By Cecelia Hart, TPWD
I downloaded an app recently that is absolutely addicting. While you’re out and about, you can find a wide variety of creatures, and after capturing them with your phone, you learn their name, some information about them, and they’re added to a list of all the creatures you’ve found so far! I’ve gotten so hooked on adding to my collection that I find myself going out and about more often, always with my phone in hand.
I’m describing Pokémon GO, right? Nope. I’m talking about iNaturalist.
To be clear, I love Pokémon GO. I go out to play whenever I can, I’ve redesigned my main walking route to maximize the Pokéstops I visit, and I get wildly excited whenever I see a Pokémon I haven’t caught yet. I’ve been playing Pokémon games for the last 11 years, and I am captivated by the thrill of discovering new Pokémon and filling out the Pokédex. And I think it’s that same sense of discovery that has me hooked on iNaturalist.
In Pokémon GO, you find fantastic virtual creatures hidden all around you. But we are all surrounded by fantastic real creatures, too. In Pokémon, once you capture a Pokémon for the first time, it is automatically identified and added to the Pokédex, but I’ve never had a tool like that for real animals and plants. That’s where iNaturalist comes in.
The app, available for iOS and Android, lets you snap a picture of a plant or animal with your phone and upload it, and automatically adds where and when you saw it. There’s a community of naturalists on there that can help provide an ID, which is relayed to the app. But the app is just the tip of the iceberg. The website iNaturalist.org is where the real powerhouse is, where you can peruse other observations, learn about identification skills, or read more about the critters you just observed. Any of iNaturalist’s 200,000 users can see your observation and try to provide an identification for it. Or if you already know about the plants or animals, you can even ID it yourself! Just know that it’s a bird? That’s good enough to attract the online birders to help you out! iNaturalist then keeps track of the number of different species you’ve observed that have been identified, just like the Pokédex. There are even leader boards and annual contests.
Though my Pokédex is complete once I’ve caught 150 Pokémon in Pokémon GO, I’m limited on iNaturalist only by what I can find. This summer, I’ve caught 60 Pokémon, but I’ve added more than 100 observations on iNaturalist. There have been 46,633 species observed on iNaturalist worldwide, and that number is still growing! I think that’s really exciting!
But I’ve left out one of the coolest parts. In Pokémon, you fill out the Pokédex at the request of a Pokémon professor to help them with their research. Well, iNaturalist helps real scientists! Once there’s a consensus for the species ID of your observation, it can be marked as “research grade,” meaning biologists and naturalists can use the data from your observation in studies looking at distribution and population health of a certain species!
If you like Pokemon GO, and you like nature, you will love iNaturalist. You’ll be amazed at the discoveries you can make and the real world critters you can find!