Documenting loss or providing useful data?

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time over the last couple years making observations in areas that are under development for housing. I’m not here to argue for or against housing development. That’s beyond the scope of this post or my expertise. I started out doing observations in these areas because they are easily accessible, and you can find interesting things in them. Open, disturbed sites actually do a decent job of mimicking aspects of Central Oklahoma’s normal ecosystems. Yet, as time goes on, I can’t help but feel that all I’m doing is documenting the loss of another small piece of “nature.” I can’t go back to many of these sites because there’s nothing left to find. It’s depressing. Does anybody else feel that iNaturalist is documenting all the small losses that add up to a large-scale tragedy? If so, what do we do with that. If I’m being overly pessimistic, do you have any good counterpoints that can brighten up my perspective a little?

Thanks in advance for any replies!


That’s one of the reasons for iNatting, every spot changes, it’s not what it was ten years ago or fifty, every observation you make is of an organism that will die one day, knowing what we loose and how quickly can help save what’s still left. The sites become bare when construction is going on, but when it’ll be finished, mnay speciea will come back to the place, ready to be observed by someone living there.


I wonder if this less true in some areas. I grew up in Europe and when visiting there I find that a lot of plants I see are native, even when looking at some abandoned plots or in road ditches or at “weeds” along the fields. Even stuff growing out of cracks in a parking lot in the middle of the city often is something native. (Not that there isn’t quite a few invasive species mixed in as well…)

However here in Ohio I find a completely different picture - anything growing outside of nature preserves is almost guaranteed to be an invasive species. One time I walked along the river in Columbus, Ohio and took pictures of all wildflowers I found and it was something like 20 species but 19 of them invasive (I remember the one native flower I saw was a common blue violet). Basically developing an area here means that a lot of plants will indeed return - but almost all of them will be invasive species.


Ruderal plants are mostly invasive though, such species have more chances to survive outside native area. Like here (iNat filter is not helpful, most introduced plants are not marked as such). I obsrved one patch there and the next day excavators were working there. Without mentioning there were no builduings before and it was a forest or that it had enough time to grow big salix bushes.
2009 view to compare (google earth has no good view from earlier years sadly).

There’re many meadow native plants that do well in cities, but they’re very common, you also will get many insects and spidders, some birds and maybe more than that.


I think you’re doing valuable work documenting what’s being lost. Valuable but depressing. We need housing, but oh, the losses! This is a lot like life in general. We experience and learn, gain knowledge and even, eventually, a bit of wisdom, and then we die. #$%#$%&^!

So what do we do? I think we look at this, see it in all its tragedy, and then focus on the good we can do, including the chance to document what lives in these places now, so they won’t be forgotten as well as lost. And take some time to do cheerier things – photo in places that will be preserved, or do something entirely different for a while. Don’t get burned out, if you can avoid it.


I feel a similar way whenever I come across observations of deceased whales or sea turtles (the norm on iNat apparently, which makes sense considering how much more accessible beached animals are than sea-faring ones). I recently looked into Dermochelys coriacea observations from Canada and was saddened by the sight of a dozen half-decomposed specimens, one of them tangled in rope. To think such unique, individually important animals can die such gruesome deaths is heart wrenching. I’d like to be able to rationalize them with some cliché along the lines of “Tis the way of nature”, but human disturbances are hardly excusable.

Sorry I can’t be of much help. Cheers nonetheless!


Let me put it this way: documenting loss is providing useful data.

Many taxa are so poorly studied that no one even knows they’re in trouble; making their declines more well-documented arguably helps alert conservationists to their plights (among other benefits).


Data is data. And it’s better than no data.

It’ll be useful to someone.


There are tiny bright spots reinforced by iNat data. Using a custom boundary to report on a small neighborhood park over 22 years, I found for the first 19 years there were zero iNat observations and probably not many more insect or bird species. Then Eagle scout projects built a small pond and several larger native plant gardens for pollinators, still plenty of grass and playground equipment. This year leading up to the pollinator bioblitz 4 observers saw 82 species in 139 observations. The scout leader is greatly encouraged by the iNat data and is taking it to the HOA to support more pocket prairies instead of more irrigated grass to mow and sterile bushes.


Everyone who’s studying biodiversity right now feels just the same…


I counter that by following Cape Town Aquarium on FB. Where they have a dedicated team raising rescued hatchlings. And campaigning against ocean plastic.

Somewhere in the forum is an earlier post. New Zealand and spiders - whose habitat is now being conserved.


Principally, documenting loss is very useful data! At least for science.
If we wouldn’t know about biodiversity losses and population declines all over the planet, we wouldn’t know that we are living in the sixth mass extinction and an era of ‘biological annihilation’ as some authors describe it (quite fittingly).

The question is just how we deal with it as an individual. Should we focus so much on documenting the loss of life in certain regions when we know it’s not good for our well-being? Probably not, as science already knows from proper studies that we are heading towards a disaster. Our little efforts of observing our surroundings don’t add much to this understanding.
Instead of focusing so much on what is lost, maybe we should try to concentrate more on what is still there. Instead of documenting, maybe it would be better, to sometimes just take the time and observe the animals (or plants/mushrooms) that you find. Marvel at the complexity of an ant hive and the coordination of its members, or at the autumnal colors of a broad-leaf forest and the annual reappearance of mushroom fruiting bodies.
And always remind yourself about one thing: once we are done on this planet, life will recover and evolution will produce such amazing life forms that you can’t even imagine them. Extinctions are evolutionary chances!


Sad, but it has even got a name: Preventive Archaeology.


I’d never heard of preventive archaeology but Wikipedia says it is another name for salvage archaeology. That’s where they have archaeologists go over an area and document and remove any artifacts before they would be destroyed by bulldozers, flooded by reservoirs, etc. I don’t know what this has to do with the topic.


You’re going into these sites and preserving a record of what was there before the bulldozers. Salvage archeology does the same thing, preserving a record of what was there before the bulldozers destroy or cover it.


Or botanists going in to rescue endangered plants before civil engineering. Perhaps to be bulked up in nurseries for future replanting. A small rescue. They did that for a road widening scheme near us.


My garden has received a few such plants, mostly cactus and succulents


Yes, I understand the comparison (I’m not an idiot). But we aren’t talking about archaeology here so we can’t call it “preventive archaeology”. Is there existing terminology for what we are talking about?

The native plant preserve that I live near and volunteer for includes some rescued plants. Most notable is the Little Brown Jug (Hexastylis arifolia) which is unusual this far west. Here in the Big Thicket of east Texas you sometimes find disjunct populations of plant species more common in the American Southeast. I have heard that someone has found more in the general area this transplanted specimen was found, but no one has recorded it on iNat yet.

Also they are widening the highway here soon. Going from one two lane road (going both directions) to two separated two lane roads (each going a single direction). Right now there is a group of people trying to stop them from clearing the forest in between the two separate road ways. I would like to go through the area and record what is there now, but I don’t think I have the endurance for it.
US 69 Corridor Gateway to the Big Thicket Virtual Construction Update Meeting (YouTube)


I apologize. I didn’t mean to offend.


I have in my Grinnell journals a sketch map of a place in Washington state that no longer exists. I used to go there when it was newly bulldozed for a new subdivision, documenting the woodland remnants. I knew what the streets’ names were going to be; so, fifteen years later when I had a chance to go there again, I was able to stroll through the neigborhood. There was no trace of what had been there before – not one of the orginal trees was still standing.

In this same area, I was able to document other long-term changes, by comparing my earlier sketch maps with what I went back and found. What had been a Christmas tree farm – actually good habitat for Willow Flycatchers – had been neglected and allowed to grow up into full-size trees, but planted too closely together and nearly devoid of observations. In an area where I used to lose myself among the Scotch broom, Himalayan blackberry had filled in the spaces so completely that it was no longer physically possible to leave the trail. These places were not built up into neighborhoods, and to some people, they might still have looked like “nature”; but to me, this, too, was documenting loss.