The Planet

Thousands Of Volunteer Conservationists Crowdsource Urban Nature Photos Around The Globe

by Liz Ohanesian

May 8, 2018

On a Saturday afternoon, right around low tide, crowds gather on the rocky coast below the bluff of Point Fermin in Los Angeles’ beachside community of San Pedro.

They walk carefully across rocks that can be slippery or wobbly, investigating everything from algae to sea hares. Among the explorers is a group from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County of more than 30 people that includes researchers and nature enthusiasts. They’re participating in what’s called a “bioblitz,” where the group observes as much life as possible in a set time frame.

A submission in U.N.R.C. researcher Jann Vendetti’s SLIME project (Snails and Slugs Living in Metropolitan Environments). Photo courtesy of the Natural History Museum of L.A. County.

People photograph what they see with the intent of uploading the images to iNaturalist, where they can count toward Los Angeles’ total observations for the 2018 City Nature Challenge. Between April 27 and April 30, participants in almost 70 cities across the globe sought out and documented nature in their urban environments. They submitted findings to the challenge, where living things or their traces — like animal tracks — were identified between May 1 and 3. Ultimately, the city with the most sightings wins the challenge.

Lila Higgins, senior manager of community science of NHMLA, co-founded the event two years ago with Alison Young at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences. It began as a challenge between California’s fiercely competitive rival cities to commemorate the United States’ first National Citizen Science Day in 2016. The challenge was so well received that it spread across the country the following year. Now, it encompasses locations from California’s coast to India and beyond.

Community scientist Cedric Lee takes a moment to photograph local wildlife to submit to iNaturalist. Photo courtesy of the Natural History Museum of L.A. County.

Higgins is about to leave the tide pools when we catch up on the rocks.

She has already spotted lots of life out here — sea urchins, starburst anemone, nudibranchs, and hermit crabs among them — and has been bouncing between nature excursions during the course of the challenge. She last checked on the competition stats about an hour earlier. San Francisco was in first place, with San Diego, Hong Kong, and Dallas in the rest of the top four positions. Los Angeles is further down on the list, she notes with the cautious optimism that its rankings might rise. “We’re always a slow burn,” she says.

City Nature Challenge isn’t just a competition. It’s part of a greater effort to explore urban nature, and it’s one of the under-appreciated advantages of living in the era of smartphones and social media. Higgins recalls that, in 2011, she entertained the idea of a competition between Los Angeles and London. At that point, before the advent of iNaturalist, a platform where users can upload photos and help each other identify species, it wasn’t feasible. This year, though, London has joined the now-international challenge.

A participant in an NHMLA nature walk at Augustus F. Hawkins Nature Park in South L.A. holds a discovery to submit via iNatualist. Photo courtesy of the Natural History Museum of L.A. County.

“I think it’s a testament to the fact that we live in a society where we’ve got all these tools that make this possible,” says Higgins by phone a couple days before the start of City Nature Challenge.

Higgins is a champion of using today’s tech to bring together community members and researchers to better understand the lives that exist in our cities. “Seeing people using their smartphones and using social media as a true way to engage with nature as opposed to separating themselves from nature, to me, that’s really cool and really exciting,” she says.

Photo courtesy of Lila Higgins.

Originally from England, Higgins moved to Southern California with her family as a teenager. The difference in scenery was drastic. “The plants are this different quality of green,” says Higgins, whose love of the outdoors goes back to childhood. “The creatures that are around were so foreign to me.” Moreover, Higgins was trying to adjust to high school in a new country. It wasn’t until college at the University of California at Riverside that she was introduced to entomology and really began to connect with local nature.

Her enthusiasm is contagious. She mentions Jerusalem crickets, a chubby, golden-brown insect native to the U.S. “There’s all this folklore and myth around it, which adds to the interest and they’re relatively understudied and they live underground for most of the year, so you don’t see them that often,” says Higgins. “But, then after rainstorms and sometimes, if you’re really lucky, they will come out, and you’ll see them in the light of day, and they’re kind of lumbering along. They instill fear in some people and delight in people like me.”

In sharing her own excitement about local nature, Higgins is helping others see that there’s more to Los Angeles than freeways and buildings.

Urban Nature Research Center co-director Greg Pauly and community scientist Hayden Kirschbaum study a snake in the NHMLA Nature Gardens for the RASCals (Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California) community science project. Photo courtesy of the Natural History Museum of L.A. County.

“Los Angeles has an opportunity to be a global leader in researching and understanding the intersection of nature, built environments, and people. To activate that goal, this museum has to promote community science onsite, but more importantly, we have to go out into L.A. neighborhoods and meet people where they are,” says NHMLA president and director Lori Bettison-Varga in a statement from the museum’s publicist. “Lila is very, very good at this — she and her staff develop partnerships with people and organizations that we can sustain long-term, and the City Nature Challenge is a perfect example of our community work. It’s fun, it’s accessible, and it creates data that our scientists can use as they research L.A. biodiversity.”

This is part of a greater movement called “citizen science,” although NHMLA recently began using the term “community science” instead. (Higgins explains, “We want to meet all the people who live in L.A. and make sure that there are no barriers in their participation in our project, so we have changed the name … because here in Los Angeles, a lot of people are not citizens.”) Bringing local residents into the research process can benefit scientists greatly. It helps improve data collection in dense urban areas where property often belongs to private owners.

But even in a public setting like at the tide pools, it can help research. “One of the ways we can do that is by having hundreds of eyes looking for us and recording what they see,” says Dean Pentcheff, a researcher who is the project coordinator for Diversity Initiative for the Southern California Ocean (DISCO) at NHMLA. “There are many more of them than there are of us, so it’s a force multiplier for science and lets us see many things that we wouldn’t otherwise see and get them recorded, photographed in a way that we’re able to capitalize on.”

Entomologist and Urban Nature Research Center researcher Lisa Gonzalez checks the Malaise insect trap set up in Joe Hogg’s backyard. Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of L.A. County.

After the challenge days concluded, the folks of iNaturalist tallied up the observations.

This year, the San Francisco Bay Area won with the most observations, and the global reach of the project was immense. With all 68 participating global cities combined, more than 17,329 people around the world submitted 441,888 observations. Of those findings, 4,075 were “research grade” observations, adding 599 rare, endangered, and threatened species to the iNaturalist database.

For these communities, Higgins says, knowing what lives in your neighborhood can help locals make personal and political choices with the local environment in mind. “They’re thinking about wildlife because they studied it, and they’ve taken pictures, and they know some of the species,” says Higgins. As urban areas continue to grow, develop and become more populous, this is crucial knowledge for residents to have. Cities, Higgins says, “need to work for humans and for wildlife.”

Top and share photos courtesy of the Natural History Museum of L.A. County.

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Thousands Of Volunteer Conservationists Crowdsource Urban Nature Photos Around The Globe