iNaturalist is a free site that allows nature fans to share — and learn more about — organisms they’ve found on hikes, in their yards, or attached to their bodies. All you do after signing up is upload a photograph, make an identification guess (or not — no pressure), then solicit ID help from the built-in AI as well as from the approximately 250,000 users already signed up, some of whom know how to identify things. But it’s a community, so you (yes, you) can also weigh in on IDs for photographs taken by other members (but again, no pressure).
Below are some reasons to give it a try. The first several are general, the later ones for scientists or professional naturalists.
Get your photographs identified. If you post nature pics on the Internet, it’s so much better to caption them with either common name or Latin name so that people can easily find the image in Google searches and such. Plus people just like to know. Saying something is a “seal” is fine but when you have a Galápagos sea lion you should say so (because there 12+ species of seal). You should also use iNaturalist even if you think you know what it is. E.g., to make sure you’ve captured a Galápagos sea lion not a Galápagos fur seal, both of which are in the Galápagos. Using iNaturalist to get IDs is also better than posting a photograph to Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook and asking the world, “Anyone know what this is?” Your followers on those other social media accounts might not be giving you accurate information. Just saying.
Educate yourself. Nature in the general sense is nice and all, but after you figure out exactly what something is you’ll have the magic key to find further information that might be truly interesting. E.g., Nazca boobies (Sula granti) have an interesting name but if you Google the name you can learn that males court females by offering them sticks and stones even though this species doesn’t even build nests (behavior is an evolutionary holdover from ancestors that did, presumably). Another reason to search for more information is to be reminded that for the vast majority of species, even rather common ones, we know surprisingly little. And knowing this is a good thing because then youngsters and young at heart will realize that going into a biology-related field is a way to explore the unknown. Appreciating and protecting life on earth is easier when you know the details, and you can’t get them just by knowing a lot about polar bears and other charismatic megafauna.
Use and improve your ID skills. Your friends and family might roll their eyes whenever you call out bird names when one zips by, but those identification skills are cherished on iNaturalist. Nobody will make fun of you! By providing IDs you are helping those new to nature get more out of nature and in, perhaps, helping voters and politicians appreciate see that policies can directly help or hurt particular species on the planet, even in your home town. You will also be providing IDs to over-educated professionals who might be posting pics of organisms outside their research speciality, but who might someday return the favor. iNaturalist also provides an environment where you can teach yourself how to ID new organisms. E.g, I learned that great frigatebirds (Fregata minor) can be distinguished from magnificent frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens) by their green sheen. Tricks like this can be useful when traveling to new places, and you can use iNaturalist like a study guide to prepare for such trips. E.g., if you’re shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to travel to exotic places like the Galapagos, spend the year before learning the flora and fauna so that once you land you know what’s going on (your guide might not). All you do is subscribe to the place and challenge yourself to learn how to identify submissions (you’re going to need a few books, too).
It will make you happier and healthier. iNaturalist is like a mental Fitbit, recording what you’ve seen instead of the number of steps. And then when you revisit memories of being outside you’ll become happier! At least that’s the research. I’m just hand-waving here that iNaturalist will make those memories fonder and more vivid, but it’s not too much of a stretch. At the very least it’s true for me. It’s also reasonable to think that if iNaturalist motivates you to go outside more often, losing excess weight or achieving those 10,000 steps will be that much easier. But I’m not a real doctor, so consult your physician to see whether nature is right for you. And please check for ticks (take a photo if you find them).
Meet interesting people. People who are active on iNaturalist are by definition curious and have open minds. Those are the peeps you are looking for these days. Right? Unlike some other social media places, users are also actual people … and some of them live near you. So when you see on iNaturalist that there will be a meet-up at a local park, join them. Or if you’re in one of those areas where iNaturalists are rare and shy, you can organize an even and invite folks.
Be a better parent. If you have young kids who are still fascinated by nature instead of electronics and air conditioning, encourage this interest by modeling a similar interest, even if feigned. If, for example, your little girl is fond of spiders, take pics of the ones she finds, upload to iNaturalist, then show her the eventual identification results and help her Google the species name for more information. You don’t need to have a biology degree to do that.
Be a better teacher. If you’re a biology teacher, you really, really need to become proficient in iNaturalist. E.g., if you teach kindergarten and want to tap into kids’ innate interest in nature, submit pics of organisms that your students find in the classroom or during recess. You can say each Monday, “Good morning boys and gorls — find me an organism!” You take a pic, then share ID, courtesy the folks on iNaturalist, with your students on a subsequent day (oh, the suspense!). Pair those IDs with an age-appropriate book on very hungry caterpillars, itsy bitsy spiders, or whatever. And if you’re a college teacher, you could assign a local, interesting species to each of your students, tasking them with (e.g.) figuring out how to ID it and to explain its distribution and conservation status … and after several weeks ask students to make presentations supplemented with natural history tidbits from the primary literature. Ideally, an exercise should challenge the students to contribute to iNaturalist (e.g., if they can make themselves an expert for species X, they should be able to weigh in on IDs). There are thousands of ways to incorporate iNaturalist into classrooms and homeschooling. iNaturalist has a page to get you started. Here’s a video tutorial if you like to watch.
Manage your land better. If you manage a natural area, you can use iNaturalist to create a permanent, dynamic, searchable database of all the species found there. It’s probably your job to do that in some regard, but iNaturalist allows you to crowdsource the task — just ask to visitors to upload their pics to iNaturalist and, voila. It’s really easy to set it up: draw a polygon around your area in Google’s MyMaps, export KML map file to desktop, upload map to iNaturalist to create a “new place”, then create a Project that automatically shows all observations in your area. The setup process takes approximately 15 minutes. If this sounds useful, just do it right now but tell your boss that it took weeks.
Get alerts when a species is observed. If you are in charge of tracking the spread of spotted lanternfly, emerald ash borer, or any of the other thousands of invasive species that keep biologists up at night, just “subscribe” to that particular taxon for the park, county, state, or country of interest, then sit back and wait for the email indicating that somebody has found that species area of interest. It’s so much better than all those report-an-invasive apps or 1-800 numbers that require people to know that something is invasive and also be motivated to download an app or look for number to call. You can also use the subscription feature to monitor a place for a species that might be your research focus (e.g., perhaps you want to know when the Galapagos carpenter bee colonizes a new island).
Mine it for data. There over 12,700,000 observations on iNaturalist, and that means if you’re looking for something rare or just trying to quantify something, you might be able to extract data to address a hypothesis from the comfort of your couch. For example, you might want to know whether marine iguanas close their eyes when they sneeze but don’t want to make the trip to the Galapagos to find the answer (though you probably do). You can also track when a species is first seen flowering in an area for the past 10 years … which might have something to do with climate change. Or you might notice that there’s a new, undescribed species (!), in which case you can contact the observer, write a paper together, and be famous (some examples). Finally, if you need DNA or measurements from a particular species you can hit users up to do this. My suggestion to scientists and teachers who are too busy is to just sign up and then subscribe to your study organism, something that will take 5 mins, max. Once you start seeing variation, natural history comments, and interesting questions from users you’ll be hooked. The are numerous ways to make it interesting and useful … you just have to toggle the settings in the right way.
I have more reasons why you should be using iNaturalist but 10 is the limit for lists of 10 so I’ll end here. Thanks in advance for sharing this post with your friends. We need them, too.
I moved my photographs from Flickr to SmugMug in part because they are famously responsive to suggestions from users, who can vote for change on the company’s “Feedback forum.” To help promote my favorite improvements, I thought I’d make a voting guide for my top 10 wishes, targeted of course at people who have SmugMug accounts. If that’s you, please use some of your Votes to bump them on the priority list.
Enable batch gallery selection. For example, if you want to alter a setting on 50 galleries, you currently need to tunnel through the selection maze (like at right) 50 times — totally infeasible to all but the off-in-the-head. Or what if you wanted to apply watermarking to all but one of your 800 galleries (then you’re like, totally screwed). What I’d like is a way to to select “all galleries in this category or subcategory” …and then to allow changes in settings within that hierarchy. Vote for this!
Partner with TinEye, a company that offers some fantastic ways to explore where your images end up on the Internet (example below, using my photograph of a s’more on a picnic table). You might find, happily, that those people who bought digital versions have used them as per agreement on their Facebook profiles, and credit you as the amazing photographer that you no doubt are. Or you might find that the image is the focal part of somebody’s Cafepress site, and you are not getting a dime. Or, that they are using your images to support the political campaign of the forces of evil. It would just be so nice to get a daily report of where your images are popping up. Currently, I do this with right-clicks in Firefox (there’s a plug-in), but that’s hard on SmugMug when right-click protection is turned on (as it should). Also, I’m not sure how watermarking affects the search algorithm, so having something native would be better. Vote for this!
Allow scaling of watermarks for different sizes. I’d love the ability to ramp up the obtrusiveness of my watermarks as the viewer looks at increasingly larger images. For small and medium images, viewer might see mild watermark so client can appreciate the photograph, its composition, etc. And when the potential client is looking at an extra large version to check for focus and glint in person’s eye (e.g.), watermark would be large and include lines that would render the photograph unusable even if stolen using screen capture. Vote for this!
Under the Buy menu, add a “post to my wall” action that would magically put the image into a framed print on a wall, with a group of photogenic people smiling at it, as if their lives are forever changed for the better. If done properly it would be slightly funny, and I bet it would increase impulse sales dramatically…people just don’t imagine art on their walls anymore. (My mock-up below is done via artsteps.com, a cool site that allows you to create multi-room exhibitions of digital files. I know I could have added some photogenic people to the image, but I don’t have anything that’s perfect, so just imagine them, OK? And imagine a couch and other objects that help give scale.) Vote for this!
Allow files to be renamed. I often need to send an image to somebody, and it’s easier to download it from SmugMug than it is to find on my computer. But if it’s named “vacation-81” for some idiotic reason, it’s hard to find on the desktop when it’s hidden amid a bunch of other files that have equally non-descriptive names (we’re all guilty of this sometimes). Finally, I like to use an organism’s common name in the filename, so when I misidentify it (common!), I’d like to be able to correct the error so I don’t look like (complete) moron when a customer purchases a digital download . Currently I have to download the image, rename it, then use the Tool’s replace action to swap out the SmugMug image (all doable, but a pain). Also, for those of us who used Smugglr to move thousands of photos over to SmugMug from places like Flickr, this would mean that your photo named 6744792255_f4fa66c36b_o.jpg could be easily altered. Oh, and having good match between filename and image content might increase Google ranking, at least according to rumors I read on the Internet and thus must be true. Vote for this!
Allow owner-downloading of watermarked images. Sometimes you just want to send a photo to somebody in an email, but you don’t want to send something un-watermarked. Because SmugMug already has those watermarked images (in all sizes), allow the user to get them (under Tools). Currently one has to go back to Aperture or Lightroom and then Export with watermark…and that’s a pain. Vote for this!
Add field for photo titles. Everyone does this, except SmugMug. OK, not everyone. But I spent many, many years crafting titles on Flickr, and it’s hard to live without them. Vote for this!
Add a “Sort by month” for galleries, to supplement the options that already exist in the Arrange Photos menu (shown at right). Or sort by calendar day — just something that would group together all the shots from December even within a gallery that spans years. This would be really useful for those of us who have photo projects (or places) that span decades, but want viewers to see all the seasonal photographs together. E.g., it would be nice to have all my winter visits lumped together, separated from my summer visits. I’m not saying lots of people would use this, but it would be a fun option and much easier than arranging them all manually (which would work, if I had the patience). Vote for this!
Remove SmugMug’s copyright clutter from bottom of pages. Here’s a screen capture of mine:It’s small, but still a problem for me because a naive visitor on my self-hosted site (colinpurrington.com; I know, how original) could be confused/annoyed. If nothing else, it’s a visual distraction from the simplicity I was hoping to convey. Many people claim the branding and links in the footer might give potential clients access to the true cost of a 4×6″ print, but I think that’s a silly claim: visitors already know they can get a print at WalMart in under an hour for about 13 cents. The real reason is subconscious, I believe: professional photographers cringe when their sophisticated, beautiful photographs are framed by somebody else’s branding. As possible evidence, people don’t seem to agitate about the copyright information at bottom of their WordPress blogs — the name sounds normal and professional, and authors are indeed proud of the software. Another reason to omit the footer is that I really like home pages that load in a single window — I don’t want to burden the visitor with a scroll bar. Having the bottom 5-10% of a window devoted to something that the viewer doesn’t want to see is annoying to me on a design level. [Note: SmugMug allows some users to remove the footer (e.g., Donovan Fannon Photography), but not everyone — you can be put on Double Secret Probation if you try that without their approval.] Vote for this!
Change name. When I tell my friends or family that they can see my photographs on SmugMug, they snicker and contort their faces. Their derision is not because they know anything unbecoming about SmugMug, but because the name is silly in comparison to Flickr, Picasa, Photoshelter, Zenfolio, and such. “SmugMug” simultaneously conveys (I think) “smugness” and “snapshot” to somebody who doesn’t know the company is amazing. And the Comic Sans and smiley face logo just confirm that suspicion (again, to the naive visitor…underneath the bad name and logo, the company is truly fantastic). I’m sure an unbiased experiment would show this problem in a quantifiable way that would impress even those at SmugMug HQ: potential customers are turned off, and untold thousands of potential users are dissuaded from signing up in the first place. I’d really prefer a name that didn’t require an explanation about my choice of photo host. It’s like introducing a girlfriend whose name just happens to be Fugly. She’s super intelligent, painfully cute, and dynamic to boot (!), but people just can’t help but be distracted by her name (I know, I should get different friends). Fugly didn’t choose her name, but it’s a burden and she’ll no doubt change it — people do it all the time, and so do huge companies and even colleges (e.g., United Fruit ==> Chiquita, Philip Morris == >Altria, Backrub ==> Google, Marafuku ==> Nintendo, Leslie Lynch King ==> Gerald Ford, and Beaver College ==> Arcadia University). To its credit, SmugMug has tried to hide its name from some pages by crafting a logo that has “SM” on it instead of “SmugMug.” But using “S & M” as an abbreviation is, um, probably not without unintended danger. SmugMug could always remain the “parent” company and just rebrand it’s photo service offering with new name and logo, perhaps. Something should be done. It can be done!! [Note: if #9 was enacted, people wouldn’t be annoyed by “smugmug” because it would be visible.] VOTE for this!!! [update: SmugMug won’t allow this suggestion to be voted on for some reason; instead, ask them by email to please allow it to be listed…they allow “remove footer” to be voted on and discussed!]
[UPDATE 2011-12-23: read the comments for good news.]
I few months ago I migrated my 10,000+ Flickr photographs to SmugMug, and deeply regret it. So I’m sharing the problems just in case my pain can help others:
Filenames are lost. The SmugMug migrator program is called Smugglr, and it transfers the “original” size in Flickr, which has a name like “4506134808_20b673be79_o.jpg” instead of whatever it was prior to uploading into Flickr (e.g., “Charles_Darwin_with_a_younger_woman_1860.jpg”). This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but if you ever want to download the file from SmugMug onto your hard drive, the file is hard to find if your desktop has other files with “_o.jpg” at the end. Similarly, if you have clients/friends who download your photographs, they don’t benefit from a useful filename. Also, Google will probably never rank “4506134808_20b673be79_o.jpg” high in an image search even if the image is awesome, and even if you have great caption and keywords. I’m not sure how Google computes rankings, but I suspect there are algorithms that compare filename data to keywords and search terms. All of this is not Smugglr’s fault, though — I’m sure the programmer would have used the original filename if Flickr had made it available. By the way, there is no way to change a filename within SmugMug, short of downloading the image, renaming it, and then replacing original (seems like it would take SmugMug all of a day to batch-enable that procedure…).
Images transferred from Flickr are probably lower quality than your originals. Flickr restricts size and filetype, so if your camera was producing huge TIFF or RAW files all those years, Flickr constrained your uploads to 10mb/file and required them to be JPGs, GIFs, or PNGs (all fine for internet viewing, of course). So Smugglr will send over to SmugMug a file that is not as good as the original file that is hopefully still lurking in your Aperture or Lightroom library. If people find an image of yours on SmugMug and want to buy a $200 wall mural, you’ll be sad if they used a small JPG. Again, not a Smugglr problem, but a problem nonetheless, and one that I didn’t think about deeply enough at the time.
Images are duplicated in a messy way. You might have an image that showed up in 3 different albums in Flickr, and because Smugglr will transfer each album in its entirety, you end up with 3 copies in 3 different SmugMug galleries. If you change settings on 1 of those versions, those changes are not linked to the others. So you really need to go and find the duplicates and potentially delete them. Endlessly annoying. There is no easy way to find these duplicates.
In the Smugglr transfer, all my keyword phrases were squished into single keywords with no spaces. E.g., “United States” became “unitedstates.” You can batch fix this in SmugMug, but it’s a pain and the “replace” action needs to done for each gallery, and for each phrase. Terribly annoying.
Smugglr added a number and an alphanumeric as keywords to each photograph. E.g., “82170932 b7c0b70ea8.” There’s a batch way to remove numbers, but, again, only one gallery at a time. There’s is no way to automatically remove alphanumerics, so if you have 10,000 images, that’s 10,000 clicks (actually, more). I’ve been informed another SmugMug user that there is a way to prevent these numbers from being added, but I don’t think the settings would be apparent to any newbie thinking about migrating their photos (e.g., I still don’t understand how to do it!).
Photo descriptions in Flickr are not transferred. So if you had elaborate thoughts about an image, you’d need to go back to the Flickr page and copy and paste over to SmugMug version. If you have less than 100 photos, that might be an OK use of your day. But if you have tens of thousands, that’s not a good use of your year.
The less obvious problem is that once you have all the albums converted to galleries on SmugMug, you’ll probably want to organize them in Categories and Sub-categories. If you are used to the drag-n-drop simplicity of Flickr, you’ll quickly become sad with the equivalent actions on SmugMug, which seem trapped in code amber from the early 1990s. So if you have hundreds of galleries, creating categories and then finding the galleries to add to those categories is laborious and frustrating. And if you ever want to alter those categories and their resident galleries in the future…you’ll be daydreaming about Flickr’s Organizer, which is almost fun to use.
So, after months of discovering the problems above, I think I’m going to delete my 10,000+ SmugMug photographs and slowly re-upload from the originals in my Aperture library. I could “replace” each photo individually, but that process doesn’t fix the keyword problem.
Anyway, hope the above might help somebody, and if you are wondering why my photo site is empty, that’s why. I’m still a fan of SmugMug, but not a fan of migrating photos there.