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Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
Ellington Agricultural Center
440 Hogan Road
Nashville, TN 37220
(615) 781-6500
What about Everything Else? The Tennessee State Parks 2019 Bioblitz on iNaturalist

Tennessee State Parks mission begins with these words: “To preserve and protect…” This is a mission we carry out with passion and zeal. We’re often asked the question, “What are we protecting, what is this flower, what is this insect?” As an agency that manages over 200,000 acres across Tennessee, covering innumerable habitats (some globally rare), how DO we catalog the biodiversity protected on these public lands?

This is the question that was posed to me by ranger Kristen Garrison at Fall Creek Falls last year. Kristen’s thirst for knowledge of the natural world is vast, and she is one of these unique individuals whose capacity to absorb information seems superhuman. I first met her while we were building the trail to the top of Window Cliffs. While we caught our breath, we’d inevitably find ourselves oh’ing and ah’ing over beetles, fungus or other biota. Soon, we started talking about a central database for our biological diversity in State Parks. We track federal and state-listed species, but what about everything else?

Historically, a Tennessee State Parks “All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory” (ATBI) was attempted several decades ago but was not sustainable. With so much land and too few biologists to go around, the project lost steam and was lost to time. We didn’t know how many species this initial ATBI resulted in, but we did know that we wanted to avoid the pitfalls of the initial attempt.

Making learning, sharing, and cataloging free and easy

Enter iNaturalist. What we needed was something free and easy. Additionally, we wanted it to be a platform that all the parks could develop programing around. We wanted to invoke the power of “citizen science.” iNaturalist checks all these boxes for us, especially with its “bioblitz” function.
A bioblitz, classically, is when biologists congregate to a defined area within a defined amount of time and a specific focus to catalog everything they observe. iNaturalist expands this definition to something accessible to the layman. In essence, it socializes the exploration of the natural world using technology. In a time when we are often struggling to disconnect people from their screens, iNaturalist shifts this dynamic to embrace the technology as a conduit for exploring the environment.

Guests on public lands are already snapping photos of this plant, that animal, this mushroom, or that creepy-crawly. Often times they post it to social media for assistance with identification. iNaturalist allows you to upload the photo to the app instead. Then, it does a few things: 1) It grabs the metadata that says where the photo was taken 2) It uses image recognition and other nearby observations to provide a preliminary guess as to what the subject may be. 3) It makes it accessible to the iNaturalist community who can then suggest or reinforce identifications. Observations are confirmed as “research grade” when more than 2/3 of identifiers agree on a taxon. The “bioblitz” function of iNaturalist allows someone to define a geographic boundary, set a time range and see what rolls in!

In winter of 2018, Kristen and I began uploading our park boundaries. We set a timeframe for calendar year 2019. We hoped optimistically for 10,000 observations, thinking an average of less than 200 observations per park was maybe pushing our luck.

The perfect Citizen Science platform

As I write this, it is May 31st, 2019. We’re wrapping up our fifth month of the Tennessee State Parks 2019 bioblitz and I’m blown away by the metrics. We have 9,323 observations uploaded by 548 participants. This currently represents 1,613 species; 739 people have participated in helping to identify these observations and there are still many outstanding that need identification.

This is the beauty of iNaturalist – it is the perfect platform to conduct citizen science. Some participants uploaded observations unaware they were participating. They happened to be in the park and used the app. They then received an email saying their observation had been added to this event, which piques their interest and gives them a call to action – so they keep adding more! Then they receive notifications from the community on the identification! It’s truly a thrilling experience and it’s proven successful. It’s not perfect, but it’s very good. We are able to exponentially expand our “boots on the ground” AND provide our guests with an added experience of the resource.

We’re on track to hit our 10,000 observations and blow that number out of the water. What we need now is help… we need help by the community to identify observations. Out of those over 9000 observations, many of them still need preliminary ID’s and ID’s confirmed. You can navigate to https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/tennessee-state-parks-bioblitz-2019 and check out our progress, browse observations, and even add your own identifications. We are so excited to share this success with our citizens and we hope you too can participate! ??If you’re out visiting a Tennessee State Park, please download the free iNaturalist application for iOS or Android and upload your own observations. Let’s make 2019 the year to beat!

View or print a photo-illustrated factsheet of this TN Park Bioblitz article.


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