How Your Phone Can Help You Be a Naturalist 

How Your Phone Can Help You Be a Naturalist 

By Aaron Searcy, publications associate

With widespread closures of public areas and social-isolating measures in place across the country, spending time outside remains a reliable source of solace for many in uncertain times. Despite the temporary closure of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there are still plenty of other places that can be safely enjoyed and explored. 

Thankfully, it’s springtime too, and that means trees are turning green, insects are buzzing, and all kinds of shoots and buds are breaking through and coming to life. If you’re a gardener like me, you might be wondering if that weed popping up is native or invasive. Are those beetles next to your seedlings helping or hurting? What about that mushroom—is it edible?

One tool that can help you answer most of those questions—and brush up on your naturalist knowledge at the same time—is an app called iNaturalist. I recently wrote about it in the spring issue of Smokies Life.

Once you install the app, you can upload a picture of that mystery plant or insect and immediately receive a short list of possible matches. After you pick one, other users can help confirm your identification.

Beyond adding to your own appreciation and knowledge of the natural world, observations made in iNaturalist also provide valuable data to researchers studying biodiversity. Once several other users agree with your identification, it becomes “research grade,” and your observation can be used in any number of ways by researchers anywhere in the world.

Park partner Discover Life in America—an organization dedicated to documenting and studying biodiversity in the Smokies through the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory—has recently harnessed the app through their own project called Species SnapIt & MapIt. The project is already helping to create distribution maps for at-risk species and inform important conservation management decisions in the park.

Observations made with iNaturalist beyond the Smokies can be just as helpful, too. Surrounding areas in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, including many residential neighborhoods, harbor rich biodiversity in their own right. But unfortunately, these areas are also part of one of the most imperiled ecosystems on the planet

The more data that can be collected in the region as a whole, the better conservationists will be equipped to preserve threatened and endangered wildlife both in and outside the park. Whether you’re in the mountains or practicing social distancing in your own backyard, iNaturalist is a great way to learn more about the life around you and help protect it too.

To learn more about DLiA and the ways iNaturalist is being used in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, read my article in the latest Smokies Life now for free: Uploading [App]alachia.”

From top: mushrooms, Gulf Fritillary, Lichen. Photos by Aaron Searcy

To download the iNaturalist app, visit the, the App Store or Google Play.

For information on DLiA and instructions on how to use iNaturalist visit

Consider becoming a member of Great Smoky Mountains Association (if you haven’t already) to support the park and receive regular issues of Smokies Life delivered right to your door.

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