Citizen Science – iNaturalist

The internet and digital photography have opened up wonderful opportunities for ordinary people to get involved in citizen science as observers of the natural world. Online meeting places and forums come and go but the best at the moment seems to be iNaturalist – https://www.inaturalist.org.

It’s a global project and the numbers are huge: 54 million observations by 1.4 million observers from nearly every country in the world when I looked recently. That presents a management problem, of course, which is solved by having countries run independent branches, e.g. https://inaturalist.ala.org.au/

Anyone at all can browse the content of the site but people have to sign up to participate. When that’s done (at no cost and very little trouble) they can upload their observations, help with identifying others’ observations, and join the discussion forums.  It’s a big and complex site but not too difficult to negotiate because it is exceptionally well planned and because there is no need to use most of its functions until you want to. (I have to admit there are some that I haven’t bothered with in the year I have been a member.)

And ordinary people can make very useful contributions to the project, especially if they (we) are outside the big cities. It’s obvious, looking at a map of Australian observations of butterflies and moths, that any life outside the big population centres is under-represented. Zoom in on North Queensland and the pattern is even clearer – and it’s the same for birds, and will be the same for all other life forms.

iNaturalist observations
iNaturalist observations – Butterflies and Moths

This means that if you visit Mount Fox, Undara, Einasleigh, or even Ravenswood and submit an observation of any species at all it is likely to be a ‘first’ for the location. We really don’t know what’s out there – and how can we look after what we don’t know?

Other projects

Encyclopedia of Life is a similar but older project. It welcomed citizen scientists from the outset but was almost overwhelmed by them for a while and now is primarily an inter-organisational data sharing project.

Atlas of Living Australia was a founding partner of EOL and now collects observations from iNaturalist. It is an open-access data resource, oriented more to the professional community than to citizen science.

BowerBird was founded in 2013 as a citizen science project of Museums Victoria and ALA but was folded into iNaturalist about 2019.

flickr is a photo-sharing platform which hosts self-managed Groups, some of which are wildlife-related. I joined (years ago) so that I could easily contribute to EOL (which collected sightings via one such group) but also enjoyed the Field Guide to Insects of Australia and the similar Australian Birds and Spiders groups. Each of them had (and probably still has) enthusiastic, knowledgeable members willing to encourage and support newcomers.

There’s no need to be bored!

Photographing insects with your phone

I was so pleased with my bee photos (previous post) that I shared them on social media, which led to this exchange:

Friend: Excellent pictures. I have the blue banded bee but, try as I might, I never get a good shot!

Malcolm: Most camera-lens combinations won’t get a big enough image of an insect to get this sort of detail. I use a DSLR with a 100mm macro lens (both Canon) and add a +4 close-up “filter” (really another lens but it screws on like a filter) for the really small stuff. And then I take lots of shots and throw most of them away.

Friend: And I use my phone

Malcolm: Some phone cameras are pretty good, but you have to get so close to the insect that you usually scare it away. Practice on small flowers – see what yours will do.

Friend: That’s a good idea. I do a fair bit of flower stuff for my Instagram but practicing on insects would be fun.

Malcolm: Slow insects would be next, then. Caterpillars patiently munching leaves, assassin bugs and spiders lurking in ambush, etc. Then work your way up to to ants and bees. Butterflies and dragonflies? Only while sleeping, I think.

Friend: Oh dear. I am really not in need of another obsession…

Malcolm: But this is one that can fill in your free time while you’re waiting for a bus or a friend to turn up. All you need is your phone, some sunshine, and any scrap of garden…

My phone is nothing special – mid-range Chinese and three years old – but after that conversation I had to take it for a walk around the garden to see what it could do.

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An abundance of bees

An abundance of native bees, that is. Australia has about 2000 species of them, according to Terry Houston’s Guide, and recently I seem to have most of them in my own garden.

I exaggerate, of course, but I know I have more than I can keep up with. In the last few days alone, for instance, I’ve caught four species feeding on Coleus flowers at once. Here they are.

Blue-banded Bee

blue-banded bee in flight
Blue-banded bee heading for a coleus flower, with its tongue already extended

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Golden Orb Weaver – a small life well lived

We were pleased to see a big orb web strung between palms, bananas and the cubby-house at the back of our garden towards the end of May.

Its architect, constructor and homeowner was resting, head down, in the middle of it. I introduced our three species of Golden Orb Weaver here so I don’t need to say much about her identity today except that she was an Australian Golden Orb Weaver, Nephila edulis.

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Butterfly vines and Swallowtail butterflies

We have been growing a particular vine, for years, just for the Birdwing butterflies whose caterpillars depend on it. Just what the vine is called and which butterflies depend on it are, however, recurring questions – for us as well as for the many other people who love the butterflies. This post pulls together information from botanical and entomological books and websites to try to settle both questions.

Very briefly, all species of butterflies in one group of Swallowtail butterflies have specialised to feed exclusively on one group of closely related plants. The butterflies are the Troidini, a “tribe” (in scientific language that’s a level between “family” and “genus”) of Swallowtails (Papilionidae) and the plants are the Birthworts (Aristolochiaceae).

Our Troidini are the Clearwing Swallowtail (Cressida cressida), Red-bodied Swallowtail (Atrophaneura polydorus) and all of the Birdwings (Ornithoptera species). The Aristolochiaceae we’re interested in are in the genus Aristolochia, or used to be, and many of them are known as Dutchman’s Pipe vines.

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