Giving iNaturalist a try on our hikes and outdoors adventures

About a month ago, a Twitter buddy turned me on on to iNaturalist, a citizen science website that crowd-sources images and data about wildlife and flora from all over the world. iNaturalist was started in 2008 by a group of U.C. Berkeley grad students (Go Bears!) as their Masters final project (my fellow information geeks), and the site is currently maintained by one of those students and a Stanford climate change researcher (What?! Cal and Stanford peeps collaborating?!). The site describes itself as a “place where you can record what you see in nature, meet other nature lovers, and learn about the natural world.” Hikers, bird watchers, and other outdoors enthusiasts can use iNaturalist to learn about flora and wildlife in a particular area, and (most importantly, IMO) can contribute their own photos and observations to iNaturalist to help document flora and wildlife in a particular region over time.

Greene Adventures' iNaturalist profile

Our Profile:

I’ve become quite hooked on iNaturalist, and am trying to incorporate it into our hikes and outings.

Using the iNaturalist Website

Browsing most parts of iNaturalist can be done without an account, however contributing observations, helping to identify species, commenting, and other interactive features do require you to sign up for a free account.

Navigating the Site

There are five main entry points to browse the website. Observations provides an updated stream of observations (pinned to a map) displayed in reverse chronological order. Species provides a categorized view of observations organized into parent-level biological Kingdom classifications that drill down to the species level (taxa in science geek speak). Projects are collaborative observation groups (much like Flickr Groups or Facebook Groups) that focus on a particular species, region, or institution. Places allow you to focus on all of the species that can be found in a particular locality, such as a country, state, county, city, designated open space, etc. People lets you find other iNaturalist users.

iNaturalist Observation Stream

Observations View: A reverse chronological stream of recent submissions, plotted on a map.

iNaturalist Screenshots

Species View: Shows recent submissions, scientific and popular names for the species, and a Wikipedia description of the species.

iNaturalist Screenshots

A Project page, this one for a national park.

iNaturalist Screenshots

Places View: Browse or search the map to see observations submitted for a particular locality.

iNaturalist Screenshots

Places View: A look at the species found in Orange County, California.

Contributing Observations and Confirmations

Observations are the meat and potatoes of iNaturalist — without them, there is no real meal. Yes, you could just choose to use iNaturalist as a field guide species look-up app, taking advantage of those rich Species profiles (with their cool Wikipedia mashup descriptions). But, what sets iNaturalist apart from other similar field guide apps is the steady stream of user-contributed (crowd-sourced) species Observations from all over the world. So, don’t just be an armchair naturalist…do your part as a citizen scientist by contributing your own wildlife and flora photos from out in the field!

Contributing Observations to the website is a piece of cake. You can upload photos directly to the website (this is the slowest method), or connect your iNaturalist profile to your Flickr or Picasa account (the fastest method) and pull in photos that you’ve already uploaded to one of these two photo sharing sites. [A tip…I tag my Flickr photos with “iNaturalist” to more quickly and easily filter when adding to the website.] Once you’ve picked a photo to contribute, use the robust “Lookup” button to search the species taxonomy for the right classification (aka “mule deer”, or just “deer”). If you aren’t sure, you can go with something as generic as “plants”, and then check the “ID Please!” box to ask the extensive user base for identification help. Add the date observed, plot your Observation on the included Google Map, add a pertinent optional Description (aka “Viewed this mule deer eating alongside the ABCD hiking trail.”), and add any optional Tags relevant to you.

iNaturalist Screenshots

Observations, photos, and details can be easily added online.

iNaturalist Screenshots

Observation Detail View of one of our submissions, which generated a handful of comments as two fellow iNaturalists debated the species of berry that we submitted.

Contributing to Projects

I highly encourage you to get involved with Projects and contribute to Projects! Browse the index to find localities, species, or events that suit your interests. We joined all of the regions in which we regularly hike — for example, the “Anza Borrego Desert Wildlife” Project. From the detail view of any Observation you submit, click on the “Add to project” button to also contribute that particular Observation to a Project that you’ve already joined.

Anza Borrego Desert Wildlife Project

We nerded it up and joined a bunch of Projects. Here's one for one of our favorite SoCal hiking and camping spots -- Anza Borrego.

If you don’t find one for your specific niche, create one. We did! Greene Adventures created the “Biodiversity in Orange County” Project as a place to crowd-source and chronicle the wildlife and flora that can be found in Orange County, California. Imagine how robust this collection could be if our local parks agencies, schools and colleges, and outdoors enthusiasts contributed field Observations? A big shout-out to Walk Simply, who joined iNaturalist and our new Project, after a brief Twitter conversation earlier this week!

Orange County Biodiversity Project

Do you hike, camp, recreate, live, work, or study in Orange County, California? Join our "Biodiversity in Orange County" Project! Walk Simply did!

Using the iNaturalist Mobile Apps

iNaturalist provides an iPhone app and an Adroid app. Since Jeff and I both have iPhones, that’s what we’re reviewing.

The iPhone app is a super handy tool for capturing and contributing Observations on the trail and out in the field. Even if you don’t have a data connection (frequently the case, when we’re hiking), you can still capture photos, GPS positioning, and other important metadata, and then contribute those to the website by syncing your Observations when you’re back in data signal range.

iPhone Observation Form

The iPhone app provides a robust form to capture and submit rich place and time-based Observation metadata.

One key bit of functionality that I find missing from the iPhone app is the ability to see Observations (mine, as well as others) in a particular area.

When I scroll the map to places to which I have contributed Observations, these don’t show up on my mobile map. I’d love to be able to use the app as a mobile GPS-enabled field guide when hiking open spaces and trails (assuming I get a data signal) — much like what Historypin does for historical spots. While I can look up species info for mobile identification purposes, I’d really like to see user-contributed Observations for that locality.

iNaturalist iPhone

Really wishing my previously submitted Observations, and those submitted by others, showed up on the mobile map.

Using the iNaturalist Widgets

iNaturalist also offers what seem like some pretty nifty widgets that can be embedded into a blog, website, or presentation. You can see an example in our blog footer — the most recent Observations contributed by Greene Adventures.

Observations Widget

The web widgets display fine in WordPress widgets, just not in the body of a WordPress post.

But, try as I might, I can’t get these embedded widgets to display within the body of an actual blog post. You can see what I mean below — blog readers should be able to see a steam of our most recent Observations, as well as a stream of the most recent Observations contributed to the “Biodiversity in Orange County” Project. Oh well…I’ll troubleshoot the issue.

Additional Thoughts

I am still getting to the know the site…there is just so much cool outdoors nerdy information and functionality. But, as I play more and discover more, I will certainly share and post more.

Give it a try! And connect with Greene Adventures!


  1. Ken-ichi says

    Hey Colleen, thanks for the great review! The trouble with embedding the widget in the body of the post is probably due to WordPress not allowing Javascript that writes directly to the page. Looks like there’s a workaround ( but I’d need to adjust our widget a bit to get that to work. Do you just want a widget to embed that summarizes your observations from a trip or something?

  2. Traci says

    Thanks for the shout out! I have used iNaturalist several times so far and I have found it to easy to use. I joined your Orange County project well.

  3. Theresa says

    This project is awesome! I’ll give it a shot one of these days. Thanks for the invaluable information that people contribute. Really a lifesaver.

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