Islanders share love of iNaturalist site

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It’s well known that the Gulf Islands are an ultra-rich area for biodiversity, but for most people it’s daunting to identify the plants or creatures they see while out walking in their neighbourhood or on a trail.

That’s when it would be great to have a Shazam music identification app equivalent for flora and fauna. While the iNaturalist app requires more effort than pointing a smartphone at a mystery specimen of lizard or purple flower, it is the next best thing.

The iNaturalist website and mobile app lets people post photos of native plants and animals — from mosses to grasses and moths to squirrels — either to simply share them with others or to get help with their identification. The site also creates a database of what species are found where and hosts special projects launched by its users.

Juli Mallett and Corvi Zeman are two active Salt Spring iNaturalist fans who were initially drawn to the site because of their interest in fungi.

“Around the start of last year my partner and I started using it because we’ve been into sort of amateur mycology for a number of years,” said Mallett. “When we moved here we started really making an effort to keep track of what we’d seen and where we’d seen it and that sort of thing and there were in particular some things we were finding on our property and around our home that were kind of interesting and unusual.”

They stumbled across iNaturalist and found it an easy way to keep track of all kinds of plants and to get help in identifying some of them. Both Mallett and Zeman have done work in ecology but are “citizen scientists”; not biologists or scientists like many iNaturalist users.

Zeman initiated a Fungi of Salt Spring Island group on the site, which automatically collects all of the mushroom and other fungi posts from the island. It now has hundreds of observations attached to it, and Zeman also writes a “fungus of the month” column there.

“It’s really kind of a neat thing,” Mallett said.

“We live in one of the most diverse regions for fungi in the world,” she added. “If you look at people who are doing serious mycology field work there is sort of a cluster of areas where they go — Central American cloud forest, south-east Asia and the Pacific Northwest.”

The couple previously lived for a long time in Olympia, Wash., which has a substantial mycology community.

Mallett said a maxim that gets thrown around in ecology is that “Wherever you look the most is where you find the most,” so that thorough exploration of one’s nearby surroundings is likely to provide exciting natural discoveries.

“Every time I go for a half-hour walk there is something new to see,” she said.

Plants have been tagged on Salt Spring by 364 different people on iNaturalist, but probably only six people regularly use it. Mallett would love to see more participation by islanders. 

Right now some orchids of the platanthera genus, which are pollinated by moths at night, are in bloom. That has seen Mallett and Zeman outside at midnight on their hands and knees taking in the flower’s distinct smell of cloves.

Diana Thompson is a biologist who has used iNaturalist to create a project called Salt Spring Island Biodiversity, which captures all observations made on the island. As of Monday it included 5,099 observations of 1,194 species. She invites others to join iNaturalist and contribute as there are still hundreds of species not captured.

Thompson hopes her site will join up with a much larger Biodiversity of the Salish Sea project in the future. She was asked to initiate the Salt Spring version by Andrew Simon, who she says “has done an amazing job with Biodiversity Galiano Island.”

She also participated in International Moth Week from July 18-24 through iNaturalist.

Thompson agrees that “iNaturalist at its best is a great tool for everyone to use, and there are so many things that citizen scientists find that we would never know about without this site.”

She cautions that if people find something rare they should make the location “obscured” when they post it.

See iNaturalist.org for more details.

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