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Tally Ho

Since the inception of the National Park Service 100 years ago, individual parks have kept lists of what animals and plants live in them. These records are important to science and to managing the parks, but with relatively few biologists covering millions of acres of land and sea, they have been woefully incomplete. Right now the rest of us are enjoined to help in the 2016 National Park Service Centennial Bioblitz. Two thirds of the 130 parks signed up to do bioblitzes this year are kicking off the counting this weekend, May 21 and 22. Fifteen will take place in Washington, D.C. parks. Two jumbotrons on the National Mall will project real-time results from across the nation.

It’s fitting that the culmination of the Centennial Bioblitz will take place in D.C., since the very first bioblitz was conducted in nearby Kenilworth Aquatic Garden in 1996. USGS scientist Sam Droege was looking for a way to get help in figuring out what species lived in the park, and he hit on the idea of “eventizing” an activity that could putatively be done anytime, and invited amateurs to join in with biologists in a big species hunt. The idea of the bioblitz was Droege’s, but credit for the term itself goes to Susan Purdy, an NPS naturalist who helped Droege set up a one-day rapid inventory using simple protocols. The concept took off, and bioblitz popularity has built steadily every year since. The NPS now teams up with the National Geographic Society to do a significant blitz once a year in a different state, and attendance numbers and species counts have gotten progressively higher.

In 2014, the citizen science platform and online social network of nature lovers called iNaturalist became the official mechanism for making species observations for the NPS bioblitzes. iNaturalist is a free web-based app for mapping and sharing observations of biodiversity across the globe. Co-directors Scott Loarie and Ken-ichi Ueda work from the basement of the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, but the reach of iNaturalist is global. When a species observation is logged on iNaturalist, the app associates its photo with a date, a time, a latitude and a longitude. As it scrolls in a feed of nature images like the personal ones we use on Facebook, experts from around the world opine about the observation’s species designation. When there is community agreement that yes, that ursus arctos is indeed a horribilis and not an americanus, the record is sent to the Global Biological Information Facility, a repository of more than 440 million digitized specimens mostly gleaned from natural history collections all over the world. (This represents a fraction of all collected specimens, which are not all digitized.)

Species extinctions are a major driver of how we are altering earth processes Anthropocene-style, but they are elusive. Stuart Pimm, professor at Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, and something of an extinction godfather, points out that the lack of key statistics about where species are and in what amounts impedes rescue efforts . We don’t have the necessary information to protect ecologically relevant areas. Pimm says that naming species and putting them on their place in the tree of life—fundamental scientific practices—are more important than ever given the extinction crisis. But then he takes an unusual turn for an evolutionary biologist. He recommends iNaturalist. Since iNaturalist is a citizen science tool available to and in use by many people lacking PhDs, Pimm is stepping over a traditional line dividing pure from applied science. He also goes on to envision the creation of “a public species’ range map” that iNaturalist users can update, amend, and confirm. He proposes combining iNaturalist data with remotely sensed pictures from satellites to zoom in on “metapopulation models of fragmented ranges,” which could pinpoint exactly where and when species are losing their home grounds. Thus we could “assess biodiversity continuously,” and respond quickly where we see changing species distributions. Pimm concludes that this could be just the ticket to preserving biodiversity.

Pimm proposes a global application for iNaturalist, using it to create nothing less than an inventory of the world. One of the beauties of iNaturalist is that as people document species in local places just for the fun of it, or as part of specific projects, their data points become available for analysis at other scales by people anywhere on the globe with internet access. A Saturday morning bioblitz at a local city park, for example, can turn up species nobody knew were living in it, and this can help direct municipal stewardship. At the same time, local occurrences can have regional and even continental implications. At a citizen science conference in San Jose in 2015, Scott Loarie led a group out to the green interstices of the gigantic convention center. After the short foray in San Jose, a snail captured on iNaturalist by a mom with her kids in tow was identified as invasive, the first instance of a potentially destructive newcomer to Silicon Valley.

iNaturalist has the potential to move beyond inventory and monitoring uses to help deploy hypothesis testing, in line with what is usually referred to as “real” science. This requires defining parameters around or a context in which observations are made. For example, the California State Transportation Authority could devise a citizen science project to determine stretches of highway where animals most frequently become road kill. To get usable data, the project would enjoin drivers to document a start time, a finish time, and distance traveled to accompany any observations of dead animals. With this information questions like “where are animals likely to be hit at what time” could start to be addressed.

Director of the Copenhagen-based GBIF Donald Hoburn says that iNaturalist and other platforms like it “represent a step forward in how observations from nature are captured.” “iNaturalist puts the focus more squarely on camera and cell-phone images,” Hoburn explains. “It’s exciting because it provides more of an opportunity for a community to assist each other in designating the species. Globally, expertise in various taxa is scattered. But with iNaturalist, the observation is accessible everywhere.”

Hoburn also explains how iNaturalist and other digital observation data is useful to conservation efforts like those that seek to stem extinction. (May 20 is Endangered Species Day, a good day to get out there and make some observations.) “We have enough data now to address some problems with precision,” Hoburn says. “We can see how bird species change from region to region, for example, and we can track those changes over time.” With thousands of observations of species in national parks being recorded all over the system, this weekend’s multiple bioblitzes are going to provide incomparable information about the natural heritage at the heart of the parks system.

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