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Science has rediscovered a snail that had never been photographed, and a poison frog that had never been cataloged. These breakthroughs are thanks to iNaturalist, an app that lets regular folks play nature explorer.
As of November 2016, more than 300,000 “citizen-scientists” have downloaded the app. With it, you can upload a picture of a plant or animal species, and experts will tell you what it is. Your observation is tagged and recorded on a world map that’s truly fascinating to browse. Search “armadillos,” for example, and you can see all the places where folks have spotted them.
Actress and amateur naturalist Danielle Doyle says the iNaturalist has completely changed how she interacts with the natural world when hiking. “I don’t just look at a plant and see a plant. I get close enough to see what could be crawling on that plant, and I want to know everything about it.”
Once you start making observations, iNaturalist tracks how many you make, how many different species you see, and how many identifications you make—the top folks in these categories are shown on a leaderboard. At time of writing, user jaykeller of Southern California had observed 2,570 species in 2016, more than any other iNaturalist user—like the Spur-throat Grasshopper he saw in Mammoth, Arizona, the Utah Serviceberry he saw at the Mount Laguna Overlook near San Diego, and the Harbor Seal he spotted from a beachside park in Anacortes, Washington.
iNaturalist started as a Master’s project for four UC Berkeley School of Information students. It’s now owned by the California Academy of Sciences. The free app is available for iPhone or Android phones.