iNaturalist Does More Than ID Plants

The citizen science app also helped one user find meaning during the pandemic

By Korrin L. Bishop

August 3, 2020


Photo by PhoThoughts/iStock

“What’s in a name?” a beleaguered Juliet famously asked Romeo. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Recently, I’ve found myself struggling with Juliet’s sentiment. What if there was more to the story? For instance, what if her rose was more specifically named the multiflora rose, and she had spotted it, say, just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Would our modern-day Juliet still wax so philosophically had she a way of knowing that this particular rose was threatening fragile ecosystems in the area?

Without a way to identify this invasive exotic species while out on a stroll in the Smokies, she might simply shift her baseline for how the landscape should appear and carry on contemplating her love. If, however, in her curiosity, she chose to share the plant to iNaturalist—a popular nature app and citizen science project—one of the online social network’s naturalists could help her uncover key information on the multiflora rose. Namely, that it aggressively out-competes native plants in the area and dries out critical wetland habitats.

Not only could this knowledge help our Juliet better connect to and interact with one of her favorite places in a more proactively protective fashion, but her data could alert park ecologists of a new region where the invasive plant had cropped up, allowing for early detection and rapid response. (And, of course, she could then pass that knowledge along to Romeo, in a fun, interactive demonstration of how technology can expand environmental education.)

Before I discovered the app, I used to depend on something of a personal iNaturalist—Stephanie Rockwood is a dear friend who also happens to be a biological science technician with the National Park Service. Rather than upload my findings to a database, I would message Steph photos of cool-looking plants spotted during hikes through the Black Hills of South Dakota, where I was living at the time, always asking, “What’s this one?”

On one stroll through Custer State Park, I came face to face with a dense grove of thick green stalks, yellow flowers just beginning to burst from their seams. "What a neat South Dakota plant!" I thought as I got out my phone to text Steph.

“Mullein,” she responded. “Non-native, loves disturbed areas like burns, logging, and prairie dog towns.” The previous year, an atypical winter wildfire had swept through that stretch of the park. I looked at this flourishing mullein with new eyes, suddenly curious how the forest was recovering. 

While my time in South Dakota was nearing its end, I wanted to remember and harness that moment, so that I might look more closely around the next place I’d call home in Appalachia. I didn’t yet know that, in the face of immense grief, iNaturalist would help me start to piece myself back together again.

Once I moved, I fell in love with the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In the most biodiverse NPS unit, the beauty is in the details. The park boasts over 1,600 species of flowering plants and is a global center for nonflowering species, including 450 bryophytes-mosses, liverworts, and hornworts and around 50 ferns, fern allies, and horsetails.

This plant biodiversity is something the park has worked hard to protect, says NPS supervisory forester Kristine Johnson. Johnson grew up in east Tennessee and got her master’s in forestry from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Her knowledge of the region runs deep and brought her to the Smokies in 1990 to run the park’s forest health program, which focuses on insect and disease management, exotic plant control, and ecological restoration.

Smokies staffers currently manage about 80 different invasive exotic species. Multiflora rose, garlic mustard, and kudzu top the list of worst offenders, but relative to other places, the park has them fairly under control. The staff started controlling these species in the 1940s, and the systematic mapping and removal of the plant populations took root in the mid-1980s. When Johnson came to the park in 1990, there were about 125 recorded kudzu sites in the park. Today, very little kudzu remains.

“When people are in the backcountry of the park—and even driving along most of the park roads—they will see very few exotic plants,” Johnson says. “And that's not a miracle. It's a result of a lot of work.”

Historically, soil conservation agencies in the area had promoted fast-growing species like multiflora rose and kudzu for erosion control and for use as a living fence. Johnson’s father was put in charge of landscaping a Tennessee paper mill in 1954. “He was advised to plant multiflora rose in areas that weren't going to be used for lawns,” she recalls. “And he did. And it really took off! I teased him about that for a long time.”

While Johnson says the park has done fairly well managing invasive exotic plants, staff are constantly finding new infestations as birds, visitors, and wind bring seeds and root fragments into the park. These species thrive in disturbed areas with bare soil, such as the plots of land still recovering from the 2016 wildfires that tore through the Gatlinburg, Tennessee, area, burning nearly 18,000 acres and claiming 14 lives. Hearing this, I thought of South Dakota’s mullein, sneaking in, changing the landscape from what we’d known, coating our lingering grief further.

“And, so, it's important to be vigilant not only about prevention to the extent we can, but also about surveillance and early detection,” Johnson says. “And that's where programs like iNaturalist and EDDMapS can be a great help.”

The Early Detection and Distribution Mapping System (EDDMapS) is a citizen science project developed by the University of Georgia’s Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health that specifically focuses on invasives. EDDMapS crosswalks its data with iNaturalist, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park crosswalks its database with both. If an unknown infestation is flagged on either citizen science platform, park staff will use the observation’s GPS coordinates to verify the location and devise a removal plan.

“We much prefer that people let us know about the location of a plant, because often if you pull that plant up, maybe you're not getting all the roots or maybe it has already gone to seed,” Johnson says. “We need to know that exact location and get it into our database so we can continue to monitor that site.”

“We much prefer that people let us know about the location of a plant, because often if you pull that plant up, maybe you're not getting all the roots or maybe it has already gone to seed. We need to know that exact location and get it into our database so we can continue to monitor that site.”

In late summer, Steph helped me move to the bustling tourist town of Gatlinburg, where my then partner had taken a job. With a couple of days before she needed to head back to South Dakota, we opted to explore a slice of the park’s 800-plus miles of trails. On hikes, Steph stops to look at plants like a kid in a candy store. 

As we nerded out over crane-fly orchids, I learned she’d known to look for them because of user observations in iNaturalist. Determined to become a well-informed citizen who could advocate for my park if I found invasive exotic plants threatening its biodiversity, I not only downloaded iNaturalist but also made a note to sign up for a volunteer day with the park’s exotic vegetation control crew.

As I researched how to use iNaturalist to track invasive exotics, I found Parker Hopkins. A twenty-something who started volunteering with Rocky Mountain National Park when he was 14, his first memories are of manually pulling weeds from assigned sites. “I didn't know yet how many invasive plants there were and how honestly overwhelming it is to manage them. The experience gave me a good introduction to it.”

Hopkins focused his undergraduate honors thesis on the use of citizen science for an Early Detection and Rapid Response (EDRR) program for invasive plants within NPS sites. He found over 10,000 passive, unencouraged observations of them on iNaturalist during the park’s BioBlitz events from 2014 to 2016. Supplemented by interviews with park management, he found that this large citizen science data source could be a cost-effective way to augment existing EDRR practices while increasing public education and engagement with the parks.

Now, Hopkins works as a natural resource specialist within the NPS Biological Resources Division. His focus is on the agency’s BioDiscovery Program, which aims to address gaps in biodiversity knowledge through scientifically rigorous conservation efforts and increased public engagement. In this role, Hopkins has helped create a project in iNaturalist for each of the 419 NPS sites, through which any visitor can add photos of what they’ve seen in the park and help identify the site’s resources.

“We’ve been able to generate information on new species found that were unknown to a park beforehand,” he says. “Parks reach out to us, especially newer parks, who have never had a biological inventory done and are thinking about using citizen scientists to fill that information gap.”

Technology like iNaturalist, Hopkins explains, isn’t just about the data collection, but about linking those data to education and action. But how to convince a park visitor that the seemingly pretty, abundant white flowers of multiflora rose aren’t actually as sweet as the native swamp rose? 

“A lot of rangers will contact me about using iNaturalist for their interpretive programs,” Hopkins says. “With these programs, we can teach people through a hands-on experience in which they identify, take photos, and interact with an invasive species while hearing exactly why it can be problematic.”

As I readied myself to put on my citizen scientist hat, join fellow amateur naturalists for trail clean-up, and at last identify this multiflora rose firsthand, an unexpected twist of heartbreak moved me to western North Carolina. I arrived on the other side of the Smokies just in time for a global pandemic to shut down each of those plans.

Alone in my apartment, I quickly grew restless. My personal grief merged with the global grief, turning me into my own monoculture of what used to be. I felt disconnected from my new city of Asheville and, having to stay away from my beloved Smoky Mountains, increasingly anxious.

Through a feat of strength one afternoon, I dressed myself and left for a walk on an urban greenway a few blocks away. An informational sign along the path flagged the growing problem of invasive exotic plants along the greenway’s creek. I looked at the example species it listed below, and there it was—my rose that didn’t smell as sweet. 

I started making these pandemic strolls a more regular part of my social distancing routine, bringing iNaturalist along with me. It gave me a reason to look more closely at my new city. My scavenger hunt didn’t take long to make me realize that once you spot one invasive exotic, you start to notice they’re everywhere. Thick crops of Japanese knotweed, kudzu, garlic mustard, and multiflora rose lined the greenway I walked daily, obscuring its creek.

As I continued to ache for hikes in the Smokies, I also wondered how seeing invasive species here in town might connect to what happens there. So I asked Johnson whether it was reasonable to believe that an invasive species found in the park could be traced back to my greenway in Asheville. 

Species, like Japanese knotweed, that propagate by root fragments could indirectly travel to the park through waterways, she told me. As for plants that spread by seeds, like garlic mustard, she reflected again on the 2016 wildfires and their accompanying winds approaching 100 miles per hour. That force, Johnson said, could certainly carry seeds great distances—but there was another more direct way seeded plants could get from Asheville to the Smoky Mountains too.

“We sometimes find an infestation of garlic mustard at trailheads because those seeds are easily carried in mud. People who visit a park should be careful about bringing seeds in on their boots, bicycle tires, and camping equipment,” she explained, noting that this is why some of the Smokies’ popular trailheads’ parking lots boast boot brushes.

“I could theoretically get rid of every last exotic plant at the park, and, tomorrow, there would be more because they're always coming in,” she said. “If it weren't for that vast seed source in the world beyond our boundary, we wouldn't have to work so hard at it.”

I found mounting evidence of that vast seed source in my urban setting, but looking closer, I also began to see the plants it shrouded. As I learned the names of ever more wild, native plants in my new city, the loneliness and coronavirus anxieties swirling in my head softened. I grounded myself in the details of my surroundings, whispering the native plants I began to recognize aloud. Red deadnettle. The name danced on the roof of my mouth. Common star-of-Bethlehem. Poetry for lonesome lips. Sweet white violet. Medicine on sorrowed tongue.

I grounded myself in the details of my surroundings, whispering the native plants I began to recognize aloud. Red deadnettle. The name danced on the roof of my mouth. Common star-of-Bethlehem. Poetry for lonesome lips. Sweet white violet. Medicine on sorrowed tongue.

There was that moment when iNaturalist suggested I was looking at poison ivy. On another occasion, I stopped to photograph a showy, draping flower that had caught my eye. A bit further down the trail, I passed an older woman slowly making her way down the greenway. When I was about six feet ahead of her, she pulled her mask down to let me know she’d seen me engrossed in the plant, which she’d stopped to appreciate as well.

“Do you know what that flower back there was?” 

I didn’t. My phone had died before I could look up an identification, but I told her about iNaturalist and shared my excitement to learn its name once home. We both agreed it was a stunning display.

Black locust, I whispered, sitting on the floor near a power outlet in my apartment—a native flower made all the more beautiful by the ephemeral sliver of human connection it had created during a time of social isolation.

According to Hopkins, park staff are generally aware of most invasive exotics’ existence. “What we don’t always know is exactly where they’re coming from or what’s yet to come,” he said. “A lot of local knowledge is required in figuring out what is nearby in terms of invasive species. So, if we are recording information outside of the parks, in your backyard, along urban greenways, we can inform park managers a lot more using that information and get people out to take action sooner rather than later.”

iNaturalist had shown me how prevalent invasive exotic species were in Asheville; I’d seen firsthand how rapidly they crowded out the diversity of native plants. I now know to wash my boots and to keep doing what I can locally to stop the spread into public lands. Because, eventually, I knew I would be back in the Smokies, identifying by name every beautiful wildflower that had hung on long enough for my return.

Negative connotations often swirl around technology use in the outdoors. But unlike much of the outdoor-oriented tech portals out there, most of which put the focus on us—the visitors in the outdoors—iNaturalist keeps the focus on the plants and animals that are the outdoors. Learning to identify plants through iNaturalist, both native and invasive, not only taught me about my new home but also granted me meaning, community, and belonging in unprecedentedly difficult times. That deepened connection, I believe, is what shapes responsible stewards of public lands.

On another stroll along an Asheville greenway, in a wall of multiflora rose, a splash of color caught my eye. I pulled out iNaturalist, and then I sent the photo to Steph. This time, however, I included identification.

“I’m going with southern blue flag iris.” 

“I can support that,” she replied.

And I could too. Because in that native plant—that data point fighting through an encroaching monoculture of multiflora rose—I found hope. Hope that maybe, even amidst immeasurable grief, love would bloom again too.