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Calgary City Nature Challenge looks to capture more species, hearts and minds this year

Local nature nuts have the chance to contribute to science this weekend, by documenting local biodiversity in their literal and figurative backyards for the Calgary City Nature Challenge.

The City Nature Challenge (CNC), an annual event spanning 400 cities, started in 2016 as a global effort to document and map local urban biodiversity. Participants use iNaturalist, a crowdsourcing citizen science platform to record, share, and identify photo and audio observations of biodiversity, such as birds, insects, and plants.

Matthew Wallace, an iNaturalist extraordinaire who has logged more than 8,000 observations on the platform, founded the Calgary CNC. He helped establish the event in other Alberta municipalities, including Edmonton, Lethbridge and Red Deer.

More than 3,500 species have been documented in Calgary from over 62,000 iNaturalist observations. These figures jumped from the City Nature Challenges in 2019 and 2020. CONTRIBUTED

The inaugural Calgary CNC in 2019 was successful, with 144 observers submitting almost 4,500 identifications from across the city, despite the event falling on a snowy weekend. Only three other Canadian cities were participating at that time.

The Calgary CNC grew in 2020, with 253 observers submitted over 5,500 observations. Other municipalities in the Calgary Metropolitan Region were included in this event, including Airdrie, Chestermere, Cochrane and Okotoks.

The information collected during these events has helped identify local biodiversity hotspots. They’ve found where there are many species present, and it could help direct conservation efforts.

“We’re at a point where we’ve documented thousands of species, mostly in the least disturbed natural areas within our urban centres,” said Wallace.

But finding biodiversity away from the city’s most pristine parks is important too.

“We know next to nothing about the most built-up parts of our urban environment,” he said.

“We need to gain more information from areas outside those hotspots.”

No need to travel far

A heat map of all iNaturalist observations made within Calgary. CONTRIBUTED

Wallace wants this year’s event, held from April 30 to May 3, to be the most productive one yet. With a touch of competitiveness, he also wants Calgary to be the top performer among 23 other Canadian cities participating. He’s hoping 1,000 species can be recorded locally. To help reach this goal, Wallace has an ambitious plan to personally record at least 1,000 observations.

Calgarians don’t have to travel far to participate, and with the ongoing pandemic, there are no formal events being held.

“We’re encouraging people to explore their yards and neighbourhoods and local parks,” he said.

Wallace recommends “making yourself available to nature” while out hunting for species to document. “It’s about really immersing yourself in it by using all your senses and also relaxing — when you relax nature shows itself a little bit more,” he said.

Photos can be submitted to iNaturalist using either the platform’s mobile application or through a web browser. The app was also recently updated to allow for recording audio directly, allowing animals like birds and amphibians to be documented without any heavy-duty camera equipment.

A chance to discover

Observations submitted to iNaturalist have real value in science, said Greg Pohl, an insect and disease identification officer with Natural Resources Canada, who is leading the Edmonton CNC.

iNaturalist has revolutionized entomology, he said.

“I’ve been doing this work for 30 years, and in the olden days, there were a few people who were bug collectors and once in a while they would bring in a specimen,” he said.

“But now, it’s so easy when people see something weird for them to just take a picture of it and fire it up on iNaturalist — then it’s out there for people like me to see and it’s there forever.”

As a result, the amount of quality information coming into entomology labs is orders of magnitudes larger than a couple decades ago, he said.

Pohl specializes in moths. As with other insect groups, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of species.

“With birds, there’re about 600 species in Canada, but there are more types of moths in my backyard.,” he said.

An iNaturalist record of a white satin moth documented in Calgary in 2020. There’s are hundreds of species of moths in Alberta, and any observation can provide important information about a species.

Given this diversity, there are many unknowns about all these species, such as their geographic distribution.

However, observations from iNaturalist are working to close these gaps. Since it has taken off, Pohl encounters around 50 new provincial records of moth species using the platform.

For an opportunity to make a new discovery, “just look under your nose,” said Pohl.

“Even if you don’t get any further than your backyard or street, look on some tree bark, under some stones, or scratch around in the leaf litter — it’s all crawling with bugs.”