Lately, I find myself missing grade school, good old-fashioned K-12. I know there’s a lot of debate today about public education and what’s wrong with it. But as an adult with a job that only uses a narrow scope of knowledge and specialized skill sets, I find myself longing for the brain calisthenics of five to seven subjects a day.
Recently, I discovered a way to work a science fix into my life, as panacea to my decidedly unscientific profession. iNaturalist is a social network of citizen scientists, but it’s not social media in any sense you’re thinking of. It’s nerdy and fantastically free of political bickering and narcissism. It’s just people, ranging from amateur nature enthusiasts to professional scientists, working together to document and identify species and biodiversity worldwide. If you check out the iNaturalist widget on my blog, you can link to my log of observations in various stages of the identification process.
That brings us to the title of today’s post, “Fungus Among Us.” This spring and summer has brought a lot of rain to Birmingham, Alabama, and the fungi are loving it. This morning I documented all the mushrooms that have popped up in my yard.
No species IDs have come through on these mushrooms yet, but maybe I’ll eventually learn more about them via other iNaturalist participants.
Last weekend, I had luck with several IDs of my observations. This Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) is one of them. I must admit that before, I would have assumed any orange and black butterfly I spotted was a Monarch. Now I’m paying more attention to the details of the world around me, and it makes life more interesting.
I get a kick every time there is enough consensus among iNaturalist users and my observations become “research grade,” which means data uploaded by me can be used by professional scientists for all sorts of research projects.
The iNaturalist software identified this Common Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) on the first crack, without human help. However, for this observation to move to research grade, human users had to agree with the ID, which they did. (Warning, the artificial intelligence program used to aid amateurs with making IDs is pretty good, but it also suggested that a photo I uploaded of a pitcher plant was a bird. So a little common sense and the consensus of human users is essential.)
Being a novice who hasn’t taken a science class since college geology, I didn’t think I would be able to contribute to the identification process; I thought I could only observe.
I learned about iNaturalist at a lecture held at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, taught by Dr. John Friel, director of the Alabama Museum of Natural History. Dr. Friel told the class that part of iNaturalist is giving back to the system/community by helping identify the observations of others. That is to say, uploading and relying on others to ID your observations is “taking” from the system in a sense. Helping identify is “giving back.” iNaturalist only works because of the give and take of many.
I got the concept; I just didn’t think I could be of much help as an identifier. The aforementioned reptilian visitor to my yard changed my mind. Shortly after I learned what he was, I saw a photo of what was unmistakably another Common Five-lined Skink hanging out in the “needs identification” section of iNaturalist. I suggested the ID, and when other users concurred, the observation became research grade. In a very small way, I had helped give back to the system, and, frankly, it was a bit of a thrill.
On a closing note, I will leave you with this Reddish-Brown Stag Beetle hanging out on our window screen, who became a lot less freaky once I knew what he was. Woo-hoo for citizen science!