Letter of Recommendation: iNaturalist


One Christmas, when I was about 8, I received a modern bestiary, a big photo-dense encyclopedia of animals. I had cherished animals from toddlerhood – and had started assembling a little menagerie that could eventually include fish, a rabbit and a fire-bellied toad – but I was not yet acquainted with the staggering diversity of wildlife all over the world. I would cradle that publication on my lap all night at a time, memorizing factual statements about the planet’s creatures, silently reciting their common and scientific names. Ever since, I have made it a point to understand the titles of wildlife I face, seeking whatever tools might help me: hefty discipline tutorials to mushrooms, pocket-size pamphlets of backyard birds, archives of wildflower photos that let you search by petal color and bloom time.

So when I heard reports that a free application called iNaturalist could identify just about any wild animal, plant or mushroom over sight, I promptly downloaded it. iNaturalist is easy to use: Take a picture together with your smartphone and press “What did you observe?” A few seconds later, iNaturalist offers you a list of very likely species, along with photos and short descriptions. I’ve tried the application on a lot more than 140 wildflowers, birds, bugs and amphibians in Oregon, Washington and California; it appropriately identified nearly all of them. (It often has trouble with genuinely large organisms that are complicated to capture in a single shot, like trees.)

iNaturalist is a novel hybrid of artificial intelligence and ceaseless human curiosity. In 2008, Ken-ichi Ueda and several other college students at the University of California, Berkeley, founded iNaturalist as an online community for biologists, citizen researchers and people who easily enjoyed observing wildlife. People helped each other identify species, ultimately amassing a database greater than six million labeled photos. When the iNaturalist application was introduced, it had been essentially a mobile variant of the website. But it has been modified several times, and the current variant employs a neural network taught to identify species using pictures from the abundant library compiled by human users.

This past May, two months before I uncovered iNaturalist, my partner, Ryan, and I went hiking with my family in the hills west of San Jose, where clumps of trees and chaparral mottle pillows of golden grass. As we walked, Ryan and I tried out to identify what we observed: over there, a cabbage white butterfly; this is definitely some sort of oak; a Western scrub jay – or was that a Steller’s? Bemused, perhaps slightly annoyed, my father interjected: “Why is it so important to know the names?”

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I’ve been mulling more than his concern. Learning the titles of wild things alterations just how we look at nature and just how we consider it. Consider bees. Many people find out two types: honeybees (the genus Apis) and bumblebees (the genus Bombus). There are in fact thousands of specific bee species flying all around us all the time – tiny as gnats or larger than horseflies, fuzzed in wild hair as orange as Cheddar or armored in metallic green. Some, just like the familiar honeybee, are extremely social. Many others happen to be solitary. Some construct elaborate hives, while some nest in dried out grass, solid wood or dirt. Many people happen to be oblivious to this winged panoply, even in our unique backyards, because our perception can be circumscribed by our ecological illiteracy. Learning the titles of our many crazy neighbors can be an exercise in perspective and empathy, transforming the outdoors from a pastoral backdrop right into a world of parallel societies inhabited by varied creatures, each using its own character and job.

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More than an identity, a creature’s name is also a password. It offers you usage of entire realms of knowledge about the natural world that would otherwise become inaccessible, because you didn’t know the right term when you gone knocking. “Small brown bird” doesn’t have much order on Google or in a library, but “property sparrow” (Passer domesticus) will open every relevant portal. The brand of the rose is the key to its whole account, to its evolutionary arc and cultural entanglements, to the titles and narratives of its many cousins. One discovery inevitably contributes to another.

While walking my pet dog 1 day, I encountered a discipline of weeds with flowers like tiny indigo windmills. I had no thought what they were. iNaturalist determined them as common chicory (Chicorium intybus), that i then learned is the crazy ancestor of endive and radicchio. Another day, while gardening, I discovered a particularly furry bee. iNaturalist educated me that it had been in fact a fly that progressed to mimic bees, part of a much bigger family of flies (Bombyliidae) costumed as bees for defense against predators.

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