Science for the People: Grab Your Phone and Help Snap Pictures of Coastal Biodiversity

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Tidepooling at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve during last year's bio-blitz. (Rebecca Johnson/California Academy of Sciences)

Your moments peering into tide pools, gazing at spiny starfish, or eyeing bashful anemones can be more than just moments. They’re observations, and scientists can learn from them about what’s happening on California’s coastline. Thousands of observations, added together—that’s valuable data.

This weekend, Californians who love marine ecosystems can head to the bay or the beach, take pictures of all the animals they can see, upload them to the cell phone app iNaturalist, and take part in a statewide campaign to catalog the biodiversity of the state’s coast.

California Academy of Sciences and the Marine Protected Area Collaborative Network are hosting Snapshot Cal Coast, an annual coastal “bio-blitz” that started June 23 and wraps up on Sunday, July 2.

“No matter what kind of science it is—it starts with an observation,” says Dr. Rebecca Johnson, citizen science research coordinator at the Cal Academy. “We’re providing a way for people to share those observations and then we can look for patterns and ask more questions.”

Snapping a photo of a sea anemone, to upload to the iNaturalist app for Snapshot Cal Coast. (Calla Allison/Marine Protected Areas Collaborative Network)

Cal Academy and other organizations are holding cataloging parties up and down the California coastline this weekend, to encourage people to get together and collect observations. In the Bay Area, families or individuals can head down to Ocean Beach on Sunday morning to join a team for free community event.


A Snapshot of Biodiversity

“If we can get observations all along the coast at the same time of year, every year,” Johnson says, “we can get a snapshot of biodiversity, and the ranges of individual species.”

This is the project’s second year, and there are plans to make it an annual event.

“If we do this every year, we can see how species' ranges are changing,” says Johnson.

A coastal animal’s range can change for a variety of reasons such as invasive species, diseases such as sea star wasting syndrome, and warming waters due to climate change. Biodiversity data is also essential in order to answer questions about the efficacy of marine protected areas and other conservation measures.

Tidepoolers at Pillar Point look for marine life to photograph, during this year's bio-blitz. (Rebecca Johnson/California Academy of Sciences)

iNaturalist is an phone app and website that aggregates geo-located photos of species. And you don’t have to be an expert to use it. Users can either enter identify their observations themselves or tag something as ‘unknown.’

“You don’t have to know what you’re looking at,” says Johnson, “you just have to take good enough pictures that someone else can identify it.”

Snapshot Cal Coast is also a way for amateur naturalists, who know a lot about one place, to contribute to a larger-scale observation.

Over the last week, 400 participants have uploaded 8,000 observations of coastal organisms, representing close to 900 species.

Smart phones with great cameras, and apps like iNaturalist, make a model of citizen science possible that was never possible before. And Johnson says using a phone outdoors doesn’t have to distract from relaxing and observing natural spaces.

“Technology and looking at a screen gets a bad rap for disconnecting people from each other,” she says. “Through the work that we do, we have really been able to use that technology to build community and connect people to nature and each other.”

Demystifying Science

Some of the greatest beneficiaries of Snapshot Cal Coast are the citizen scientists themselves. By participating in an annual observation, people can start to see their local ecosystems with new eyes, and get hands-on experience with the scientific process.

Looking for marine life at Doran Beach in Sonoma County, earlier this week. (Rebecca Johnson/California Academy of Sciences)

When participants observe changes in species biodiversity from year-to-year, these changes may prompt them to ask questions about why they’re seeing what they’re seeing.

“It’s a way for people to witness global change in a real way,” Johnson says.

When people see it with their own eyes, they can feel empowered by their own experience and senses.

There are a lot of environmental threats to the rich biodiversity of the California coast—problems such as climate change and marine pollution—and the scale of the problems can be overwhelming to people. Working together on a project like this can, “help people have some power in a situation that seems powerless,” says Johnson, “and experience the joy of discovering something together.”

Interested? If you’re in the Bay Area, check out a Snapshot Cal Coast event this Sunday, July 2, 9am at Ocean Beach. Click here for more information.