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  • Writer's pictureNorth Dakota Wildlife Federation

What is this? Using iNaturalist to ID the natural world

I love plants! Moving to western North Dakota, I see a lot of the same plants that I learned to love and know in Eastern North Dakota and Western Minnesota. But there are new ones that I need help identifying. I send pictures to friends (thank you Jen for your great abilities and connections on plant ID) and have started to rely heavily on the iNaturalist app. The iNat app is not only great for plants but insects and spiders too.

iNaturalist is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Since launching in 2008, the iNaturalist team and organization has evolved. iNaturalist began as a master’s project at the University of California, Berkeley, then became a LLC, and then joined the California Academy of Sciences in 2014. In 2017, iNaturalist became a joint initiative with the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. Today, iNaturalist is now an independent, US-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

Over the past 15 years, the contributions from the community have made iNaturalist into one of the world’s most powerful nature platforms. So far, the iNaturalist community has:

  • Created over 145,000,000 verifiable observations (adding about 1 million per week!)

  • Grown to 2.7 million contributors.

  • Observed more than 430,000 species.

What does this app do and how do you use it? The app is simple and Free so you can download it from your app store whether it is Google Play or Apple App Store and use on any Android or apple device. To use the app, you create a username and account. Once you do that you can start uploading observations. Take pictures of what you are trying to identify and there is a place that you click on to see if the app can give you possible answers to what you are observing. Otherwise, if the app can’t identify, then the observation can be uploaded, and other users can help identify the unknown species. The app takes into consideration your location and other similar species that have been identified in the area.

The iNaturalist smartphone app lets you photograph wild plants and animals and, aided by the app’s user community, identify species you find. Biodiversity and conservation scientists can access and analyze photographs the app deems to be “research grade”.

You can also use iNaturalist to find online nature groups or citizen science projects in your area so you can contribute photos and data directly to them too.

If the ‘observation’ evidences a wild organism (meaning not a pet or a cultivated plant), has an accurately specified date and location (the app will register the coordinates of the encounter via the phone’s GPS capabilities unless otherwise configured), and is identified down to the species level with the verifying support of two or more users, then the photograph acquires ‘research grade’. In practice, this upgrade from ‘casual grade’ means that the ‘observation’ becomes a data point that is passed along to the Global Biodiversity Information Database.

Self-defined as ‘an online social network of people sharing biodiversity information to help each other learn about nature’, the app’s primary goal is ‘to connect people to nature’, meaning ‘getting people to feel that the non-human world has personal significance, and is worth protecting’, something deemed very important because ‘recording information about nature in a social context is a tremendous way to understand the awesome depth and breadth of life on Earth’ (iNaturalist, 2016). The secondary goal of the app is ‘generating scientifically valuable biodiversity data from these personal encounters.’

iNaturalist has also created a new app that is similar but allows you to not become a part of the iNaturalist community and not have to make an account. The SEEK app is geared toward educators and youth who want to use the app to identify species. Below is a comparison of the two apps.

SEEK by iNaturalist

Seek allows curious naturalists of all ages to earn badges and participate in challenges to observe organisms with on-screen identification using computer vision for identifications based on data from iNaturalist.

· Best choice if you do not want to create an account or share data or are just getting started exploring nature.

· No login or account required, kid safe.

· Seek’s identification model provides identification in real-time on screen.

· This identification does not leave your device or require an internet connection to work.

· Users aged 13+ or with parent’s permission can optionally log in with their iNaturalist account and post observations to iNaturalist through Seek.

· No personally identifiable information is collected from users who do not log in with their iNaturalist account.

iNaturalist app

iNaturalist is an online community that allows you to share observations to discuss, identify, and create research quality citizen science data for science and conservation.

· Best choice if you want to connect with others, share data, and are interested in natural history and contributing to citizen science.

· Users must be 13 or older to make an account.

· iNaturalist’s identification model provides initial suggestions, but other people in the iNaturalist community help you identify and confirm your observations.

· Records observations as biodiversity data that contribute to citizen science.

· Photo, location, and time are recorded with each of your observations in the iNaturalist database.

If you are looking for an app to enhance your nature experience and help you figure out what the heck you are looking at? I would recommend the iNaturalists app or if you are working with kids the SEEK app. Getting out in nature and learning what you are observing can grow a greater appreciation for the whole experience.


Written by Cara Greger, Western ND Conservation Coordinator out of Belfield

Example of an iNaturalist post from Cara.

SEEK app icon

Example of an iNaturalist post from Cara.

Example of an iNaturalist post from Cara

iNaturalist app icon.


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