The goal of the Campus Nature Challenge at UNC Greensboro was to engage our community in a citizen science project to increase biodiversity awareness by photographing, recording audio, and cataloging the plants, animals (including insects), and fungi on campus.
During Earth Week 2021, UNCG students and employees were asked to use the iNaturalist app to identify as many species across campus as they could. Supported by a grant from the UNCG Green Fund, student participants were awarded prizes including a bicycle, tent, hammock, and gift cards for the most observations identified, the greatest number of species identified, and best photos.
This project builds off of the work of the UNCG Biology Department, which runs and monitors two wetlands on campus on iNaturalist. All told, 80 people made 2,075 observatoins and identified 559 species. The species with the most observations was common ivy, which is an invasive that continues to be fought both on campus and in the region.
According to the World Bank, over 55% of the world now lives in urban areas (82% in the U.S.). As urban population grows, so too, does urban area. While many studies on biodiversity focus on wilder, rural areas, the expansion of urban areas makes conservation and preservation of species and habitat within urban landscapes increasingly important. Understanding and preserving biodiversity in urban areas is essential because cities have often been built in critical habitats, such as riparian zones, and the urban landscape also contains corridors that provide habitat connections between populations of animals. And city biodiversity can look very different than native biodiversity, making it important to understand the differences. (Dearborn & Kark, 2010).
Involving people, especially students, in this environmental work is an important way to expand the desire to protect the environment. Several studies have shown that environmental education and experiences connecting with nature increase perceived pro-environmental attitudes long-term, and even extend to other family members (Farmer et al., 2007); (Vaughan et al., 2003). Since ecological knowledge acquisition increases awareness of conservation issues, there has been an increase in the encouragement to obtain conservation volunteers in order to receive a double dividend of help and support (Asah & Blahna, 2012).
The iNaturalist app is a popular citizen science tool for cataloging biodiversity. It is available for free on both Android and Apple and has a compatible website that allows participation by those who cannot download the app. iNaturalist allows users to take photos or record audio of diverse plant and wildlife, which are uploaded into the app with the location geotagged. The application makes suggestions for identification based on the photos. Once the person submitting the picture attempts to ID the photo, the photos are shared to the iNaturalist community.
All users are asked to help make confirmations or alternative suggestions. The owner of the picture may then accept or reject the suggestions. However, after several confirmations, the photo/species is cataloged as “Research-grade.” In this way, it keeps a check on the data, but it also provides an additional way for the person who takes the photo to learn about the species they are seeing.