Voices for Biodiversity

Urbanites Go Wild: City Nature Challenge 2018

Which urban center will discover and share the most pictures of nature within its city limits? Back in 2016, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences wanted to find out, and co-sponsored the City Nature Challenge in honor of the first-ever Citizen Science Day. The challenge was between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and more than 1,000 residents and visitors observed over 20,000 plants and wildlife — it took experts a week to categorize the 2,704 species represented.

In 2017, the event grew to include 16 cities across the US, and 4,386 citizen scientists made a whopping 126,152 observations, sharing images of 8,639 species, of which 392 were considered rare, endangered or threatened. Results of the City Nature Challenge are posted on iNaturalist.org, where they can be reviewed by the participating cities and other interested parties.

This year’s City Nature Challenge will be held from April 27 to 30 in 70 cities around the world. City residents and visitors are challenged with locating and documenting plants and animals. From May 1 to 3, participants will share their findings with fellow naturalists. The goal for 2018 is simple: attract the largest number of citizen scientists, make the most observations of nature and find the most species ever.

Co-organizers Alison Young of the California Academy of Sciences and Leila Higgins of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County put out a call last August to get the word out about City Nature Challenge 2018 and attract volunteers. Speaking with 150 people in natural history museums across 70 cities took three days, working across three time zones.  “It is important to have personal touch,” Young says. Local organizers in each city are given information packets, press releases and social media posts that were translated by volunteers into several languages.

Participants upload and share their photos through iNaturalist, a website designed by staff at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. The species in the photos are then identified and categorized by experts, and people can easily search all the great finds by location. Higgins notes that different cities use various strategies when sharing its findings. 

“To protect shared information, the first species collected [on iNaturalist] are automatically obscured,” Young says, “to avoid poaching.” Only the general area of discovery is revealed. People can later chose to share the exact location. If they are uncertain as to how safe that might be, there are experts on hand to take full responsibility in choosing to identify precise location details.

“City Nature Challenge has provided information about where threatened species occur,” Young reports, “to help us better protect them.” Alerting management to new species populations, especially invasive ones, affords them the opportunity to design a management plan that may include their removal for protection of local species.

In City Nature Challenge 2016, 96 rare, endangered and threatened species were identified in the Bay Area alone. Of the 16 cities participating in 2017, Miami reported 384 rare, endangered and threatened species. A rare butterfly of the Lycaenidae family, the Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak, with fewer than a dozen known colonies left, was observed there. It has only been posted on iNaturalist five times.

“Observations like these are critical to management and to science since we cannot protect species if we don’t know where they occur,” Young shares. “Current observations let us see how all species are responding to climate change, habitat loss and competition from invasive species, and give us the ability to better predict where these species may be found in the future.”   

City Nature Challenge now offers people in cities all over the world a chance to participate in efforts to find and document plants and animals. The Natural History Museum also hosts “BioBlitzes,” where citizens and scientists record as many species as possible within a designated location and time period. These events are a great opportunity for non-experts to get acquainted with and better understand the work of experts such as scientists and land managers, and for experts to gather valuable data that helps them to better protect local biodiversity.

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Marilyn Clement
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