An App for Naturalists Offers a Shared Sense of Reality

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Better smartphone cameras have helped, as have inexpensive macro-lens attachments and the ubiquity of wireless internet access.

Birders who have mastered some of the world’s nearly 11,000 bird species have been drawn to the all-inclusive nature of iNaturalist, where they can also tackle the roughly 900,000 named species of insects, say, or the 377,990 species of plants. Many users also joined during the early pandemic, when a virus that likely jumped from a bat to other wildlife to humans may have driven home the interconnectedness of species, and anyway, there was little to do except go outside.

But other phone applications, including Merlin for birds, PictureThis for plants, and Seek, an offshoot of iNaturalist, identify some subset of the two million formally recognized species on the planet with no need for human communion.

That people continue to use iNaturalist, said Adam Kranz, 32, is because of the shared sense of purpose that reminds him of the Rotary Club that his parents belonged to in the rural Michigan town where he grew up.

An SAT tutor who has made it his mission to correct misidentifications of oak gall wasps on iNaturalist, Mr. Kranz has also been worrying about his own tendency to see those he disagrees with politically as “you know, morally bankrupt enemies.” But iNaturalist “is the place where I feel like I interact with strangers and work towards the common good.”

Like probably most iNaturalist users — to judge by clues in profiles and discussion boards — Mr. Kranz is a political liberal. But in interviews, several of the site’s most prolific identifiers described themselves as politically conservative. And group projects on the site — “Pollinators of Florida,” “Salticids of Oklahoma,” “Slime Molds of New York” — tend to cut across the nation’s usual divides.

Thomas Everest, 22, a registered Republican who is highly regarded on the site as an identifier of California mollusks, said he has come to value a humility among iNaturalist users — even the more liberal ones — that stems from admitting ignorance in front of people you don’t know or necessarily trust.

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