Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps. — Henry David Thoreau, Walking
My current city of Istanbul is piled high with concrete, brick, marble, and rubble. Neighborhood women peer out from windows caged in wrought iron. Hidden gardens lay beyond entrances secured by guards and metal detectors. Few trees survive and even fewer escape the city’s chainsaw pruning. It is a beguiling world of contrasts. Each day, I yearn to get out and see nature.
I feel a stranger here, not just to the culture, but also to the living creatures around me. I want to learn their names. I wish to live a life like the naturalists Thoreau or Nabokov who spent time chasing streams or butterflies when they weren’t writing. I want to spend time walking, collecting, and observing. On top of that, I want to have an archive of my journeys, too. It may sound like a lot to ask for, but I’ve recently come across an app called iNaturalist that will help me with all of this. Created by the California Academy of Sciences, its website, iNaturalist.org, is also filled with loads of information about the biodiversity surrounding us.
The app is really easy to use. When I’m outdoors on a hike, I can photograph a species with my iPhone (or Android) and add it to a public database with the date and location of my finding. It was founded in 2008 as a crowd-sourced database, but as of July this year, it uses artificial intelligence to help users identify their observations. The AI algorithm supplies a recommended identification drawing from the database of the thousands of entries that have come before. Some of these are even verified as research-quality entries. This means that there are enough matching expert-verified photos on file to ensure a reasonably accurate classification. Finally, the expert identifiers working for the site also review and approve of classifications. All of this collection and observation is aggregated into a huge scientific resource. Regular people or “citizen scientists” like me can contribute to official scientific databases that are beneficial for documenting and preserving biodiversity.
Today, I posted my first observation, using a photograph I had taken on a hike from September in the Iğneada Longoz Forests National Park along the Black Sea near the border of Bulgaria and Turkey. My boyfriend and I had got lost in the woods, searching for a large lake formed by a sea inlet. We instead headed deeper and deeper into a mesmerizing forest alongside a creek. After a few hours, we gave up searching and decided to make our way back to the highway. Along the way, we came across a large fungal life-form, so I snapped a few photos. I uploaded these photos into the app to see what kind of species it was. The app told me that it’s probably a shelf fungus, and to me it looked most similar to a species called a “hoof fungus,” so I selected that as my identification.
The app linked to a Wikipedia article about the hoof fungus species:
I could also see a map of other nearby sightings of the same species:
Alternately, I could see a map of all nearby sightings of any species:
With my map selected, could browse the record of species entered in that range, chronologically:
After that, I chose to leave the app for the main website to learn more about the database collection of my hoof fungus. It turns out the app is more useful for posting, while the website really enticed me to brows. I discovered which user has taken the most photos of the hoof fungus:
I could see more information about the global number of sightings of hoof fungus and I could browse its related species:
I could even see a breakdown of its taxonomic classification:
I already knew that the country I currently live in, Turkey, has importance for global biodiversity. However, before downloading this app, I didn’t really know how I could learn more other than by picking up a field guide. The only progress I’d made was by buying a pair of high quality hiking shoes. With this app, I can immediately start contributing to the database of the region to help document some of its unique living features. It eliminates the typical biologist’s learning curve. It also gives me an excuse to photograph plants and bugs and lizards, which I’m genuinely interested in, instead of selfies, which become repetitive far too quickly.
The app is user-friendly for kids, nature enthusiasts, and scientists alike, so it is really supportive of everyday biodiversity. I hope it will inspire more people to set off, aimlessly wandering in search of living things.
Perhaps walking is best imagined as an ‘indicator species,’ to use an ecologist’s term. An indicator species signifies the health of an ecosystem, and its endangerment or diminishment can be an early warning sign of systemic trouble. Walking is an indicator species for various kinds of freedom and pleasures: free time, free and alluring space, and unhindered bodies. — Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking