What's that bug? How to identify any plant or animal with your smartphone

Citizen science apps are like real-life Pokemon Go, and help save species at risk, scientists say

Posted: July 18, 2019
Last Updated: July 24, 2019

Nature apps like iNaturalist can help you identify the creatures in your garden. This is a red-banded leafhopper. (Emily Chung/CBC)

Have you ever seen a weird plant or bug in your garden and wondered what it was? Many nature apps can help you identify just about any plant or animal using the camera on your smartphone. 

"I think it's really cool to have your eyes open to the incredible variety of species that are around us every day," says Carrie Seltzer, who works for iNaturalist, one of the most popular apps of this kind, with more than 640,000 users around the world.

She says even the average lawn or the cracks in the sidewalk are teeming with a lot more species than just grass.


"When I walk around the city now, it's like a treasure hunt," said Seltzer, who lives in Washington, D.C. and helps iNaturalist develop collaborations with other organizations. "It's a little bit like Pokemon Go — how many can you find?"

Nature apps like iNaturalist are similar in some ways to the augmented reality game that lets people hunt, capture and collect monsters called Pokemon in real-life locations. But with nature apps, you learn about and "collect" real plants and animals instead of imaginary ones.

INaturalist allows you to take photos of any plant or animal and upload it. Information about where and when you saw it, recorded by your smartphone, is added automatically. An artificial intelligence algorithm suggests what it might be, and a community of other users helps confirm that, improving the AI algorithm along the way. The app provides maps showing other sightings of species you've spotted, and a feature in the Android app called "missions" suggests nearby species to look for. 

(Robyn Urback/CBC)

But it's not just fun and games — users are also collecting valuable data that helps save and protect birds, bees, butterflies and other species around you, say biologists and conservationists who rely on them.

It's a concept called citizen science — a way of crowdsourcing valuable science data from ordinary people, often with no scientific background.


Information about where different plants and animals live and how common they are, including endangered species or invasive species, and what types of habitats they need or use, is valuable to governments and conservationists. It can inform decisions when a habitat or area is being considered for conservation protection or development. It can also help track the impact of changes like urbanization or climate change on different species.

Those are some of the reasons why  iNaturalist Canada is supported by the Canadian Wildlife Federation and the Royal Ontario Museum's biodiversity program. And why BC Parks has a call-out right now asking people to identify and record biodiversity with iNaturalist as they hike, camp and explore the province's natural areas this summer. Ontario Parks has a similar iNaturalist project.

INaturalist isn't by any means the only app of its kind. Seltzer has been keeping a list of similar apps that now has more than 40 entries.

A few, like iNaturalist, allow people to record any plant or animals anywhere in the world. But most are restricted to certain places or certain types of organisms — the popular birding app eBird has more than 590 million observations so far (iNaturalist has 23 million). They also vary in how they identify species — for example, some rely entirely on human experts and some don't require photographs.


EButterfly is an app specializing in butterflies launched by Jeremy Kerr, a University of Ottawa biologist, as a website in 2011. It was part of a project to see how climate change is affecting where different kinds of pollinators are found, and to predict which ones might be driven to extinction. 

"Scientists can't get everywhere," said Kerr. "What citizen science does is it fills in the blanks."

(Submitted by Jeremy Kerr)

The researchers entered all the data about butterflies they could from places like museum collections, but there were still huge blank spots on the map.

Until the app launch, the total number of scientific butterfly observations in Canada since the 19th century — based on pinned specimens — was about 200,000, Kerr said.

Discoveries and decisions

Citizen scientists using eButterfly, which also feeds in butterfly data from other apps like iNaturalist, have since entered more than that number in less than eight years.


Kerr co-authored a study published last year in the journal Global Change Biology that found eButterfly users: 

Kerr says that in addition to its scientific value, eButterfly is also a great way to record and track amazing experiences in nature: "In this year and in this place, I saw a magical  butterfly."

For example, he had a recent outing with his 14-year-old daughter Elise where they spotted a beautiful Baltimore checkerspot together. "It was glorious," he said.


Sheila Colla, an assistant professor at York University, launched the Bumble Bee Watch website in 2014.

So far, Bumble Bee Watch, which now also has mobile apps for iPhone and Android, has received 40,000 observations with photos from 8,300 users across North America. They include some recent records from Minnesota of the endangered rusty-patched bumblebee, which hasn't been spotted in Canada since 2009.

That data has also shown that the American bumblebee, once common in southern Ontario, could soon become extinct in Canada.

Victoria MacPhail, a PhD student who works with Colla, said knowing what kind of habitat rare species need and where they nest — information that citizen scientists help provide — is crucial for their conservation, so those areas can be protected.


Data from Bumble Bee Watch was recently used to plan a new pollinator park in Guelph, Ont., MacPhail said. Two bumblebee species that rely on grassland habitat were found there, so grassland was planted in the park instead of trees.

A way to connect

That's what motivates Ann Puddicombe of Dryden in northern Ontario, who photographs bumble bees daily for Bumble Bee Watch. The 51-year-old retired lifeguard, who now works as a part-time handmade paper artist, has no formal science training, but is one of the top three contributors to Bumble Bee Watch in Canada.

"For me, the big part is I know this data is being directly used," she said.

Puddicombe was always interested in bees, but her interest was revived by finding a bumble bee nest in her camper about six years ago. She wanted to know what kind they were.

That prompted her to become more active on iNaturalist, which she had dabbled on before, and discovered that they were called perplexing bumble bees.

(Submitted by Ann Puddicombe)


She also found the app was a nice way to connect with her father, a retired photographer who lives in Newfoundland and has self-published a book about the province's insects.

Her special interest in bees led her to stumble upon Bumble Bee Watch.

Colla said volunteers like Puddicombe are particularly valuable because there aren't any professional bee scientists where she lives: "She's filling a major data gap."


Emily Chung
Science, climate, environment reporter

Emily Chung covers science, the environment and climate for CBC News. She has previously worked as a digital journalist for CBC Ottawa and as an occasional producer at CBC's Quirks & Quarks. She has a PhD in chemistry from the University of British Columbia. In 2019, she was part of the team that won a Digital Publishing Award for best newsletter for "What on Earth." You can email story ideas to