Climate of Change - Naturalists among us

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Have you ever thought you might like to be a naturalist, like E.O. Wilson who spent most of his life studying ants and island biogeography?  Or what about a very famous naturalist, like Charles Darwin who came up with the theory of evolution based on his observations of the natural world?   Well, now you can!

As dictionaries indicate, a naturalist is a person who studies or is an expert in natural history, for example a zoologist, field biologist or botanist. Naturalists like to spend time in the great outdoors studying nature and recording their observations.  Often they write books about their findings, for example, some have theories about how to promote species richness and sustain a healthy biodiversity. But, like you and me, many naturalists don’t have any specialized training.  They are simply keen observers of what is going on in nature and they like to take photos and record what they see.

A few weeks ago, I learned of a great website, called iNaturalist. The website is designed for folks like you and me so that we can record our observations of the natural world all around us and share our knowledge with the whole world.  It takes about five minutes to join the site, and to start uploading your data.

Last week, I pulled a bunch of bluebur with friends thinking it was one of Alberta’s invasive species.  It turns out that it is a common weed that is a nuisance to crop producers because it spreads very quickly through its little black burrs that stick to everything – especially socks!.  So, I went on iNaturalist and recorded where I had found the bluebur just to try out the website application.  I could upload photos and maps showing where I found the sample.  What was really ‘cool’ in today’s parlance, was that I could find locations across this country where bluebur has been sighted by others, and there have been literally thousands of sightings across the country.  (As well, I could register on the site with a really cool user name, although I just joined as myself.)

The best part of iNaturalist is that you can be an amateur naturalist as a hobby while contributing to science.  You can study snakes, spiders, ants, bears, deer, coyotes, thistle, black henbane, trembling aspen, spruce, robins, bears, and vultures – whatever you observe in nature!  All your observations become recorded sightings that help scientists to learn more about the species so that they can  conserve and manage native habitat.

By contributing your observations about plants and animals of all varieties, you are adding to our collective knowledge of species richness and biodiversity.  In today’s climate of change, many species are at risk of going the way of the dodo as humans spread into critical habitat.

Alberta is home to some of the most beautiful and wondrous plants and animals in the country.  Often we only familiarize ourselves with the species that have plenty of specimens for us to enjoy-for example, every spring I note the emergence of the purple crocus that reminds me that life is fragile and eternal.  Then, I take note of the yellow buffalo bean, because it signals that it is time to plant my garden.  When the silverberry puts forth its tiny yellow flowers, the hillsides are fragrant with pungent musk.  Later, the Saskatoons erupt in flowers, followed by masses of pink subtly scented wild roses.  If I am lucky, I will see one or two wild tiger lilies amid the July fields of blanket flowers and wild bergamot.

On those same hillsides, I regularly see deer, coyotes, foxes, chukar partridges, garter snakes, and many species of birds.  If I am lucky, I will see a porcupine, and at dusk I have seen a tiger salamander scuttling into its hole.

All these years, I could have been recording my observations and letting others know that the populations of some species were growing in numbers, while others, like the tiger lily were slowly fading into oblivion as our human population increased, bringing with it our invasive ornamental flowers and domestic animals.

I invite you to try out iNaturalist at  Whether you record one sighting or two thousand, you will be a citizen scientist. Whether you are five or eighty-five you can enjoy publishing your photo observations and telling your story of your life in nature. Join in and start telling the world about the species that share this community with you at this particular time in history.