Hiking with friends you come across a strange insect, plant or animal, and you take a picture to share with others. But how will you go about identifying what you snapped? The online biodiversity platform iSpot is just the thing. By Arnold Ras

The ingenious web initiative iSpot encourages people from all walks of life to record their plant and animal sightings and let others identify them. It doesn’t matter how strange, seemingly insignificant or common the sighting – you might just have discovered a new species! Wild caught up with Dr Tony Rebelo from iSpot for more insight into this citizen science platform.

Since its introduction in 2012 by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), iSpot has grown in leaps and bounds, says Tony. Today there are 3,000 South Africans making use of the platform, which is part of an international initiative with 55,000 registered enthusiasts.

“We are currently receiving between 100 and 200 observations a day in the southern African community. We have photo records of over 12,000 species of plants, 2,300 vertebrates, 3,200 species of invertebrates and over 200 species of fungi and lichen. We also have odd records of bacterial and viral diseases. Not bad for just five years since inception!”

iSpot_landing page

Unfamiliar with iSpot but adore nature and wildlife? Now is the time to sign up.

ID as easy as pie

Why send a specimen to a museum or herbarium when your sighting can be identified within hours with the help of iSpot? To start using iSpot, all you have to do is register, which is absolutely free. Then when you take a picture of a sighting, simply log in to iSpot with your phone, attach your picture and hit the send button.

“By the time you get home you are likely to have an ID. The beauty is that you don’t have to catch or harm the subject. Note that experts usually appreciate close-up pictures from the top, bottom and side. Remember to include something for scale (your fingers will do). And only load one species per observation.”

iSpot_take clear pictures

When taking a picture, make sure the image is in focus and if possible, photograph the subject from various angles.

Of crowdsourcing and conservation

iSpot is not just any old identification mechanism for the natural world, it’s unique in many ways. “Like its ability to crowdsource an ID. Anyone can make an ID on iSpot, and anyone can agree to an ID,” says Tony. iSpot determines the likely identification for an observation by weighting the agreements by the identifier’s reputation. Experts (those who publish in the field) get 1 000 votes, knowledgeable users (whose wisdom is recognised by their peers) get 500 votes, and ordinary users get between one and 500 votes.

iSpot_identify reptile

A post by one of iSpot’s users asking others to ID this reptile.

There are other features that also make it really special, especially for scientists. “Unlike other sites on the web, iSpot records the location. Another way it differs is by linking the likely identification to a back-bone dictionary. So we have a reliable identification with a locality at a date (often with notes and access to the user for any issues). Consequently scientists, conservation planners, red list assessors, environmental impact assessors and reviewers can use the data for their work.”

iSpot has even been used by medics to identify the cause of a poisoning. “Our record is 39 seconds from posting – a picture of a bean that had poisoned some kids – to getting an ID. And all you need to do to help is to post an observation.”

The future is now

Considering smartphones and our incredibly techno-savvy youth, iSpot can be the ideal medium to get youngsters excited about their natural surroundings. “Yes! The fun thing about iSpot is the educational prospects. We now have a tool where teachers can set fun biology projects without having to worry that they might not be able to identify the plants or bugs. Nothing needs to be killed or collected. And kids can share their observations between schools and countries and compare their neighbourhood wildlife with others across the world. This is really an exciting time we live in. Technology can now bring local biology to the classroom.”

Best observation

Every year iSpot allows their users to nominate the best observations, after which anyone can vote for their favourite. Tony was especially pleased with 2015’s Observation of the Year: ‘Insect attached to painted reed frog’ posted by Colin Ralston. After Colin posted a few images of this strange little creature, it was positively identified as a frog-eating beetle larva (Chlaenius (Epomis)).

iSpot_Best observation

How can you become an iSpot expert?

“A novice gets one vote, but as users make correct IDs that more knowledgeable users agree with, the acknowledger’s reputation is transferred and the novice earns a reputation. This also means that anyone who wants to learn, can join a group, post observations, make identifications and progress from having no reputation badges on iSpot to five badges. It takes several hundred correct identifications to earn five badges,” Tony explains.

Interested in a specific group of species? Join iSpot, post observations and make identifications, learn and earn a reputation in no time. “What is more, you can easily see who agrees with your identifications and even the societies they belong to. Consequently you will rapidly meet the experts in your group from around the world. And of course, if you are really keen, experts will start noticing you. All on one site, and all in one simple process.”

Sign up now and do your bit for citizen science!

Did you know?

  • iSpot supports up to 100 photographs per observation.
  • 90% of iSpot’s observations are done and dusted within a week.