Nature inquiries with iNaturalist

iNaturalist is a fantastic site for identifying and appreciating living things in your area. The app is available on iOS and Android. When photographs of wildlife are uploaded, the iNaturalist community will identify them and more information is provided. In addition, the data collected on the app is used by scientific data repositories to monitor species and their populations. Using iNaturalist is interesting and fun, but our additions also contribute to important biodiversity studies. Win-win!

How does iNaturalist work?

IMG_8429After downloading the app, photographs can be taken from within it or uploaded from the camera roll. If the location services are enabled on your device, the specific location of the animal/plant is automatically recorded. If not, users can add this manually. Additional information about the observation can also be added at this point, such as the date and time.

The screenshot to the left shows the number of responses that my recent observations have received so far (the broad ‘insects’ observation has not yet been identified beyond this category). After an observation has received three or more of the same identification, it becomes ‘research grade’, meaning that it can be used as part of scientific studies.

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As well as adding your own contributions, you can explore the observations from around the world. The ‘Explore’ page displays colour-coded observations on a world map (see the key above). Users can zoom in and find out more. After clicking on an observation, it is possible to see how widespread the population is. The next map indicates all observations of that particular species.

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How can iNaturalist be used with students?

How often has a strange bug interrupted your lesson? These unexpected visitors are guaranteed to raise lots of questions! iNaturalist supports these moments of authentic inquiry. For example, this little fellow was spotted on one of our bins at school. It excited my students to know that the expert community on the app would be able to identify it for us.

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Indeed, it was identified as an Asian giant mantis. As well as receiving reliable identifications of our visitor, students were able to use the website/app to find out more about it.

In another (less spontaneous) example, we used iNaturalist to kick off a new unit. We were learning about living things and ecosystems as part of our Sharing The Planet unit. As a provocation, we went on a walk around our local area to see what we could find. Even in a busy cosmopolitan city like Hong Kong, the students were amazed to spot an array of exciting wildlife. We used iNaturalist to support our inquiries. It provided information about the discovered creatures and prompted further questions about food chains, animal types and ecosystems in our local area.

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 4.33.22 PMThe information from iNaturalist was also helpful in our English writing unit. The students have been learning to write informational texts. They each chose a different observation to investigate in more depth and eventually created non-fiction books about them. The information provided through iNaturalist was a useful starting point for their research.

The information on iNaturalist is available publicly, so children can research without registering. To upload their observations, we used a shared account that is managed by me, eliminating the need for them to sign up. Alternatively, you might prefer for your students to use Seek.

Seek by iNaturalist

Seek is another app that can identify plants and animals for you, but it does not collect user data or require registration. Seek uses the images from iNaturalist along with image recognition technology to automatically identify the observations. It offers a child-friendly alternative to iNaturalist that students can use independently. It is currently only available on iOS.

iNaturalist is great for both personal and professional use. Even outside of school, I enjoy uploading new observations and receiving the identifications. It has increased my interest in local wildlife and conservation. I hope that it has a similar impact on you and your students. Click here to sign up. Finally, thank you to Katie and Ryan at For Teachers for introducing this to me. I encourage you to check out the video tutorial on their YouTube channel.


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