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Artificial intelligence helps identify more than 250 species in baylands

Eighty citizens, professional scientists use iNaturalist app to compile list

Siblings Daniel, Annalise, Brielle and Christopher Tan document a great egret at a bioblitz at the Palo Alto Baylands on Feb. 17, 2018. Photo by Marley Arechiga.

"I found a green ladybug!" Batul Raja, 9, said as she bolted down the San Francisquito Trail at the Palo Alto Nature Baylands Preserve. "I have to run back and forth and tell everybody!"

Batul was one of the approximately 80 citizen and professional scientists who gathered at the preserve on Saturday for the baylands' second bioblitz, an observational study of biodiversity in a specific location.

Participants dispersed across the baylands to enter photos of their observations in iNaturalist, an app that uses machine learning techniques to identify photographed species, and crowdsources verification of the given identities.

The Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve held its first bioblitz in 2014 after baylands park ranger, Kathleen Jones learned of the bioblitz concept on Twitter. More than 1,300 observations that identified over 250 species were made at this year's bioblitz.

According to Jones, no other baylands programming relies so heavily on technology.

"If the chance to use technology is a hook that will get people outside and (teaches them) to love the place and help us take care of it, then that's success," she said.

Before the proliferation of smartphones, traditional bioblitzes involved groups made up mostly of scientists with specializations in plants and wildlife documenting species on paper. Today, species identification can happen directly in the field and by regular citizens who need only take a good photo, according to Alison Young, citizen science engagement coordinator at the California Academy of Sciences, one of the bioblitz's sponsors.

The "green ladybug" that Raja had coaxed into a plastic container was passed around by bioblitz volunteers who speculated about what species it belonged to. Equipped with her smartphone, Leah Krupnik, 8, interrupted the adults and said her smartphone identified the bug as a cucumber beetle.

"Now I like artificial intelligence," said Karla Savage, a 71-year-old bioblitz participant from the East Bay. "I guess the only application I saw before was people losing jobs (to artificial intelligence), but to have this recognition software be used in a different way than just jobs and economy — I just wasn't aware of the value of AI."

iNaturalist began as the master's final project of three students from the University of California at Berkeley in 2008 and was acquired by the California Academy of Sciences in 2014.

According to Young, citizen science activities like the bioblitz not only foster stewardship, but can enable a deeper understanding of, and contribution to, science. For example, iNaturalist shares findings with scientific data repositories like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility to help scientists find and use citizens' data.

"This work has to be done by more than just scientists because there just aren't enough scientists out there doing this work in general," Young said. "Having different perspectives pushes science forward."

The California Academy of Sciences has hosted 75 bioblitzes and is hosting a city nature challenge on April 27-30. The challenge began in 2016 between the academy and the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, and this year has extended to 60 cities around the world.

Jones, the baylands park ranger, noted that the bioblitz can also provide a snapshot of the baylands for the Baylands Comprehensive Conservation Plan (BCCP), which will address the management of the Baylands for the next 15 years and beyond.

Planning for the BCCP began last June and will continue through this December, with public meetings designed to gather ideas and input from the public about the future of the baylands. The BCCP will outline how to implement the policies set forth in the "Baylands Master Plan," whose fourth edition was adopted in 2008, according to Daren Anderson, division manager of the city's Open Space, Parks & Golf Division at the Community Service Department.

Other organizations who sponsored bioblitz include: the city of Palo Alto, Palo Alto Open Space, Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo, Environmental Volunteers, Grassroots Ecology, Canopy, Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society and Save the Bay.

Jones also noted the infectious enthusiasm of participants discovering something new to them, especially children, who regularly see what the adults don't.

Toward the end of this year's bioblitz, Leah, the girl who had identified the cucumber beetle, crouched in the brush just off the San Francisquito Trail and struggled to get the green bug to come out of its plastic container.

"I know what to do!" Batul said, turning to Leah. "Get a stick and it'll come on the stick. Just try it, it's harmless."

Leah placed a small twig into the container and the beetle crawled up into her hands before fluttering away. The two girls jumped up, pleased with their release of the beetle back into its habitat and continued on their excursion.

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