Spot something odd? Share it!

The sensational Sydney cockle, causing a stir online. Photo: D. Monceaux

By Heather Creech

Dan is a South Australian freediver who loves to snorkel the Port River estuary – a site near Adelaide’s marine shipping terminals not often visited by divers. One day last year, Dan spotted something in the shallows he didn’t recognize: an unusual bivalve. So he took a photo and posted it on iNaturalist (www.inaturalist.org), hoping someone would identify it.

He caused a sensation among his friends. It turns out his innocuous little creature was a Sydney cockle, known from fossil deposits around South Australia’s coasts but considered by naturalists to be locally extinct for thousands of years. Certainly not something to be found living in the Port River on a December afternoon. According to Peter Hunt of the South Australian Malacological Society, “This discovery indicates to me we have just inherited another life form from somewhere east. It is recorded in Port Philip Bay [Melbourne].”

Dan’s experience of finding the unusual is not unique: he is among the tens of thousands of citizen scientists using iNaturalist to record their observations, verify findings, and document changes taking place in terrestrial and marine environments.

Connecting with nature

First developed in 2008 and now a project of the California Academy of Sciences and National Geographic, iNaturalist has grown rapidly into one of the leading systems for naturalists to record what they see. In brief, it is a crowdsourced species identification system and an organism occurrence recording tool. Users upload their photos with location and other details; others then help with identification. Once the ID is confirmed, observations are tagged as “research grade”, useful for scientific inquiry.

iNaturalist is also used for citizen science events and projects. By putting location data into a “collector”, all the individual observations for those coordinates can be pulled together – making it possible to compile data for a common purpose, like an annual bioblitz or regular monitoring of a local site.

While iNaturalist’s main goal is to connect people with nature, its secondary goal is “to generate scientifically valuable biodiversity data from these personal encounters”. iNaturalist’s research-grade observations are now being captured in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). GBIF together with the Ocean Biogeographical Information System (OBIS) form the world’s largest online repositories of geo-referenced data that governments and scientists use to develop assessments of biological diversity. iNaturalist provides an important layer of citizen science data that complements and enriches the data scientists draw upon in GBIF and OBIS.

The larger picture

As for the Sydney cockle – tagged as “research grade”, the observation is now included in the GBIF. Dan’s finding has launched a debate among the scientists (citizen and professional) about why the cockle is reestablishing in the Port River. Possibly introduced by shipping traffic, the cockle may be attracted to estuarine waters warming up either from broad climatic changes or from the local power plant. Simple observations by citizen scientists like Dan can be important indicators of larger system changes that have implications for natural resource management.

The marine life content on iNaturalist is growing, but the number of observers is still limited. More divers and snorkelers are needed to add and identify images of the world underwater. So the next time you dive, take some photos – even if you recognize what you are shooting – and post them on iNaturalist. Take several shots of different parts of the plant or animal to help the identification process, including ones in which the habitat can be viewed. And look at the observations of your fellow divers and snorkelers, to help verify what they’ve spotted. Let’s build the marine content of iNaturalist into that essential layer of data for scientists globally to better understand what is taking place in our oceans.

Share your photos during World Oceans Week

Help to build the marine life observations in iNaturalist by participating in Oceans Week.  First, join iNaturalist and submit a few photos to get used to the platform. Next, join the Oceans Week project and associate the project name with your observations. Take and post photos from your local dive sites during Oceans Week; encourage your buddies to join and help you identify what you are finding.  This blitz will both strengthen the marine content in iNaturalist and create a snapshot of observations, ordinary and unusual, for scientists to track over the coming years. Visit: www.inaturalist.org

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