Tech-Based Naturalists: Inspiring Citizen Science with the City Nature Challenge

iPhone taking shots of flowers
Nature is everywhere. You can help catalog the floral and fauna around you with the app iNaturalist, which will be used during the upcoming City Nature Challenge from April 26 to April 29. David Slipher/UC Davis

When Laci Gerhart-Barley started using the mobile app iNaturalist, the Department of Evolution and Ecology faculty member was skeptical. Designed with data collection in mind, iNaturalist acts like a pocket repository for all things wildlife. Users snap photos of flora and fauna and then upload it to the app. Fellow citizen and professional scientists can then chime in on the ID, helping make the data research-grade worthy. But like most citizen science efforts, iNaturalist requires broad participation.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever. Random strangers are not sitting around going through my iNaturalist photos and IDing them for me,’” said Gerhart-Barley. “But they totally are!”

Now, over 750,000 nature enthusiasts use iNaturalist, surging in popularity thanks to community events like the upcoming City Nature Challenge. Held from April 26 to April 29, the global competition encourages people to explore and record the natural world around them, from the city streets to the riparian woodlands.

“It’s a four-day, global bioblitz,” said Gerhart-Barley, one of the organizers behind the Sacramento region’s City Nature Challenge. “This year, 160-plus participating regions will try to get people outside: looking at nature, taking photos and putting them in iNaturalist to document all we can find around the globe during this time window.”

And anyone, regardless of location and age, can get involved thanks to the simplicity of the iNaturalist app. “If you can do Instagram, you can do this,” said Gerhart-Barley. “It’s that easy.”

Anna's hummingbird
You don't even have to leave campus to participate in the City Nature Challenge. This Anna's hummingbird, Calypte anna, was photographed flittering about the UC Davis Biological Orchard and Gardens. Greg Watry/UC Davis

Taking a friendly competition global

iNaturalist screenshot
Screenshot of the iNaturalist app on an iPhone.

Launched in 2016, the City Nature Challenge started as a neighborly competition between the Bay Area’s California Academy of Sciences and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. During the inaugural competition, over 20,000 observations spanning 1,600 species were logged over an eight-day period, according to iNaturalist. Ryan Meyer, the executive director for the UC Davis Center for Community and Citizen Science, had a front row seat to the action. Meyer’s research focuses on public participation in science.

“One of the things that we study is youth learning in citizen science,” said Meyer, another City Nature Challenge Sacramento organizer, who was awed by the youth engagement in the Bay Area’s bioblitz. “I’m sitting there watching this and I’m thinking, ‘Why is this not happening in Sacramento right now?’”

Meyer, contacted Gerhart-Barley, well aware of her passion for connecting UC Davis students with the plants and animals on campus. It’s a foundational element of her Wild Davis introductory evolution and ecology class. Serendipitously, Gerhart-Barley had already discussed bringing the City Nature Challenge to the Sacramento region with Sarah Angulo, a community education specialist for the California Naturalist Program.

“I was talking to Sarah about what sort of citizen science component the class needs,” said Gerhart-Barley, noting that since the Wild Davis course is considered a California Naturalist Program training course, students are required to participate in a citizen science project. “All three of us had been triangulating talking about the City Nature Challenge.”

Other event organizers include Chelle Temple-King, a science communicator, and Juliana Yee, a UC Davis student majoring in environmental science and management.

Baby deer
Organizers of the City Nature Challenge will host a bioblitz event at the Effie Yeaw Nature Center on Sunday, April 28. This baby mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus, was photographed at the Effie Yeaw Nature Center. David Slipher/UC Davis

Engaging citizen scientists at all levels

For the Sacramento region’s inaugural City Nature Challenge, Gerhart-Barley, Meyer and Angulo encourage participation at all education levels. The app is rated for ages four and up.

“We have a relationship with the Woodland Joint Unified School District and the Yolo County Office of Education,” said Meyer. “We have an initiative with the after-school programs at the elementary schools in Woodland, where they’re going to be participating in the City Nature Challenge.”

On the UC Davis side, Gerhart-Barley is enlisting her Wild Davis students to help spread awareness about the event. During the four-day event, Gerhart-Barley and other organizers will host bioblitz events at UC Davis, the Powerhouse Science Center and the Stebbins Cold Canyon, among other locations.  

“We’re tapping into really different groups of people which was sort of unintentional but has been really strong,” said Gerhart-Barley. “The beauty of iNaturalist is that it’s almost impossible to post something on there that is not useful to scientists.”

Still, lack of knowledge can be a barrier to entry. To further encourage participation, Gerhart-Barley and her colleagues will host two iNaturalist training parties, one at the Mary L. Stephens Davis Library on Saturday, April 20 and another at the Peter J. Shields Library on Monday, April 22.

Observations recorded in the following counties will count towards the challenge: Yolo, Sacramento, Sutter, Placer, Nevada, San Joaquin, El Dorado, Yuba and Amador.

For more information on the event, visit the City Nature Challenge Sacramento website.   

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Wild turkey
There are plenty of places to see wildlife around Sacramento, like the Effie Yeaw Nature Center, where this wild turkey,  Meleagris gallopavo, was photographed. David Slipher/UC Davis