Using iNaturalist in an Evolution Course at the college level? Any experience or ideas?

Curious if there are educators who have used iNaturalist in introductory evolution courses, specifically asking:

  • what activities are recommended,

  • how it has complemented the course curriculum, and

  • what tips or feedback might be provided.

I’ve used iNaturalist extensively with conservation biology students and students with majors outside the STEM disciplines as a bioliteracy tool with significant scaffolding/feedback on making observations and complementary activities outside of iNaturalist on the relevance of species occurrence data in conservation.

This fall I’m teaching the introductory evolution course for biology majors and I’m trying to envision if there is a way to explore iNaturalist to complement topics/lectures on the tree of life. I don’t plan on having students in this course make observations, but maybe participate through annotations or simply explore data and taxonomy topics.

Open to ideas from non-educators as well. :) The first sentence is not meant to exclude, but to provide context.

Thanks in advance for the discussion.


I taught an evolution course for 20 years before being introduced to iNaturalist, and I’m sure I’d use it if I were doing the course today.

One starting point is with understanding variability within a species, the bedrock premise of natural selection. Take some widespread species and using “RG” observations of it, have students collect data on some variable character (not seasonally variable). With many moths, for instance, there are wing spots or lines that are “usually” one form but not always (see Peterson guide to moths). If you can capture geographic variation as well, so much the better, as that leads to discussion of the genetic basis and variable selection pressures. It would be especially nice to choose a species that students could observe in the field themselves, but that’s gravy.


I’m not a formal educator, but @janetwright is thinking along the same lines as me (and I can testify to the variation inherent with many moths). I was going to suggest looking at international variance in a Moth genus like Mythimna. Mythimna unipuncta is the North American species of a genus that has similar looking species in different parts of the world. I don’t know if understanding the variations in anatomy that separate the species would help or not. Clearly these moths all arose from some common ancestor. Looking at moth variation may also be quite useful. However, since iNat is a visual site, internal variations etc. are hard to come by. I have also noted what appears to be regional variation in some moths in Canada, but have not formally explored it.
As I said, I’m not a formal educator, so don’t really know how to develop any course work around these subjects.


Also not a formal educator and have no idea on what even an intro evolution course entails, but certainly you can use iNat as a means to compare differences both in terms of species and location for a particular genus? Since I personally have Lepidoptera in my mind, particular genera such as Vanessa may serve as a good case study since it is a cosmopolitan genus, the differences between species is clear but subtle, and it contains one of the more well known butterflies to the general public (painted lady) so it may serve as a “familiarity bridge”.

I also am a proponent of using moths as an example since as mentioned before the differences between species could literally be a missing spot or an extra line etc.


You specifically mentioned the tree of life, but I suspect microevolution may be a more useful topic when using iNaturalist. Here’s an idea: explore patterns of phenotypic diversity in the Asian Lady Beetle, Harmonia axyridis. One could compare frequency of the traits geographically (high vs. low lattitude) or seasonally. Here’s a relevant paper which provides some background and may help develop specific hypotheses that could be tested:
Melanic through nature or nurture: genetic polymorphism and phenotypic plasticity in Harmonia axyridis


Thanks all for the ideas so far. My original thoughts had been trying to figure out if there was a way to explore evolutionary trees through iNaturalist. I hadn’t been focused on phenotypic diversity (I think in part because I do some of this in an ecology course) but that also makes a lot of sense and I can always be encourage to spend more time looking at leps. I was also trying to figure out if there were some creative ways to maybe use the ‘taxonomic view’ in life lists as part of a learning exercise.


I believe everything that is usually shown on evolution course in forms of collected material can be gathered (photograped) by students, e.g. size/colour variability, pollination, individual variability.
Other than moths you can use things like Colorado potato beetle which pattern on thorax is variable within one population and % of patterns differs between populations.


You might be able to use the taxonomic view by having students propose synapomorphies based on looking at a bunch of photos of some group and then assembling a candidate phylogenetic chart. Then compare what they got through examining morphology to the established view.


You can explore taxonomic hierarchies, but not trees. For exploring trees, there’s this:

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Thanks for clarifying my ask and for the resource :)

I’ve started using iNaturalist in my introductory ecology and evolution course. It is a large lecture course unfortunately without an associated lab class, so I use it to encourage students to simply go out and observe biodiversity. I have them take nature walks where they try to observe particular taxa (for example fungi the week we talk about fungi) then I have them write a journal post describing their nature walk. At some point I would like to add a part to the project where students have to analyze the biodiversity they’ve observed and create a tree, but I’m not there yet. You should be able to see my students journal entries through the class project pages ( if you’re interested.


Thank you. This sounds similar (minus the future tree part) to how I’ve been using iNaturalist in my conservation course.


A couple of the courses I took and/or TA’d during undergraduate that dealt with evolution actually did something really similar! Students were either given samples of a few plant species, or asked to go find them in a (labelled) garden, and then make notes of a couple morphological characteristics like leaf arrangement, shape, flower characters (colour, petal number, etc.), that sort of thing. Then they used that to build some unrooted trees by a couple basic methods like maximum parsimony or distance matrix. I think we then gave them either a list of basal characteristics or an outgroup to use to root the tree - I can’t really remember. But I feel like it would be pretty easy to do something similar using iNat photos instead of an in-person lab.


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