A daisy-like weed known as ‘shaggy soldier’ is photographed and added to the app iNaturalist. Emiliano Rodriguez Mega/Associated Press

In the last column, we explored how artificial intelligence can be used for bird identification. In particular, the app Merlin can identify with remarkable accuracy bird photos and bird sounds. The free app is available from your iPhone or Android app store.

Today, we explore another software product, iNaturalist (iNat for short), that also uses artificial intelligence to train the software to identify organisms. iNaturalist first appeared in 2013 and has grown remarkably both in terms of the sophistication of the software and the number of users.

iNaturalist is a community-focused program. A user either uploads a photo or records a sound and fills in the date and location of the record. You can either type in the name of the organism, if you know it, or ask iNat to take a crack at the identification. Click ‘Submit’ and you have uploaded your first iNat record.

iNaturalist is a collaborative endeavor. When you first post a photo, your record is tagged as ‘Needs ID.’ You need another naturalist to either confirm your identification or suggest an alternative if she thinks you have misidentified your organism. If there is no dissenting view, another person agreeing with your identification upgrades your record to ‘Research Grade,’ a confirmed record.

iNaturalist is used for all types of organisms. iNat’s 113 million records show over 396,000 species including 15 million bird photos and recordings representing 10,320 species (virtually all the species in the world).

iNaturalist has powerful search tools allowing any user to find records of particular interest. For instance, a quick search reveals that there are over 44,000 records of birds in Maine, covering 392 species with 4,500 naturalists submitting records of Maine birds. The most frequently photographed birds, in decreasing order, are herring gull, common eider, common loon, mallard and bald eagle.

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I see that Weston Barker has photographed the most bird species in Maine with a whopping 274 species. Fyn Kind is not far behind with 261 species.

The iNaturalist search engine allows one to focus on particular areas (from the world down to counties), specific dates or date ranges, usernames, and conservation status. Scores of researchers have downloaded iNat data for use in scientific articles.

iNat provides a great way to expand your natural history knowledge. Let’s say you are out in the woods photographing birds and see a particular fungus growing on a log, a wasp at a flower and a salamander under a log. Take a photo of each and post it to iNat, where you can suggest a name for each species or rely on other observers with expertise in that group of organisms to nail down the species.

iNat comes in two platforms. One is web-based so point your browser on your computer to iNaturalist.org.

You will be asked to register for a free account. First choose a username. I use herbwilson as my username, but many people prefer to remain anonymous and choose usernames like fm5050 or grizzlymarmot. You then upload your photos, and you are off.

Alternatively, you can download the iNat app for your Android smartphone or iPhone. It’s easy to add records using the app. You take a photo and ask iNat to identify the species. The app reads your location and date from your phone, and the record is added to the iNat database.

As with the Merlin app, you should always be skeptical of the identifications. Some species are identified with amazing accuracy, but other groups have lots of similar species, so errors can occur. Those errors are reduced by the review process of fellow iNat users who examine your ‘Needs ID’ records.

Herb Wilson taught ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College. He welcomes reader comments and questions at [email protected]


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