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Avery Waffen catalogs a tree on West Green with the iNaturalist app.

iNaturalist allows citizen scientists to help catalog species in Wayne National Forest

Rural Action is using a new app to crowdsource cataloging of the Wayne National Forest from citizen scientists through the submission of photos of wildlife to the database for identification. 

Since January 2018, Rural Action has pushed for a BioBlitz, an ongoing documentation of a specific area of the Athens portion of the Wayne National Forest. Any photos submitted within the map of the project are automatically compiled into the database. 

“We have 10,602 observations in the BioBlitz as of today, representing roughly 2,887 species,”  said Joe Brehm, Environmental Education Program Director at Rural Action.

So far, 266 people have contributed to the project, Brehm said. iNaturalist is set up so that people who post do not have to know what wildlife is in the photo. 

“Anyone who uses the app can see what you have posted and either offer a suggestion, or maybe a more precise identification, or communicate with you about what was found in general,”  said Brett Smith, an AmeriCorps member with Rural Action.

The BioBlitz allows for people of all ranges of knowledge to contribute to the cataloging of the forest. Martha Bishop, a professor and lab coordinator in the College of Arts and Sciences, leads mushroom survey expeditions which contributes greatly to the wildlife database, both with mushrooms and other species observed along the way.

“I think it encourages people to know that they can contribute to efforts like this without knowing anything to begin with,” Bishop said.

BioBlitz hikes the iNaturalist app allows for anyone to contribute to the database. Everyone from experts like Bishop to high schoolers from Alexander High School that participate in the hikes are able to contribute. 

“The BioBlitz hikes are utilized to give non professional and professional scientist time to work and share together over a varying degree of knowledge and subjects,” Nessa Hesser, an AmeriCorps member with Rural Action, said in an email.

Citizen science gives an opportunity for those who don’t work professionally as scientists to be able to contribute to the work of the scientific community. By having large groups of people collect information, Hesser said, more information can be collected in a shorter time frame than if just the scientific community was going out and surveying. 

Bishop said sometimes citizen scientists can make some of the greatest contributions to projects like the BioBlitz. One woman photographs moths in her backyard, which lies just above the forest. Staying up late into the night, she has a black light and a white sheet to attract insects, Brehm said.

“She submitted a total of 3,386 observations representing 1,382 species,” Brehm said.  

The project has identified more species than those involved with the project had expected.

“I've been studying this stuff for the last 10 years,” Brehm said. “I've been here, and I had no idea just how much diversity we have.”

Others were in awe of how diverse and specific the contributions to the database have been.

“I expected fully a couple hundred of the same strand of trees,” Smith said. “But it hasn't been like that. Our number one observed species is actually dragonflies.”

A lot of the data gathered has opened up even more questions, Brehm said. Those include the opportunities that surround the identification of species in the area, protection of native species and what role species play in an environment. 

There are many ways for everybody, ranging from citizen scientists to those who work in the scientific community, to get involved with iNaturalist and the BioBlitz. The iNaturalist app can be downloaded any device. Anything submitted within the map of the project will be automatically uploaded to the BioBlitz database of the Wayne National Forest.

“You know the old saying, knowledge is power,” Brehm said. “Well, (iNaturalist is) a way to kind of make that knowledge.”


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