Carnegie Museum of Natural History has promoted participation in the Pittsburgh City Nature Challenge for the past three years. Because I live outside the six-county “Challenge” region, I decided to help the best way I know how, by participating, as time permits, in the identification phase of the iNaturalist-based project.
Although publicity about the City Nature Challenge tends to focus on the value of participants documenting the diversity of life around them by taking pictures and submitting them via the iNaturalist app, the proper identification of submitted images is critically important.
My normal carpool commute time to the museum is usually a little over an hour. So, I decided that what would normally be my commute time to work would become my iNaturalist identification time. This process proved to be enlightening in several ways. First was the digital proof that a lot of people in the Pittsburgh region are interested in the outdoors. That is a good thing! Second, was the ample evidence that people of all ages got involved in a project that can potentially help me and other scientists track what is going on in the outdoors. Also, a good thing. Submitted images can help us track phenology, the timing of recurring events such as plant blooming or fruiting.
We can also use iNaturalist records for distribution studies. For instance, there is a “native” plant known as the woods-poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) that we don’t have any records of from natural populations in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. There are nine documented Pennsylvania specimens in herbaria that I am aware of. Only one of those is older than I am. The locality data on it is very vague and suspect as to whether it is really from Pennsylvania. (“Probably near Zelienople” is a far from precise location.) The other eight specimens are all known to be from cultivated populations. These specimens are from only three counties. State botanists have been discussing and debating this plant for several decades. It is native in Ohio and west, but is it native in Pennsylvania? There are now nearly 300 observations of woods-poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) from across Pennsylvania on iNaturalist.
What is going on here? Have botanists just been overlooking this thing for decades? Is it escaping from cultivated populations? I know that it is being sold in native plant nurseries, so are folks just buying it and planting it out and about? I do know that we need to get out and get some of these populations documented. Maybe by visiting some of the sites we can postulate why this plant that wasn’t seen in Pennsylvania for centuries is now popping up everywhere.
I have also learned that there is plenty of room for educating people on the importance of knowing how to identify plants. It is almost scary the number of people (it doesn’t take many) who have trouble identifying poison ivy. There are also plenty of problems with identifying common backyard plants. I have been active the last few years with plant identification workshops, and there is certainly a need for more of these. I’ll continue to learn as I continue to help identifying plants for the City Nature Challenge while I “commute” to work. I’m eager to see what other mysteries may pop up that pique my curiosity about the world around us.
Bonnie Isaac is the Collection Manager in the Section of Botany. Museum staff, volunteers, and interns are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.