Meet the iNaturalist Nature-Wonderers: A New Wave of 21st Century Scientists at Riveredge

There are a new wave of scientists at Riveredge. They walk upright, have two legs, two eyes, and a sharp brain with a knack for nature-wondering. You’ll know that you’ve spotted them on the trail when they abruptly stop in their tracks, and suddenly, but swiftly, reach for a smart device in their pocket while swiping fingers dance across the screen. Who is this new breed of 21st century scientist, you ask? Well, at Riveredge, we call them “Nature-Wonderers,” and they never leave home without their most coveted tool, designed to alleviate all the nature-wondering one could possibly have. It’s name: iNaturalist.

Stolen directly from the website, iNaturalist is an app and web-based program created to record and organize nature findings, meet other nature enthusiasts, and learn about the natural world. For the purposes of this article, I’ve boiled it down to three reasons why I think children, families, and adults should consider using iNaturalist in their outdoor experiences.

A student in the Homeschool EdVentures program at Riveredge takes a smile break before taking a photo of a creek dogwood shrub to add to a class project page on iNaturalist during a late-February morning class.

Three reasons why I love iNaturalist:

Your own personal pocket naturalist

I don’t know about you, but from the time I was little, I always wanted to know what everything was called. I wasn’t satisfied until I knew the name of the beautiful prairie flower that looked like a purple Fourth of July firecracker or the tiny forest frog with skin the color of leaves in the Fall. I wanted to know what everything was called. I’ve found that the students in my Homeschool EdVentures class are no different – often stopping in the middle of the trail to exclaim, “Ms. Carly! What’s this?!.” I’ll be honest, I don’t know the answer to many of their inquiries, but I think that’s OK. It doesn’t take long to arrive at a response, and through a short questioning series, as a group, we arrive at a (mostly) named species.

How do you get started identifying? Locate “Guides” and search “Riveredge” to discover over five different guides (birds, plants, butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies) with more on the way. Narrow your search by typing in keywords (e.g. flower, purple, etc.)

Contribute to crowd-sourced research

Once you have your species found on your smart device, select “Observe” to show that the species are present at your specific location (**Note: You need GPS enabled on your device for location accuracy). Add a photo and you are one step away from having contributed “scientifically reliable” data. In addition to photo and location, iNaturalist asks for crowd-sourced verification of species. Since there are hundreds of thousands of iNaturalist users, it shouldn’t take long for your observation to be verified.

Set your eco-expectations

Before you head to Riveredge or another natural area near your house, check out the “Places” or “Projects” pages. Riveredge has a Phenology Project that serves as a photo journal of plants and wildlife commonly found in the sanctuary. If you add your observations to the “Riveredge Phenology Project” page, you will see yours there too! iNaturalist pulls photos from open-source databases like Flickr, Encyclopedia of Life, and Wikipedia, so you have access to high-quality photos free of charge.

And, the best part, all this and more are available for free on any smart device. If an Android or Apple phone doesn’t hold a place in your pocket, iNaturalist has made a great web-platform to view in your browser as well.

What are you waiting for? Stop your nature-wonderings and check out iNaturalist on your next visit to Riveredge. Find out more by clicking this one-page flier here.

Carly Swatek is the Educational Technology & Evaluation Specialist. She works to integrate technology into the outdoor programming at Riveredge for students and visitors alike. If you have questions about this article or other educational technology opportunities, contact

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