Snap photos this weekend to help researchers study plants and animals

camera taking a photo of a butterfly up close Photo by Rudmer Zwerver/Shutterstock

The Nature Conservancy of Canada is encouraging people to play I Spy with local plants and animals over the August long weekend.

Through the iNaturalist app, Canadians can participate in the fourth annual Big Backyard BioBlitz from August 3 to 7. Users are encouraged to take photos of plants and animals on park trails, in their neighbourhoods, and in their backyards to identify various plant and animal species. It’s part of the conservancy’s broader initiative to encourage people to learn more about the outdoors and local wildlife during their free time. In turn, the photos give researchers a better understanding of local wildlife trends.

Last year, users identified more than 5,300 species across around 53,000 posts. Brianne Curry, a spokesperson for the Nature Conservancy of Canada in Ontario, says this allowed researchers to confirm the presence, spread, or migration patterns of certain species, as was the case for the at-risk monarch butterfly and the endangered loggerhead shrike

“Scientists can’t be everywhere every day monitoring the landscape, so it really does help give a snapshot,” she says, adding that almost 300 at-risk species were identified in 2022 because of the app.

When at-risk or endangered species are found, the location of the image is hidden from the public and shared only with researchers. Curry says this will prevent their habitat from being disturbed, especially by poachers. If someone finds invasive species and diseases instead, such as oak wilt, garlic mustard, or Japanese stiltgrass, the app sends conservancy managers the location information for research and public awareness, if necessary.

When uploading photos to the app’s public forum, users can either manually enter the name of the species or choose from around five suggestions. Other users will then confirm or debate the species identification, and if it gets enough confirmations, it will be labelled as accurate. Curry says this was done to make sure it’s accessible to botany experts and casual users alike.

“You don’t need to be a naturalist to know all these species,” she says. “You can be a beginner and snap a photo, and it will guide you in identification.”

While most users will post images through the app, there’s also a browser version where you can upload photos. This means people who don’t have cellular data and photographers who prefer using cameras can wait until they get home to make their posts. The website also accepts audio recordings for people who want to capture bird calls or noises made by other critters.

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