The history, current contributions and future outlook of iNaturalist in Australia.

Updated: Oct 13, 2021

Despite the popularity and usage of iNaturalist increasing exponentially over the past five years, especially across many southern hemisphere countries, broad examination of iNaturalist data is non-existent. To help fill this gap, Corey Callaghan and I looked at an overview of the history, current contributions and future outlook of iNaturalist in Australia.

History

After a slow start from 2008 to 2015, Australian involvement with the platform started to pick up in mid-2016 after the creation of the Australasian Fishes project, with observations increasing from typically a few hundred per month up to over 5000 per month. There was no looking back from this point, with observations per month rapidly accelerating. In May 2019, the closure of BowerBird (one of Australia’s main citizen science platforms) and the migration of its records across to iNaturalist saw the first of three increasingly large spikes in observation rates. This was followed by Australia’s first involvement in the City Nature Challenge in April 2020, and finally the inaugural Great Southern Bioblitz in September 2020, the latter of which saw Australian observations exceed 100,000 uploads in a single month, for the first time.

The total number of observers and species observed have also increased exponentially, with no signs of slowing yet.

 

Top, The number of iNaturalist observations per month, week and day in Australia over 2021, and below the number of daily observations 2020 compared to 2021 https://inaturalist.ala.org.au/stats/2020

 

Australia is currently the 4th highest contributor in the world based on the number of observations (behind the US, Canada and Mexico), but is 2nd in the world for the number of observations per observer.

Current contributions

Almost 70% of all Australian observations are animals, 25% are plants, and just 6.5% fungi. More than half of these animal observations are arthropods, with 86% of the arthropods insects; this means that over 30% of all Australian observations on iNaturalist are insects! This is the highest percentage for the top 15 contributing countries on the platform. Thanks to the charismatic nature of butterflies, the popularity of moth nights and the relative ease with which they’re found and photographed, Lepidoptera make up half of all insect observations, and thus 15% of all Australian observations!

As expected, birds are very overrepresented relative to their diversity; despite constituting just 2% of all Australian species, they make up 17% of observations.

 

The three most observed species in Australia on iNaturalist Magpie Gymnorhina tibicen (left), Laughing Kookaburra Dacelo novaeguineae (center) and Rainbow Lorikeet Trichoglossus moluccanus (right)

 

Most Australian plant observations are flowering plants, with relatively few observations of ferns, mosses and other groups. The most popular groups to observe are Asterales (a group which contains the ‘daisy’-like plants among others) and Asparagales (thanks to Australia’s huge orchid diversity).

From a spatial perspective, observations are heavily biased towards the major cities of southeastern Australia, with additional hotspots around Townsville, Cairns and Perth. In between these, there are also some power user-driven hotspots, with the huge efforts of users like reiner, nicklambert and vicfazio3 among others showing up on the map.

There are also some conspicuous spatial gaps in Australian observations. Aside from small hotspots around Alice Springs and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (both of which are mainly tourist-driven), Australia’s arid interior is very data deficient, highlighting a major area for future observations. Other large, under-observed regions include Arnhem Land, southwestern Tasmania, and Australia’s offshore waters.

 

Heatmap of iNaturalist observations within Australia

 

Outlook

Although Australian iNaturalist data are increasingly being used in professional research, they’re still underutilised given the millions of data points that exist. Accordingly, one of the most important future directions for iNaturalist Australia is for researchers to use the already existing data to model species distributions across space and time.

Also important is extracting secondary data. Whilst every observation has a single focus, many also contain other valuable information; for example, most photos of pollinators such as bees and butterflies also contain information on host plants. Capitalising on this information will allow us to understand patterns and interactions such as changes in colour across a species’ range or predator-prey relationships.

Perhaps one of the most important future directions for iNaturalist Australia is the continued (and increased) engagement with taxonomic experts. By recruiting these experts to the platform, more observations will be identified (and with increasing accuracy), especially for esoteric taxa and groups that require keys or specific knowledge. These experts will also help teach other users and improve their own identification abilities.

Finally, there needs to be a great push to increasingly integrate Australian iNaturalist data into the fields of conservation and policy; observations of threatened or invasive species both have great value for informing environmental impact assessments and contributing to legislation for the creation of protected areas or control efforts.

You can read Mesaglio and Callaghan’s full paper, An overview of the history, current contributions and future outlook of iNaturalist in Australia

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