Why hasn't Achlys japonica been observed in Japan?

The genus Achlys is a “Pacific Rim” taxon, that is, one which has species in western North America and eastern Asia. But you’d never know it from the observations map:

The red circle indicated where I would have expected to see observations of Achlys japonica, which, surprisingly, has no observations. Surprisingly, considering that there are currently 75,779 plant observations in Japan, so that the map is completely filled in with red:

Hokkaido, the main stronghold of Achlys japonica, has 3,576 plant observations, comprising 785 species. The Japanese common name for the species is Nanbu-so, in which “Nanbu” refers to the southern part of Iwate Prefecture on Honshu. I note that Iwate has 459 plant observations of 299 species.

Considering how abundant the North American Achlys are within their range – in some areas, they are the dominant understory herb – it surprises me that the Asian species has never been observed. Is it really that much rarer? It should certainly be conspicuous enough to be noticed.

GBIF has some specimen records in Japan and elsewhere in Asia. Some are from a few decades ago but others are as recent as 2019. Could some records be hidden in the iNat data too but just not identified to genus yet, or would it be impossible to miss?

I believe it would.

Maybe observers will look to photograph it now.

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Japan seems to have much less iNat activity compared to other places. Japan has roughly the same land area as California and 3x the population, but only 1/40 of the number of total observations.

I wonder if there is another nature-observation-sharing network that is popular in Japan?

I wouldn’t compare any territory with Cal, it’s where iNat started and they have an early start, thus x-more observations and more observers.


That was sort of my point - iNaturalist has not become popular in Japan in the same way it has in California (and many other places), thus fewer observers, thus lower potential for observations of Achlys japonica to appear in the iNat database.


In East and SE Asia as a whole it’s not very popular. There’s a core group of people here who use it, but it’s a small percentage of society. It’s even a small percent of the people interested in and working in biodiversity related fields here. It’s largely unknown.

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An important thing to always keep in mind is that more than anything, iNaturalist tracks the activity of people. :)


This is very much my experience in South Korea. There are local apps/websites that fill a similar niche to iNaturalist so if someone goes to Naver or Daum (much more popular than Google in Korea) and searches in Korean for related keywords they’re more likely going to find, and choose, Naturing or Moyamo over iNaturalist. There are a large number of fish observations posted to Naturing whereas there are very few Korean fish posted to iNaturalist, for example.

Also somewhat related, what’s ‘impossible to miss’ for one person might not be for another. We each have our own perspectives, goals, backgrounds, and biases.


I wonder if there’s less academic-related involvement in iNat than there could be due to misconceptions some universities or associated funding sources have that iNat data isn’t reliable in a research grade sense. I’ve heard that is the case in at least one university in East Asia, but the assumption has also been made broadly such as in some US academic publications. At the same time, many organizations worldwide realize iNat/GBIF data is reliable enough to use in research if carefully reviewed and understood first and noting any limitations. I predict that iNat may become increasingly used in more academic sources (and other sources) over time.

It’s definitely that way for experts worldwide, e.g. mycologists avoid iNat, I know bat people do that too, so you need either an active professor or majority of active students using it to push the narrative that it’s ok.

That’s interesting, I agree. I did notice some mycologists seem to have found iNat and are pretty enthusiastic as a identifier community.

I’ve been to a few conferences where students in the region have presented papers using iNat data.

If anything, I think academics and students here are the group that is most likely to be using iNat.

One of the big differences in iNat use is, I think, in part due to the different relationship with nature that’s seen in large parts this region. For many people nature is seen as a resource to be used, and something of an annoyance, except for in special designated areas. Doing biodiversity conservation work here in Vietnam that’s one of the things that I see often, and friends working in Cambodia, Laos, and Indonesia report similar findings.

There is also the issue of free time, many people here don’t have time and access, even if they did have the interest.

The necessary tools are another issue. I work with a lot of rural village level folks. Most of them don’t have computers and many of them are still using candybar phones and flip-phones, not smartphones.

Language is another barrier. There is no Vietnamese language iNat option, and the same is true for some of the other regional languages. If it’s not available in the local language then even if someone is interested in it they’ll find it prohibitively difficult to use.

Obviously there is no one reason, but instead a combination of factors.


I agree, I didn’t mean it as a generalization for the region. I was referring to a graduate student of a Hong Kong university who mentioned their university/funding sources didn’t regard iNat data as reliable scientific data (but the grad student did realize it was reliable). I also above indicated that the same misunderstanding is actually very widespread, for example a US bee publication implied that iNat records/IDs can’t be trusted. That said, many organizations worldwide do correctly recognize the research potential. In my view, the research potential, potential limitations, etc. become fairly obvious simply from using/engaging with iNat/GBIF, so skepticism often comes from researchers who didn’t take the time to do so. That said, as I said above many orgs worldwide (including in East Asia) also do understand the research potential. I can also totally see how lack of access to phones etc. and the other factors play a part.


Why won’t any of naturalists there with computer access help with translation? Maybe they don’t know that they can?

Yeah, unfortunately the iNat community in Japan is pretty small, which I’m bummed about as I’m part Japanese. I’m sure a big reason for that is translation (both the mobile apps and website are just a hair over 50% translated into Japanese), among many other factors. But in most cases iNat growth in an area really depends on enthusiastic, influential, dedicated people (or a person) in an area that’s able to get something going. It’s a lot of work, and humbling that people will spend so much time on it.

If you’re interested, here’s a talk by Cheng-Tao Lin (mutolisp on iNat) covering how he helped to build the iNat community in Taiwan: https://youtu.be/moWPNPuzq4E


I’m a foreigner in Japan (Okinawa) and despite a huge community of nature enthusiasts here (particularly divers) and despite Okinawa prefecture being the subtropical and coral reef playground for a 125M nation, Okinawa has just ~22k observations (https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?place_id=13082). I have plans to run a small workshop at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, where I work, to promote iNat but this will again mostly appeal to foreigner community. I think https://www.inaturalist.jp customized for Japanese to create the sense of a community and enthusiastic Japanese influencer(s) will be crucial to break the ice.


A lot of them don’t even know iNat exists, so there is an immediate bottleneck right there, and of the ones who do I don’t know any of them who would be willing to, or can, commit the time necessary to translate all of iNat into Vietnamese.

It’s one of those things that should happen though.

In all honesty, maybe it’s a good thing iNat is not more widespread, at least in Vietnam, as wildlife poaching is rampant. Dealing with wildlife and plant poaching just on the local level occupies a significant portion of our resources and time any my little NGO.