Have fun, ID wildlife – City Nature Challenge starts Friday

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(WJHL) – It’s as easy as point, click, pick and share.

With a COVID-19 twist, the fifth-annual “City Nature Challenge” occurs Friday through Monday in Johnson City and Washington County, Tenn. — and with it the chance for “citizen scientists” to get help identifying wildlife species in their own backyards and contribute to the advancement of knowledge.

“You’ll be able to contribute to science, but you’ll also be able to learn from the experts who browse through iNaturalist and help people identify their observations,” Cade Campbell, a high school senior, said during a Wednesday visit to Steele Creek Park in Bristol, Tenn.

Using the free “iNaturalist” app, people in communities across the world will document their observations from April 24-27 in a global project co-organized by the California Academy of Sciences and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

How to participate

Uploaded submissions of non-domesticated animals, plants and fungi will be expertly identified by people from iNaturalist’s community of experts from Tuesday through May 3. Results will be announced May 4.

Campbell, a longtime iNaturalist participant, explained how it works by squatting near a clump of purple flowers, opening his app and taking a photo.

Cade Campbell, citizen scientist

“I just hit ‘next,’ and it provided data on my location, time and some other details, along with an option for projects this can be added to later,” said Campbell, who will be a Roan Scholar studying biology at East Tennessee State University next fall.

The app then asked Campbell “what did you see,” and provided a list of likely candidates, including Virginia bluebells – which the longtime amateur naturalist knew the plant was.

“You pick your choice, hit ‘share’ and it will go out to iNaturalist’s database,” Campbell said. “Anybody visiting the park or with the app can also see what plant you found in this location.”

The City Nature Challenge

Normally, the challenge brings groups of people together in communities and includes competitions to see which city or community winds up with the most observations, the most verified species and the most participants. Last year, Cape Town, South Africa won the first two categories with 53,763 observations and a whopping 4,588 species, while San Francisco had the most participants at 1,947.

An iNaturalist capture with proposed species suggestions.

This year, organizers are calling on participants to “embrace the collaborative aspect of sharing observations online with a digital community, and celebrate the healing power of nature safely, with social distancing, as they document their local biodiversity…”

In addition to actual animals, plants or fungi, participants can snap and upload evidences of life such as tracks, shells, scat and even carcasses found in their nieghborhoods, back yards or in area parks that may remain open.

“If you’re a naturalist or you like being outside, you can go out there and get as many pictures as you want and identify them,” Campbell said. “It’s really a great opportunity to use our resources here in Northeast Tennessee to contribute to science and also learn a lot while doing it — and have a lot of fun.”

Why it matters

Along with the physical and mental health benefits of getting people outdoors, iNaturalist provides a growing body of evidence for professional scientists and researchers.

It’s all part of the concept of citizen science or community science. According to this year’s release on the City Nature Challenge event, large pools of data built through iNaturalist and other sources “help authorities make informed conservation decisions that allow humans to coexist sustainably with the plants and animals in their neighborhoods.”

Back at Steele Creek, Campbell encouraged people to join iNaturalist even if they won’t be in Johnson City or Washington County this weekend. He pointed out a group of turtles lounging on a sun-drenched log at the park’s lake as an example of the subjects iNaturalist benefits from.

The red-eared slider was once confined to swampy areas of the deep South, Campbell said. It’s been sold in pet stores around the East and after some of the animals have outgrown their aquariums, people have dumped them in the wild.

There, they’ve thrived, pushing out species like the Cumberland slider native to this area.

“There’s actually a project on iNaturalist called tracking the red-eared slider where scientists are gauging the effects of red-eared sliders moving across the United States,” Campbell said. “During the city nature challenge, or anywhere you are you can document red-eared sliders and they can use that data to tell, what are these turtles doing, how far have they spread – are they causing damage to native turtles still?

“It’s a good way to get outdoors and do science.”

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