If you are an amateur naturalist or a regular person that just wants to know know “what the heck that thing is on the porch” then you need to download the inaturalist app. The app was created by a citizen science research group on Los Angeles as a way to collect more data about nature we come into contact with. As a species we are altering the world like never before, and it is important to understand how animals are adapting (or not) to our presence. One way is to simply make observations about their location. The number of future uses for this information is absolutely limitless so its obvious to see that I’m excited.
This year was the first year I participated in the City Nature Challenge hosted by inaturalist. Each year for one weekend they challenge cities all over the globe to take as many photos as possible of nature. Using your smartphone you upload your pictures online and get points for your city. This year’s winner was Cape Town South Africa.
If you are curious as to what it takes to win just check out their stats. Cape Town observers made 54,000 observations using the app, and a whopping 743 people participated, in just one weekend. Some notable observations from the Cape town challenge are below.
From left to right the Sacred Ibis (photo by Kang1014 CC) looks incredible against the green marshland. Next is the Chacma baboon (photo by Tony Rebelo CC) which appears to be on someones lawn, or its very possible that the house is now their turf. Imagine waking up to that in the morning and trying to get to your car. I would like to give a shout-out to the overacheiver who went scuba diving during the city nature challenge and photographed a Knobby Anemone (Peter Southwood CC). Lastly an animal that I did not know existed until I started writing this post, is the Cape Grysbok (photo by Klaus Wehrlin CC), which is a tiny antelope.
Austin didn’t make the leader board this year but we collected 16,214 observations with 798 people participating. The challenge took place during the height of the wildflower bloom so you know already that most of the photos are of either butterflies or flowers. Since snakes generally get overlooked I thought I would highlight some of the cool snakes that people observed during the nature challenge.
From left to right: The Coachwhip (Brian Hinds CC) is a very cool snake that gets its name from having a long thin tail that looks like a whip. They can appear with the coloring in the photo or they can be a completely brown/tan color. They are nonvenomous and many people have uploaded pictures on inaturalist holding the Coachwip in one hand. Yikes. The beautiful speckled snake is a checkered garter snake (Sara Viernum CC), also not venomous. You might sneak up on one of these while swimming in a local creek or river. They hide out in the water and will swim out when you get near them. The garter snake is pretty docile and people often keep them as pets, but they can bite if provoked in the wild.
The plain bellied water snake is the only one in this lineup that I have seen in the wild. They are very common in the Austin greenbelt and Barton springs. I have snapped some photos of these for the app while hiking, but none quite as good as the one posted during the nature challenge. This snake is harmless but it will mimic some cottonmouth defensive behavior if provoked. They are frequently confused with cottonmouths.
The last snake on the list is too adorable to handle, the Texas Blind Snake (Michael Fox CC). This snake is no larger than an earthworm and shares the same habitat. They feed on tiny insects in the soil and will emerge when it rains. Though they have eye spots they do not have functioning eyes and are in fact blind. These little dudes are apparently excellent housekeepers because the Eastern Screech Owl will seek out a blind snake and bring them to their nest to clean up the parasites. Way to be a bro Texas Blind Snake!
If you are looking for the next cool thing to do while hiking I highly recommend using the app to identify and collect data. As citizen scientists and professionals comb through the immense data set we created in the challenge, we get to all sit back and feel good about ourselves for contributing. Here’s to next years challenge.
Photos from this post were taken from users who uploaded pictures to inaturalist, unless otherwise stated. Photos used in this post are listed for open source use and the original creator was credited.