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Cheat the Coronavirus This Weekend: Bay Area City Nature Challenge a Great Activity Even Indoors

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Citizen scientists in the City Nature Challenge 2020 can take pictures of wild plants and animals on their phone, then upload them to the iNaturalist.  (Kathryn Whitney © 2018 California Academy of Sciences)

Even though we still have to follow public health guidelines and practice social distancing, there are still ways to celebrate nature from your home or close to it. The City Nature Challenge 2020 will hold its fifth annual event April 24-27, and all you need is a camera and an internet connection.

“Our goals are to connect people to their urban nature and to gather really important biodiversity data about cities and the areas that surround cities,” said Rebecca Johnson, the co-director of citizen science at the California Academy of Sciences.

Think of it as a snapshot in time of some of the biodiversity where you live.

Citizen science projects allow members of the general public to participate in scientific research and discovery. Organized by the California Academy of Sciences and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, City Nature Challenge 2020 will bring together people from more than 200 cities around the world to document the living things around them on the iNaturalist app. All you have to do is take a picture of an organism you see, like a bug or flower, and upload it through the app or online. That will submit the information to an open access database used by research in fields like biology, ecology and conservation and connect you with experts who can help identify what you saw.

Participating as a citizen scientist in this challenge has real benefits for biological research and conservation, says Johnson. In last year’s event, a participant from the Bay Area photographed a woodlouse (also called a roly poly or pill bug). Little did she know that the species she documented hadn’t been seen in the Bay Area since the 1930s. Scientists had worried it might have gone extinct, but thanks to the sighting by a member of the public, its survival was confirmed.


“Her picture of it was the first record of that species in 80 years,” said Johnson. “And that was just her turning over a log, taking a picture, and another expert being online to identify it.”

According to Global Biodiversity Information Facility, iNaturalist observations more than 35,000,000 to date have contributed to almost 500 peer-reviewed articles. This weekend will be an opportunity to support that effort.

What You Can Do

In past years, the City Nature Challenge gathered people together in parks and public lands to take pictures of everything from moss to birds. And it was a competition to see which city could make the most observations, document the most species, and recruit the most participants.

But not this time. Now, organizers just want people to appreciate the natural world where they can. Though gatherings in parks and public lands are not possible because of the novel coronavirus, Johnson says people following their local public health guidelines can still participate.

“iNaturalist is best for wild things,” she explains. That includes commonly overlooked creatures like house centipedes or the weeds growing out of a crack in the concrete. For example, this year’s list of most-wanted sightings in San Francisco includes crickets. Though there are multiple native cricket species living in the city, there are only 10 confirmed observations in the database.

While you may think you have to go outside to find plants or animals to document, Johnson says photos taken from your window are useful. And if you can’t quite get a shot of that bird you see at the feeder, no worries! Record the sound of its call and upload that instead. You just need concrete evidence to help experts confirm your observation.

If going outside is not an option, the Academy’s Never Home Alone project specifically looks for the critters living with us indoors. Johnson says that in a typical house, there could be up to 93 species of insects “like beetles or things that don’t hurt you, but just live associated with humans.”

She suggests looking in the nooks and crannies of your house, such as around the sink or under the bed.

“Take pictures of those things that are actually right under your nose or above your head normally,” she said.

This is an activity especially suitable for children, Johnson says. “Kids are really good finders of things, if they’re given permission to explore and be curious.”

And it’s a great way for grown ups to experience nature, too. It’s important, she says, “for adults to give ourselves permission… to be curious and to look around and have those moments of wonder and awe about things that we don’t know.”

Though you can log observations in iNaturalist throughout the year, the City Nature Challenge is an opportunity to participate in a global community of citizen scientists in real time. People everywhere are sheltering in place, says Johnson. “But we’re going out where we can and still trying to celebrate nature around us and share that. Even though we’re apart, we’re doing it together.”

So this weekend, consider a trip to your backyard  or under your sink to snap a picture of the nature around you. Even if you’ve seen that plant a million times before, or you think that bug is too creepy, there’s a chance you’ve found something new.

All the observations will be identified and tallied by the community between April 28 and May 3, with results announced May 4.

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