never encountered [spinner sharks]. There were about four sharks and over a couple of weeks I spent hours photographing them in the afternoon and individually identifying them, trying to look for specific markings and thus realizing that it is the same group following the vessel. It was quite the task as you never knew where they would breach and they would jump so fast that I basically got 100's of splash photos.

One day, I was in luck and with a prayer and a strong resolve, realizing that I had to get good pictures of them. Strangely enough they are predominantly found more inshore and in warm waters. We were about forty miles offshore, and in 1000m deep cold waters…

Having the chance to witness and photograph these sharks in action was truly a highlight for me. They would just give us a show everyday. This trip really cemented my respect for sharks and the need to protect them.

Found in most subtropical waters around the world, spinner sharks swim quickly through schools of small fish such as sardines, spinning all the while, and then breach the surface as you can see in Carika’s excellent photos. As Carika noted, they’re normally found in waters shallower than 350 feet or so but she explains that “during [the trip] there was a huge change in ocean temperature, due to currents, which affected much of the East and South Coast and I think that was why they were so deep.” These sharks grow to a maximum length of about three meters, or just under ten feet.

Growing up in Ceres, South Africa, Carika (above) “fell in love with the mountains, its leopards, baboons, the fynbos and the historic bushmen rock paintings” of her home and earned a masters degree in Marine Monitoring, leading to her current occupation. She uses iNaturalist “mostly to assist in identifying fynbos species, and I so appreciate all the kind people who [help me].”

- Here’s some footage of spinner sharks off of Florida. 

- And don’t forget their look-alikes, the spinner dolphins! David Attenborough narrates a video featuring them here.

Posted on August 31, 2021 22:44 by tiwane tiwane | 11 comments | Leave a comment

August 27, 2021

Meet Lisette Arellano (ten_salamanders), an iNaturalist Monthly Supporter

This is the third interview in a series getting to know members of the iNaturalist community who are also Monthly Supporters. You can also read the first and second interviews.

Lisette Arellano (@ten_salamanders) is from the San Francisco Bay Area in California. She works for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy as the Community Science Program Manager at One Tam, using iNaturalist is part of her work. Earlier this year she gave a presentation at a virtual event hosted by fellow iNaturalist enthusiast and author Mary Ellen Hannibal (@mhannibal) for the Bay Nature Institute (you can watch a recording of the whole program here, or jump straight to Lisette’s part beginning at 7:35).

How did you first get into iNaturalist?
iNaturalist is how I finally arrived at a place of contentment with my identity as a scientist and endurance athlete. It’s a long story that starts when I was a high school student saving up for a mountain bike so I could go on solo adventures without a car. That fall, I joined the high-school cross-country team as a ploy to spend more time outside, hang out with friends, and daydream. I wanted to be an ecologist when I grew up and imagined that by biking and running, I could get to know the Santa Cruz Mountains very well and learn all the nature things. That did happen to some extent until I got serious about sports and with that came some unexpected opportunities. By the time I was a collegiate student-athlete, my running-biking-naturalist concept seemed impractical. If I was outside, I was at practice preoccupied with how fast and how far I was going or I was in the field with exams or research on my mind. It was hard to slow down and appreciate the monarchs of Ellwood Grove and the plants of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

My doctoral work took me to Boulder, Colorado, a town full of athletes and scientists with big ambitions. That era had a lot of ups and down, and I constantly felt disappointed with my efforts as an ecologist, naturalist, and athlete. It’s difficult to do a hard workout before a day of Rocky Mountain summer fieldwork or to be mentally and emotionally present for both competition and comprehensive exams. Slowing down was hard when I felt like I always had to rush off to finish work.

Then on a winter break at Point Reyes National Seashore, I spent time on the trails, running the parts that were fun to run, hiking the parts that were fun to hike, and taking lots of pictures of slugs and mushrooms. After hours in the mist and rain, the evenings were spent curled up with field guides from the hostel library. This is what a younger version of myself had imagined and I wanted that feeling of gentle adventure and curiosity every day after that.

Life is not vacation, so it took me a while to figure out how I was going to establish a daily practice. iNatualist made it possible. Most of my iNatting happens on runs or bike rides, no matter how epic or mundane, fast or slow. Every time I upload my observations, spend time identifying, follow the path of my curiosity, even for five minutes while I’m also stretching, it’s all joy.

What made you want to donate monthly, in addition to everything else you do with iNaturalist?
In meetings, I’m always saying that iNaturalist is the promise of the Internet fulfilled. Well, I stand by that. I use iNaturalist every day and really want it to thrive into the future. I am grateful for iNaturalist as a conduit for my personal curiosity, a tool for my professional work, and a local and global community. Lastly, as a fellow non-profit worker, I know it takes a lot of behind-the-scenes work to maintain operations and am sympathetic to the need for predictable, long-term funding.

What keeps you motivated?
In my personal iNaturalist practice, I am most energized by the opportunity to hold a beginner’s mindset and to follow my curiosity without external pressure. With iNaturalist, there is also a sense of adventure to everything I do, however ordinary. Adventure and curiosity are very similar to me in that they are largely about holding a gentle fascination and openness to the world. For example, if I’m not at work, I do most of my iNatting while running or biking. If I start my run with a curious mind, I end up seeing all kinds of things –a squirrel blind in one eye, an interesting bee behavior, a new-to-me mushroom—and I am reminded that my tiny pocket of the universe is indeed very special and full of adventure.

In my professional iNaturalist practice, I am motivated by all the people that are part of One Tam and the constant experimentation and problem-solving we do for conservation. The best part of my job is connecting community scientists to each other and providing the space and support for people to develop and share their naturalist skills and curiosity. Starting new community science projects takes a ton of work, and I’m grateful that iNaturalist is such a solid tool for everything from mycoblitzes to our new Marin Milkweed Monitors project. The second-best part of my job is nerding out with data and constantly diving off the deep end learning new things. When I have a big dataset in front of me it’s like I opened a big box of coloring pencils and paints and the code is the blank canvas. It’s a bit overwhelming, but very exciting.

What’s something that you’d like more members of the iNaturalist community to know or do?
I want the iNaturalist community to join action to ensure a livable planet for all organisms. I want everyone to realize that their pocket of the universe is indeed special and full of adventure and to act together to protect it. The iNaturalist community is global, so it’s hard to generalize. The society I inhabit is constantly distracted and divided, and I think it’s subversive to pay attention to the very real living things nearby and to connect to other people that respect and care about life on this planet. In some places, that’s not safe to do at all. By contributing to iNaturalist, members of this community are already taking steps to connect and build knowledge collectively and that’s just the beginning of action. In brief, be kind to others, share knowledge generously, and show up to care for the place you inhabit.

And if you are living in the San Francisco Bay Area or visiting, come play with me at One Tam. You can visit www.onetam.org or @onetamalpais on Instagram for announcements

Thank you to @ten_salamanders and all of the Monthly Supporters! iNaturalist Monthly Supporters give automatic, recurring charitable donations and can be recognized on their profile pages, if they choose to from their account settings. Monthly Supporters are a critical part of our community and help ensure that iNaturalist is freely available to people all over the world. You can become a Monthly Supporter by giving your first recurring donation online. Thank you!

iNaturalist thrives thanks to deeply dedicated and enthusiastic community members like Lisette. We’re grateful to everyone who is generous with their time, expertise, and other gifts. For the rest of 2021, we'll profile several different Monthly Supporters to highlight members of the community and why they support iNaturalist.

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iNaturalist is a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. All donations will be received by the California Academy of Sciences, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt not-for-profit organization based in the United States of America (Tax ID: 94-1156258). Gifts can be made online in more than 40 different currencies via bank account, credit/debit card, or PayPal.

Posted on August 27, 2021 18:20 by carrieseltzer carrieseltzer | 18 comments | Leave a comment