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This past weekend, the nice folks at the California Academy of Sciences invited me to join their “Snapshot Cal Coast” initiative, in which they ask the people of California to get out to the beach and take ALL THE PHOTOS! It just so happens that the opening “BioBlitz” was at my favorite beach in beautiful Half Moon Bay, so I had to go…even though it meant waking up at 4am and driving an hour through the fog just to get there at a historic low tide, when we could comb through tidal pools to check out marine life.
We used the iNaturalist app, which is basically Instagram for people who love science. It’s free and super easy — if you see a plant or animal you think is cool or weird or pretty or interesting, you take a photo of it and upload it. It’ll automatically tag the location, and you can type in what species or class or kingdom you think it might be. Then you post it, and other people can view it and help you finalize your identification.
I got to speak with one Cal Academy scientist, Dr. Rebecca Johnson, about why the data we were collecting on iNaturalist was so important:
“We use the iNaturalist platform. There’s a community, a social network, and once the community agrees on an identification, those data are sent to “GBIF,” or the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, which is where biodiversity data from natural history museums is shared.
“And so, for scientists and folks interested in conservation who want to know where things have been seen, where species have been found, species and current data, historic or recent, that’s a place to start. Anybody can use those data, because all these data are open and freely available.
So that’s one more passive way they can be used. But we’re really interested in our work and how species’ range have changed along the California coast. So we do a lot of work here, and we’ve seen some things move north with warming waters, especially last year when we had a warm water blob off our coast. Combined with El Niño we saw species bring things more southerly here. But to really understand how things are changing we need people everywhere, at least all along the California coast, if not the whole west coast. It’s only by working together that we can do that. So our questions are about what’s changing and what species’ ranges are changing, and also just to collect and gather baseline data so when things change that we don’t know, that aren’t changing yet, we can see that.”
I had a blast creeping around the tidepools, and you will, too! If you live near the California coast, check out the Cal Academy website for info on events happening near you. Or if you’re more of a loner or not nearby any events, just head outside with your phone and the app and start documenting! It’s a lot of fun, and you end up with a catalogue of all the cool stuff you saw. And as a bonus, you’re helping scientists!
If you’re heading to the tide pools, I recommend donning some waterproof boots (or at least packing a spare pair of socks and shoes) and maybe even getting a waterproof case for your phone, which you can find for surprisingly cheap online! I somehow managed to get through the day without dropping my phone in a tide pool, but I plan to do a lot more of these and I’m pretty realistic about my own clumsiness.
Thanks once again to Cal Academy for inviting me along to an event that combines all my favorite things: the great outdoors, science, and fellow nerds!