By: Oliver Komar, PhD., Professor of Ecology, Department of Environment and Development, and director of the Zamorano Biodiversity Center, Zamorano University. firstname.lastname@example.org
Each year, all of Zamorano’s freshmen take an Ecology class, and fan out across the campus to document its flora and fauna. While doing so, many have made astonishing discoveries, some of which I will detail below. Connecting with nature is an activity that we can all practice, even during the current quarantine lockdown that we are experiencing today.
Today, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the Zamorano Biodiversiy Center invites you to celebrate the nature around you. We invite you to seek out and identify wild species in your garden, such as butterflies, birds, and wildflowers. Or even inside your home, perhaps a spider, a gecko, or a beetle.
Earth Day reminds us about the importance of connecting with nature. Today, there is an application (APP) that facilitates, like never before, getting to know and enjoy the species around us, such as plants, insects, birds, spiders, or stranger creatures. The app is called iNaturalist. It is produced by the California Academy of Sciences and National Geographic Society. The Zamorano freshmen use the app for their Ecology homework assignments. You can use it too, on your desktop computer or on your smartphone. Just visit iNaturalist.org to use the online version, and/or download the mobile app from Google Playstore or the AppStore.
It’s all about observing the species around you. Can you recognize some of them? How about taking a photo of one, and having a computer robot compare it to millions of other photos of flora and fauna and suggest the family, genus, or possibly the very species you have found? The iNaturalist computer uses an artificial intelligence algorithm to do just that. The robot is constantly improving its abilities, as it gains experience and learns. It occasionally makes mistakes. But you can use your own intelligence to test it.
The APP presents several similar species with which you can compare your photo, starting with the species of the same “taxon” (taxonomic group) that have already been reported in your municipality. If you can’t find anything similar among the options, you can expand the comparison to include a larger geographic region (the whole country, for example, or the whole world), or a larger taxonomic group. You can change the identification proposed by iNaturalist, or if you’re confident it is correct, you can validate it.
Identifying species is fun, and you can treat it like a game. You can “play” by identifying your own observations (in your digital photos), or you can review photos of other users and practice identifying their reports. When an agreement is reached (more than 67% of the opinions) in favor of one species more than other possible ones, the report becomes “research grade”, and is shared with a worldwide database of flora and fauna (the Global Biodiversity Information Facility). In this way, you are contributing to science! Congratulations!
Now, anybody can discover the great diversity of species that live in our own ecosystem. And not only discover for themselves but make discoveries for all science. In fact, there are plenty of expert biologists using the iNaturalist system and collaborating to confirm the impressive findings of students and other users who are not experts yet. Our students at Zamorano have already had communication with spider experts in the United Kingdom, insect experts in South Korea, botanists in Mexico and the United States, butterfly experts in Mexico, beetle experts in Germany, among others. You can too.
Below, I share five examples of the students’ discoveries in the Ecology class. They are striking examples, as they are rare and unexpected species. Together, students, professors, and other observers on the Zamorano campus have already uploaded an impressive 12,962 observations to the iNaturalist platform, in less than three years. The photos document 2,295 different species or taxonomic groups. The species accumulation rate indicates that we will continue to find new species for the campus during many more years.
Edricus productus. An orbweaver spider of the family Araneidae.
This species was supposedly endemic to Mexico (Levi 1991), but two Zamorano students, Andrés Mayorga and Diego Escobar Roca, independently discovered the species on the Zamorano Ecotrail (Fig. 1). The dates of their findings were September 15 and September 21, 2019, respectively. The iNaturalist platform had 23 records from Mexico. There are additional records in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), all from western and southern Mexico, right up to the border between Chiapas and Guatemala. However, there are no reports in GBIF for Central America. The ID was made by Michael Janicki, a Polish spider expert based in Vienna, known on iNaturalist by the username “Michael-Gasteracantha”.
Figure 1. Edricus productus, on the Zamorano Ecotrail, 21 September 2019. Photo: Diego Escobar Roca/iNaturalist.
Messua limbata. A jumping spider of the family Salticidae.
On 20 October, 2019, freshman Nery Menjívar found a small green spider that resembles perfectly the reference photos for this species (Fig. 2). What is interesting is that the species is known only from Mexico and border areas of the United States (mostly in southern Texas). However, distribution in Mexico reaches the southern border in Chiapas, near Guatemala, according to iNaturalist reports and also GBIF records. Nonetheless, there are no previous records in these databases for Central America. The identification of many spiders is complicated by lack of research and literature, and it is possible that this finding represents another species of the same genus. There are at least two congeneric species in southern Mexico (Richman et al. 2012) that have not yet been reported in iNaturalist and that have no reference photos available.
Figure 2. A putative Messua limbata at Zamorano. Photo: Nery Menjívar/iNaturalist.
Umbonia gladius. A treehopper of the family Membracidae.
This small insect with a striking thorn-shaped back was found by freshman Andrea Mazariegos on 18 September 2019 while participating in the Forestry learning-by-doing module (Fig. 3). This insect’s resemblance to a thorn provides camouflage that surely helps it escape the attention of predators. This discovery represents the first time that the species was reported on the iNaturalist platform, worldwide (especially impressive if one considers that the platform has received over 30 million reports). With the aid of the iNaturalist robot species-ID function, Andrea was able to report it at the genus level, which by itself drew the attention of a world authority on the Membracidae. The expert, Stuart McKamey of the USDA / ARS Systematic Entomology Laboratory, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, provided the species identification, citing the generic revision by Creão- Duarte and Sakakibara (1996). Later, the report was validated by Felipe Campos, one of the curators of iNaturalist. According to the literature mentioned, the species has been collected in Mexico (Campeche and Yucatan) and in Venezuela.
Figure 3. The Umbonia gladius discovered at Zamorano. Photo by Andrea Mazariegos/iNaturalist.
Apogonalia stalii. A sharpshooter of the family Cicadellidae.
Silvia Martínez (Class of 2021) found this striking but rare insect on 15 September 2018, and since then it has not been found again in Zamorano (Fig. 4). At the time, it was the first report of the species in iNaturalist for Central America, although the GBIF database had several specimens collected in Costa Rica (but no other countries of the isthmus). Since 2018, another individual has been reported from the department of Atlántida, on the north coast of Honduras. Silvia’s report was identified by Chris Mallory, an entomologist in the United States, who is one of the iNaturalist curators.
Figura 4. The sharpshooter Apogonalia stalii at Zamorano. Photo: Silvia Martínez/iNaturalist.
Labidura riparia. An earwig of the family Labiduridae, order Dermaptera.
On 12 September 2018, Ronny Barrera (class of 2021) found this nearly cosmopolitan species in the learning-by-doing activity known as “La Parcela”, in which each freshman farms his or her own small plot. Ronny’s find was the first of nine different reports of the earwig on campus during 2018 and 2019 (Fig. 5). Evidently, the species has become quite common on the Zamorano campus. However, an examination of the distribution map suggests that it has not been found throughout the region. The available map shows documented records in iNaturalist (red squares) and additional records in GBIF (smaller red dots), which demonstrate a distribution on various continents, including North and South America (Fig. 6). Despite the wide distribution, there were no iNaturalist reports between Mexico and Colombia, and for the same region, there was only a concentration of GBIF records in the León, Nicaragua, area. Historically, earwigs in the family Labiduridae occupied all continents except North America (Popham 2000), so we can hypothesize that the Labidura riparia species has only recently colonized parts of the Central American region.
Figure 5. An example of the predatory earwig Labidura riparia in action, found 4 July 2019 at Zamorano. Photo: Leonardo Crhistian Gallardo Escalante/iNaturalist.
This week is an excellent time to start using iNaturalist. The Zamorano Biodiversity Center and partner organizations are promoting a City Nature Challenge for Honduras, during 24 to 27 April 2020. All of the iNaturalist records for Honduras will be collected in a project, and you can be part of it. For instructions, follow the hyperlink in this paragraph.
Creão-Duarte, A. J., & A. M. Sakakibara. (1996). Revisão do gênero Umbonia Burmeister (Homoptera, Membracidae, Membracinae, Hoplophorionini). Revista Brasileira Zool. 13 (4): 973 – 994.
Levi, H. W. (1991). The Neotropical orb-weaver genera Edricus and Wagneriana (Araneae: Araneidae). Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, 152(6), 363-415.
Popham, E. J. (2000). The geographical distribution of the Dermaptera (Insecta) with reference to continental drift. Journal of Natural History, 34(10), 2007-2027.
Richman, D. B., Cutler, B., & Hill, D. E. (2012). Salticidae of North America, including Mexico. Peckhamia, 95(3), 1-88.