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Earth Day: Get to know the wild plants and animals around you

You can learn names of the plants and animals around you with new APPS like iNaturalist. This bromeliad on the Zamorano campus was identified as Tillandsia fasciculata by the APP, using its artificial intelligence algorithm. Then the identification was verified by another user of the APP. Photo by Oliver Komar.

By Oliver Komar, Ph.D., Director, Zamorano Center for Biodiversity.
Full Professor, Department of Environment and Development, Zamorano University Honduras.

Earth Day is celebrated every April 22. Most likely, social networks and the media are publishing messages about the climate crisis and biodiversity extinctions. There will be many recommendations on how to avoid damaging the planet, which for various reasons are rarely followed. In this article, I invite you to do something different, fun, and educational, that is not difficult. Something simple that, believe it or not, will make Mother Earth smile. With your cell phone, or with any digital camera, focus on ten plants or animals in your surroundings, whose names you would like to learn. There are several mobile applications now that receive photos of species and return proposals for their identifications, be they plants, insects, spiders, fungi, birds or other varieties of flora and fauna. One of the best applications (APPS), which is free to use, is “iNaturalist”, an APP developed by the California Academy of Sciences and funded by the National Geographic Society. APPS like iNaturalist have a dual purpose, as they help you learn about species and also share your reports with the scientific world. This process is citizen science (also known as participatory science). Anyone with a camera can participate. After learning the names of ten species, you will feel better connected with your world and you may wish to learn ten more names. You can download the APP or access the program through the website (iNaturalist.org). From the website, it is easier to take advantage of another function of the APP, its social network. You can comment on your photos or those of other observers and send emails to other users. You can also generate projects, post essays, view personal profiles, as well as connect with wildlife experts and scientists from around the world.

The Zamorano experience Through iNaturalist, I have reported over two thousand species in the last three years. In addition to helping one to learn about new species, this process helps uncover valuable scientific information and contributes to biodiversity monitoring (Chandler et al. 2017). My uploaded photos have attracted comments from scientists or experts from many countries, including in Europe, North America, South America, Australia, Asia, and Africa. All current Zamorano students have used iNaturalist for their Ecology class assignments. Through the APP, some students have received invitations to share their images in scientific publications, including one about insects of the Membracidae family from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

Some of my photos of wasps (family Vespidae, a group I barely recognized a few years ago) are going to appear soon in a new book on Central American wasps. The author of the book found the photos through iNaturalist. It turned out that decent photos of live specimens were lacking for several of the species.

On the other hand, a beetle, Heterachthes fraterculus, which I photographed on my neighbor’s wall in 2019, turned out to be a rare species, originally described for science in 1986 (Martins and Napp 1986). This photograph was the only one available of a live specimen on the entire internet. By posting the photo on the APP, two experts from other countries confirmed its identification at the species level. Eventually, the photo appeared as the reference for the species on Wikipedia.

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In another interesting case, I uploaded to iNaturalist some photos of an unknown flower that I found in a coffee plantation on the Santa Bárbara Mountain. The program did not recognize it for sure, and I identified it only as “Angiosperm”, the scientific name for the large group of flowering plants (you can enter “flowering plant” and then select the formal option that the program offers). It took a year, but eventually a botanist recognized the family and genus. The researcher contacted me through the APP and is now collaborating with other Zamorano botanists to publish the formal description of a new species for science. This resulted from simple curiosity to know the name of a striking flower I came across completely by accident.

These experiences can happen to anyone curious to know the names of the plants or animals around them. In a short time, you can learn so much that you will feel like an expert, and you can become a teacher, helping to identify the species reported by other users of the APP. At the end of the day, when there a multitude of people know the names of the species with whom we share Mother Earth, there will be a substantial change in the culture of exploiting her. We must know our mother, to be able to love her and take care of her.

Fun facts:·

  • There are more than 3.7 million users registered on iNaturalist.org (or its mobile APP). Are you ready to participate?·
  • iNaturalist collects reports of flora and fauna by geographic regions, or in projects. For example, on the campus of Zamorano University, 1,211 observers (mostly students) have reported 3,185 species of flora and fauna with their cell phones and digital cameras. Many are beneficial to agricultural production.

You can learn names of the plants and animals around you with new APPS like iNaturalist. This bromeliad on the Zamorano campus was identified as Tillandsia fasciculata by the APP, using its artificial intelligence algorithm. Then the identification was verified by another user of the APP. Photo by Oliver Komar.

References

Chandler, M., See, L., Copas, K., Bonde, A. M., López, B. C., Danielsen, F., … & Turak, E. (2017). Contribution of citizen science towards international biodiversity monitoring. Biological Conservation, 213: 280–294.

Martins, U. R., & Napp, D. S. (1986). Ibidionini (Coleoptera, Cerambycidae). V división: Descripciones y apuntes. Revista Brasileira de Entomologia 30(2): 227–241.

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