Are iNaturalist observations affecting nature?

Kia ora from New Zealand! I love iNaturalist, and as a Citizen Scientist, I can’t begin to thank all the brilliant people who have identified my observations or added comments that have taught me so much about flora & fauna in NZ. It’s wonderful to see the exponential growth of iNat obs from around the world, and I’m in awe of all the incredible creatures on this planet.

However, I do wonder, with this growth, could observers be impacting on nature in a bad way, particularly with the competitive nature of humans? Intrusion of habitats, getting too close to birds, eggs & chicks in nests, the use of flash photography on birds & animals, private collections of invertebrates & marine life (killed for the photo), collection or destruction of plants & fungi, etc etc. I know iNat is an amazing organisation for recruiting people to record nature which is becoming a valuable resource for scientists and researchers, and I know most people are respectful of nature, but sometimes I wonder will there be a cost as more people get on board, is there potential for harm?

Maybe each iNat affiliation welcome page, and new registration could have an intro message with some guidelines about observing nature with as little impact as possible? I’d be interested to hear other peoples thoughts about this. (BTW, I’d be the first person to put my hand up that I’ve done things wrong in the past with observations, but hopefully I’m more aware of my impact now!)

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Certainly there are some negative impacts, but I believe they are greatly outweighed by the positives.

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I think in some cases iNat is probably actually reducing cases of these behaviours. Go back 20 years and if you were somewhere remote and wanted a plant ID’ed you’d probably collect specimens and bring them back to camp to go through field guides, keys, etc. Now, you can just whip out your phone, snap a quick picture, and someone from the other side of the world can potentially ID it for you in 5 minutes without any collection needed.

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You might find that some of the responses to this thread, Ethical behaviour when observing and photographing animals, are pretty relevant. :) The original post isn’t necessarily specific to using iNaturalist in particular, but many of the comments are.

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Fantastic! Thanks for the link to that post. Exactly my thoughts and I see that ‘guideline’ for iNat users was a common theme in the comments.

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This. I strongly believe this. The situation 10 or 20 years ago in this particular regard was much worse.

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Interesting question. I agree with the others regarding direct impacts; “collection” with a camera is a low impact way to observe groups that were previously collected directly.

A very different question is about the environmental impact of the energy consumption by servers that manage iNaturalist data. It also requires a lot of rare earth minerals and other nonrenewable resources to make the servers and supporting hardware. Has anyone tried to quantify this, and is there a policy in place to try to offset the impact of iNat’s data management?

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Ultimately until/unless we fix the colonial consumptive economy, everything we do will have some sort of impact and I personally don’t get the point about worrying about things to that to the extent that you curtail or limit stuff like collection of biodiversity data. Then you just essentially neutralize your life to net zero but the other consumptive forces continue, and nothing gets better. We all need to have significant positive impact, not net zero, if we want to fix things and I think inat is one good path to work towards that.

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I would agree with the benefits outweighing the impacts.

My current job is to coordinate a statewide survey of dragonflies and damselflies. Historically, this was done almost entirely through specimen collections. By 2010 we had about 30,000 specimen records across the state. Thanks to iNaturalist and an awesome suite of volunteers, we are able to photo document a majority of the species. We are up to almost 70,000 new photo records on top of our 30,000 historic records. Arguably we are having less impact now than before (though the 30,000 records was across 100+ years and a large area, so even that is pretty low impact in the scale of insects). The challenge still remains for species that are not easily photo-documented, but we still need data.

Our survey would have happened with or without iNaturalist. We were able to get a lot more records and convince even more people into paying attention to dragonflies thanks to iNat. These people who are able to find a love and passion for nature are then more likely to fight on its behalf. So iNat helps draw people into nature, and then they help to preserve said nature.

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Just think about the impact of the servers used for other purposes for comparison. Hosting millions of duck face and “cute outfit” selfies, photos of what people ate for lunch, Netflix streaming old episodes of Friends for people to fall asleep to, Candy Crush addicts, not to mention the massive amounts of porn. I don’t think iNaturalist creators and users have anything to feel guilty about regarding the impact of the servers!

Regarding users having a more direct negative impact by disturbing natural areas that they shouldn’t, or handling species that they shouldn’t. At least when they post the observation, it gives other users a chance to maybe gently educate them on how to make less harmful observations.

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There is always an observer effect (a term used in physics) when studying something in nature. Biologists often note that you can’t study something without affecting it, so you try to minimize the effect as much as possible so that it does not greatly alter your results. Making an observation and photoing an organism are, in most cases, pretty low impacts.

To me, the impact on nature of about 800,000 INat users, either in the field or at their computer, is negligible compared to the much greater impacts of all the other activities humans are involved with on a daily basis on earth. And it has a positive side in that it increases awareness of nature among those who might not have paid much attention without iNat.

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OOOHKAY! Struck a nerve. Just let me say I’m a big fan of iNaturalist and have encouraged many new users to sign up, a few of whom may have continued to use the site. And yes, iNat is tiny compared to data uses that are far more frivolous and/or obnoxious.

I was really just kind of curious whether there is a policy within the leadership of iNat and/or any effort to source the energy sustainably. I tried a quick Google search and got nowhere on it.

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Thanks, All. Your comments are much appreciated.

It would be useful though, if a simple guideline for observing nature with as little impact as possible was developed which could be sent to new iNat registrations, or be a resource for groups doing a BioBlitz with new or young participants, etc, and maybe the guideline could regularly be posted on social media channels as a gentle reminder to observers. The guideline could also advise people about the protocols around collecting specimens for private collections. I’m sure there is info out there already, but with iNat becoming (or already is?) the leading Citizen Science observer of nature, and growing, they could provide the best guideline. I would love to have read a guideline like this when I first signed up!

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I think these kinds of guidelines are often available. Many field guides have a responsible observing or responsible collecting section. Maybe we could start a wiki on this forum to list responsible observing guidelines for specific taxa.

The problems I see in drafting any generally useful guidelines for iNaturalist are that 1) general recommendations are usually so common sensical that there is sometimes not a whole lot to say–e.g. try not to handle animals if possible, if you do, make sure you know how to hold them so they (and you) aren’t injured. And 2) Anything else you could say is very dependent on the type of organism and the location and habitat you are observing in. For instance overturning rocks to find animals might be really really destructive in one habitat but not a big deal in another.

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