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Calgary nature challenge gets you outdoors without pushing COVID-19 boundaries

Calgarians feeling cooped up from COVID-19 have a chance to contribute to science while exploring biodiversity in their own backyards during an upcoming citizen science event.

The City Nature Challenge YYC, being held April 24 to 27, is a citizen science initiative to document Calgary’s wild species, from aphids to yarrow, with the help of the online natural history platform iNaturalist.

Calgary is one of about 200 cities participating in the worldwide event.

This year, considering the COVID-19 public health crisis, the event has been “decentralized.” That means participants are encouraged to engage independently from their own neighborhoods, said organizer Matt Wallace.

“Typically, we would have events where people could participate,” said Wallace.

“Unfortunately, we can’t really do that this year, so the emphasis is on documenting species within backyards and local parks.

Wallace said it could be advantageous as the urban environment is charted in more detail.

“Participants can help map out areas that have never really been documented before,” he said.

No need to be an expert to participate

Participating in the challenge is easy, said Wallace.

“All you have to do is take some photos of wild organisms or their sign, or record their sounds, whether it be in your backyard, a park, or even in your house, and upload them to iNaturalist.ca,” said Wallace.

“You can do it on the app or on a desktop computer.”

Upload what you find to iNaturalist. SEAN FEAGAN FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

You don’t have to be an expert to contribute, he said.

“A lot of times people don’t know the names of things,” said Wallace. “But if they take a picture of a species, they can learn the name, then learn about the biogeography and the biology of the organism — it’s all incorporated into the app.”

The platform helps users identify their observations through image recognition — and contributing photos further helps train the underlying algorithm.

The event’s website, citynaturechallenge.org, offers an overview of how to set-up and use iNaturalist. It provides educational toolkits for students and lesson plans and educator guides for parents and teachers.

A biodiversity baseline

The challenge is a chance to characterize and better understand Calgary’s biodiversity, said Wallace.

“We have an opportunity to grow as a culture, by understanding our urban biodiversity and how it is impacted by the built environment,” he said.

“Each individual can learn, and our entire city and urban mindset can be advanced by it.”

The event is a great way for Calgarians to get out into nature and explore what’s there, said John McFaul, president of Nature Calgary.

The event’s website, citynaturechallenge.org, offers an overview of how to set-up and use iNaturalist, as well educational toolkits providing activities for students — including biodiversity bingo and a scavenger hunt — and lesson plans and educator guides for parents and teachers.

If done over several years, the challenge will help Calgarians understand “the ebb and flow of life in the city” and “discover what trends are occurring with the local wildlife populations,” said McFaul.

Recording what’s seen helps establish a biodiversity baseline in Calgary, which can support conservation efforts, said Bob Lefebvre, Nature Calgary member and editor of Birds Calgary, a blog devoted toward birding within Calgary.

“If someone wants to create a new development, then you have a record of what’s there and what might need to be protected,” said Lefebvre.

Not all science comes from scientists

By participating in the challenge, you might not just find something new to you — but something that’s new to science, said Wallace.

“Maybe you will discover a new species, a new behaviour, or some kind of anomaly,” he said.

Everyday people have made significant contributions to natural history, said Chris Fisher, professional biologist and co-author of the book Birds of Alberta.

Some of the most noteworthy ecological findings that were ever discovered in this province were done by people without advanced degrees or research grants,” said Fisher.

“Crowd-sourcing” the study of nature means larger datasets and more ground covered, he said.

“With citizen science, because there are so many eyes and ears out in nature, there is an opportunity to cover things much more widely and, in more detail, than any individual research can ever assume,” said Fisher.

“One of the great mysteries of nature is that while we have a wonderful collective understanding, we don’t know what we don’t know,” said Fisher.

Study nature, know thyself

One of the most important aspects of going into nature and learning about the wildlife and plants that are literally within your backyard, is that it allows you to “read the world you are living in,” said Fisher.

“By reading the world, you understand it, you understand your place in it, and you understand yourself,” he said.

Fisher said that observing and documenting Calgary’s wild species, whether it be its budding plants, emerging insects or migrating birds, “gives us hope that life still goes on.”