iNaturalist, the City Nature Challenge, and Williamstown

Picture a cross between Instagram, Pokemon Go and your favorite field lab experience. iNaturalist, a website & app launched in 2008 as a Master’s project at UC Berkeley, is just that. It serves as a social network for naturalists, citizen scientists and biologists to share, discuss, and identify observations of organisms. Ultimately, it seeks to create a crowdsourced and accessible record of local and worldwide biodiversity. iNaturalist is supported as an initiative in the United States by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. It has been lauded by the New York Times as potentially the nicest place on the internet and recognized by the National Public Radio for, among other things, helping to discover and document new species. The community has grown to over 3 million users who have logged a whopping 136 million observations and counting. 

Most of the time, the website and app function as Field Lab Instagram: a user uploads pictures of an organism, indicates if it is wild or cultivated/captive, notes the location and time observed, labels the post with the suspected scientific name, and posts it to the world. The iNaturalist AI photo recognition system may help suggest a species identification to a user, but other users must agree with the original poster’s identification (if the organism is wild) for the observation to be marked Research Grade. Other users can also comment and ‘fave’ observations; much like any social media, some posts are more popular than others. Some attract attention for the beauty of the species, the scientific significance of the observation, or, pure cult status, as evidenced by this muskrat made infamous and dubbed Gerald due to a comedic identification snafu. 

Gerald was observed during the 4-day period during which iNaturalist becomes Field Lab Pokemon Go. The City Nature Challenge launched in 2016 as an international effort to document nature in cities on a massive scale that typically takes place the last weekend in April. Cities compete for the top spot, with dedicated individual observers making a few thousand observations in an effort to make the most observations and document the highest number of  species in every city in the world. This year’s challenge ran from April 28th through May 1st, with an upload/identification period lasting until May 7th. As of the writing of this article, just under 2 million observations were made during the challenge this year. Though Williamstown was not not an official competitor this year, it and towns like it across the globe could still participate under the umbrella of the Global Project: about 9 observations made in Williamstown counted towards that worldwide total.. 

Though this year’s  City Nature Challenge has ended, don’t let that prevent you from finding an excuse to go outside and identify what you see. Take a walk, bring a camera, take some pictures, and upload them to iNaturalist. You might be so hooked on finding new species that, when the City Nature Challenge 2024 rolls around, you’ll make sure Williamstown contributes to the global data in a more significant way. Who knows — you might find a rare insect, a first regional sighting of a bird, or perhaps simply discover something  beautiful. After all, the goal is not simply to collect species and make endless observations (though that can be fun) but to gain a better understanding and appreciation of nature in a global community of learners.

Isabella Hayden ’26 is a 22-23 academic year Communications Intern with the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives at Williams College. She has participated in the City Nature Challenge since 2016.