2017-12-07 / Nature

Website of Living Species Hits Its Stride

By Charles Avenengo

Winterberry holly brightens the winter landscape. 
(Photo by Charles Avenengo) Winterberry holly brightens the winter landscape. (Photo by Charles Avenengo) Until about a century ago, animal collections were made from the ends of shotguns. Specimens were skinned, stuffed, labeled and examined in museums and laboratories. Similarly, expired insects were mounted on boards, while other animals like fish and snakes were catalogued in jars filled with preservation fluids. Biological expeditions often returned with thousands of preserved specimens.

Today, photography is increasingly the preference for vouchering sightings. In some areas globally, naturalists have completely ditched binoculars, relying solely on photography.

The reporting of sightings has also evolved. Not long ago, amongst birdwatchers, a weekly telephone message was a primary means of updating rare birds that were spotted. The information age has changed that. Websites, powered by digital advances and the galvanization of a corps of citizen scientists, has enabled a staggering amount of information to be assembled, often in real time.

For birdwatchers, who generally are very methodical about their sightings, the clearinghouse for sightings is eBird, a website with nearly every species of bird in the world recorded by 25 million submitted checklists. But eBird stops at birds. Other forms of life aren’t included.

That’s where iNaturalist comes in, by covering everything else. It was created in 2008 by the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. While it may not be new, it wasn’t until 2014 that the one millionth observation was collected. In the subsequent three years, submissions have exploded to almost seven million sightings, with documentation of 150,000 living species and counting. There are 20,000 observations being recorded daily.

The process is simple. One snaps a clear photo, then submits the observation to the website. The location where the photo was taken, plus any pertinent information, is also entered. In just a few seconds, iNaturalist responds with a suggestion of what the animal or plant could be. These suggestions are often spot-on. If not immediately identified, a small army of approximately 1,000 experts are then tasked to categorize the submission. And while the process could take a couple of weeks, a suggestion is generally offered.

How can a computer program figure this out?

Ken-ichi Ueda, the website’s co-founder and co-director, provided an answer via email. "When a user submits a photo to iNaturalist's species recognition system, the system breaks the image down into many different visual attributes, like color, pattern, contrast, etc. It compares these attributes to what it knows about what different species look like based on photos identified in the past by people in the iNaturalist community,” he wrote.

“This process is very similar to how humans make the same decisions. The system builds experience by learning from people with more knowledge than it has (i.e. the iNaturalist community), then applies that experience in a process that is itself loosely modeled on a human brain (breaking down input into small attributes and combining and recombining them to guess which answer is the most probable). Unlike a person, iNaturalist's species recognition system can learn about over 20,000 species from millions of iNaturalist photos in just a few weeks.

“None of this would be possible without the work and the wisdom of the people who have added observations and identifications on iNaturalist,” Ueda wrote.

Simply put, the process is like the web itself: a collective journey that increases knowledge with each addition.

Kind of makes you wonder what kind of paintings the artist Audubon, who shot and posed all his stuffed birds, would have produced if he had been using digital photography.

iNaturalist in Action

Last weekend, armed with my trusty point-and-shoot digital camera, off I went to snap photos of 13 types of life forms at sites around Ocean Drive.

Afterwards, I entered the photographs and locations to iNaturalist, filed under the user name “NTW-outdoors.” The observations were of three types of birds, a late-season migrating monarch butterfly, a periwinkle, Irish moss seaweed, a yellow flower still in bloom, a tree with fruiting red berries and five types of fungus. I knew the names of all the life forms except four of the five fungi, the fruiting tree and the yellow flower. I labeled those I knew.

Within seconds, iNaturalist correctly identified the three birds and the butterfly. And within minutes, other naturalists began to corroborate these entries, raising them to a research level classification. Within an hour, the yellow flower had been identified as a type-of mustard plant, and by the following morning, the red flower tree was identified as a winterberry holly. With deadline approaching, only the periwinkle and the seaweed haven’t been upgraded to research-level and only one of the five fungi have been awarded research-level status.

But perhaps someone may identify the remaining fungi after all. This knowledge would then add to the collective wisdom, and that knowledge seems to be the point of the entire affair.

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife for more than 40 years.

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