Sri Lanka’s budding biologists get their science on with iNaturalist

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  • iNaturalist, a global citizen science platform where users collaborate to identify uploaded photos of fauna and flora, saw its observations from Sri Lanka hit the 50,000 mark, the second-highest in South Asia and 14th in Asia.
  • Sri Lanka’s first observation was uploaded in 2011, but it was only in the past two years that a significant increase in observations were recorded, with more young naturalists getting involved in the global initiative.
  • The country’s iNaturalist observations have already led to the identification of a range of overlooked species, proving the tool’s successful use in processing field observations.

COLOMBO — Sixteen-year-old Pasindu Dilshan from Padukka, a small town in Sri Lanka’s Western province, has always been fascinated by the study of nature. When the COVID-19 lockdown left him stuck at home, he found an outlet for his roving curiosity in iNaturalist, a citizen science app that lets users contribute to identifying plants and animals around the world. Dilshan soon started photographing the various insects in his home garden and uploading the pictures to iNaturalist.

For each upload, the app automatically provided suggestions to identify the species in the picture, and iNaturalist’s online community of scientists and experts helped Dilshan put a name to species previously unknown to him.

“I wasn’t paying much attention to the biodiversity in my garden, but iNaturalist helped me learn about them,” he says.

One of his observations of a leaf-nosed lizard was chosen as iNaturalist’s “Observation of the day” out of thousands of submissions uploaded by users around the world that day.

Chaturi Alwis, a young biology undergraduate, started off by observing biodiversity in her home garden, when the COVID-19 lockdown gave her time and patience to record many observations using the app. Image courtesy of Indika Jayatissa.

Launched in 2008 as a citizen science tool to provide a digital networking platform for naturalists, biologists and nature lovers to share their observations, iNaturalist has desktop and mobile versions, allowing for field-based recordings of new observations. It uses sophisticated

artificial intelligence algorithms enabling self-identification of uploaded photographs. iNaturalist recorded one million observations in 2017, and as of today has 57 million observations.

The first iNaturalist observation in Sri Lanka was recorded in September 2011, and in January 2021 the country surpassed the 50,000-observation mark.

“This is a great milestone and recognition for the iNaturalist community in Sri Lanka and the country’s biodiversity,” Carrie Seltzer, stakeholder engagement strategist for iNaturalist, told Mongabay.

Nearly half of those observations have been shared with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, Seltzer added.

Atelius expansicornis, a species of net-winged beetle was recently selected as iNaturalist’s Observation of the Day. Image courtesy of Thilina Hettiarachchi.

Second-highest in South Asia

In South Asia, only India has logged more iNaturalist observations; in Asia as a whole, Sri Lanka is ranked 14th out of 53 countries. There’s been a steady growth in Sri Lanka’s iNaturalist community, and the next 50,000 observations could come faster if the iNaturalist tool gains more popularity aong the island’s field biologists, wildlife photographers, park rangers, and wildlife enthusiasts, Seltzer said.

Scott Loarie, co-director of iNaturalist, said the Sri Lankan users appear to be younger than the global average for the desktop platform. Loarie’s global data show 26% of users are 24-34 years old, and 22% are 18-24. In Sri Lanka, 34% of the iNaturalist community belong to the 24-34 age range and 30% to the 18-24 range.

“Numbers of observations alone don’t reveal what has been achieved in Sri Lanka,” says Dilrukshan Wijesinghe, professor in the biological sciences department at LaGuardia Community College in New York. The very first observations from Sri Lanka were uploaded in 2011 by an Australian.

Nuwan Chathuranga Jayawardana, a field biologist with the Department of Wildlife Conservation was the first resident Sri Lankan to submit observations to iNaturalist. In the early years, most Sri Lanka observations were made by visitors to the biodiversity-rich island, a trend reversed by now.

The standard of observations overall is high, going by the quality and relevance of the images submitted, though inexperienced users may take time to develop skills and patience necessary to make observations of genuine value, Wijesinghe told Mongabay.

The natural occurrence of Pathenium beetles in Sri Lanka was not known until it was observed in Jaffna, in Sri Lanka’s north. Image courtesy of Aravinth Sukumar.

Rare and new species

Through the iNaturalist observations, understanding of the distribution of Sri Lanka’s biodiversity has improved significantly. Among the most exciting observations are those of previously unrecorded species. Many, known only from descriptions of preserved specimens, are now known, thanks to iNaturalist users who photographed live individuals in their natural habitat, Wijesinghe told Mongabay.

In 2020, Aravinth Sukumar captured an image of a pretty bug found in his hometown of Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka. The species was subsequently identified as a Parthenium beetle (Zygogramma bicolorata), native to Mexico. It was introduced to South Asia to control the invasive weed Parthenium hysterophorus, an invasive species.

According to Thilina Hettiarachchi, a lecturer with the Postgraduate Institute of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya, attempts to introduce this beetle as a weedkiller failed in Sri Lanka.

Sukumar found another colorful insect on his staircase last year, which he initially thought was a beetle, but which an expert from the iNaturalist community identified as a cockroach, Eucorydia ornata, a species previously not recorded in Sri Lanka before.

iNaturalist showcases observations on a daily and weekly basis. Chathuri Jayatissa, an undergraduate from Sri Lanka’s south, received an iNaturalist commendation for her observation of tiny Dirhinus wasp.

iNaturalist evolved as a citizen science tool that can be used for real scientific research. This graphic shows the percentage of species of each taxa recorded through iNaturalist as of January 2021. Image courtesy of iNaturalist.

COVID-19 and iNaturalist

iNaturalist proved a useful and engaging platform during the pandemic, allowing outdoor exploration to be done safely and alone, followed by social interactions and exchange of knowledge taking place online, Seltzer said.

But it’s difficult to see any global trends, she added, due to the vastly different circumstances and restrictions in different countries. “We’ve heard numerous stories of how important iNaturalist was to people during the pandemic by encouraging them to explore closer to home and still connect with other people with shared interests,” she said.

Researcher Amila Sumanapala is the top identifier of Sri Lanka’s iNaturalist community, with more than 16,000 identifications. He’s doing postgraduate studies on damselflies, and wants to use iNaturalist to document the insect life of Sri Lanka.

“I started using [iNaturalist] to get identification support on the insects and other invertebrates I observe and photograph during my field  work,” he said. “It has been a great support to my work thanks to the community of identifiers. This has motivated me to record more and to become an identifier myself, able to support others.”

 

Banner image of a colorful Chrysomelid beetle (Aspidolopha decora), recorded by Amila Sumanapala in Sri Lanka’s northwestern Mannar. Through iNaturalist, he added a new species to Sri Lanka’s Chrysomelid list. Image courtesy of Amila Sumanapala.

Article Source: Mongabay