2020 City Nature Challenge
Updated: Sep 11
Since starting my graduate education in estuarine science, I have paid little attention to terrestrial ecology, often too busy reading scientific papers indoors or wading through the marsh. However, the COVID-19 pandemic in combination with iNaturalist has provided me with ample opportunity to get to know some of the species I walk by everyday. As part of my first piece entitled “Science Inside”, I linked to the City Nature Challenge which at the time I had only stumbled on due to research for the article. I became increasingly interested in citizen science opportunities like the City Nature Challenge which seek to increase global awareness of urban diversity and promote scientific education. As an avid traveler, a self proclaimed “global citizen”, I crave opportunities to help me feel united with people of different cultures, particularly those who are also interested in ecology. City Nature Challenge is an excellent example of just that.
In 2016, the City Nature Challenge was dreamt up by citizen science teams at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum and the California Academy of Sciences as a way to celebrate biodiversity in Los Angeles and San Francisco (1). They created an eight-day challenge to document the highest number of plants or animals found in each county. Hosted on the iNaturalist platform, participants only need a smartphone and an iNaturalist account. After the higher than anticipated participation (over 20,000 observations), they expanded to make this a national event in 2017 and an international event in 2018. Now, it is an annual event to celebrate urban diversity and promote citizen science throughout the world.
Since the program's inception participation has been increasing, reaching new cities and new audiences each year, thus spreading the mission of celebrating urban diversity worldwide. This year's event, the biggest yet (despite COVID-19 restrictions), took place over Earth Week (April 24-27, 2020), in which 41,165 people recorded 32,600 species (including 1,300 rare/endangered species) and 815,258 observations in 244 cities around the world from the Bay Area to Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost point of Argentina to Cape Town, South Africa. In doing so, they produced a rich dataset of urban plants and animals around the world which can be used to further urban education and research globally. To get the full dataset or to explore different cities' participation, click here.
As a point of interest and an avid traveler, I took to the City Nature Challenge website to dig through some of the 2020 global observations to see what I could find. Looking at each city's observations I saw naturalists helping others identify exotic plants in multiple different languages (thanks to Google Translate). Using the map of participating cities I used the latitude of the Bay Area to find the closest participating city in the Southern Hemisphere, San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina. Not surprisingly, I received a wealth of information from their City Nature Challenge webpage. A mountain town, known for its outdoor recreational opportunities, San Carlos de Bariloche abuts Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi and supports a diverse ecosystem as well as an urban population of around 123,000. Having a mostly wet climate, many of this year's observations focused on beautiful fungus, recording 252 observations of 113 species by 45 participants (observations found here). In addition to finding endemic South American species, many observations were made of species found here in the Bay Area, some of which include cattail (Typha), blackberries (Rubus), and lupine (Lupinus). Finding these familiar species was a quaint reminder that, while being a hemisphere apart, we can find similarities in our ecosystems through citizen science.
Here in the Bay Area, the 2020 City Nature Challenge recorded 31,450 observations of 2,795 species by 2,496 participants. Although this year was not a competition due to shelter-in-place mandates for COVID-19, we had 1,000 more participants than Los Angeles (the rivalry still goes on). Focusing further in depth, here in Marin County, we had 276 participants making over 1,000 observations. In an effort to expand to a previously undocumented area, nonprofit organization One Tam led City Nature Challenge participants to “far-flung slopes of Mount Tamaplais”. Although they are still tabulating the results, they have found the top five occurring species in Marin County to be the Western fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis), california poppy (Eschscholzia californica), Western blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum), Pacific poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) and miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) (2). One Tam continues the effort by periodically hosting BioBlitzes to continue the mission of documenting the flora and fauna of Marin County outside of the annual City Nature Challenge, which is an excellent citizen science opportunity for those of us in the Bay Area.
Although I was not able to participate in this year's City Nature Challenge, just scrolling through the results made me proud of my fellow citizen scientists and naturalists. Proud of those of us who are willing to support, encourage, and celebrate urban diversity worldwide. As a society we have come to understand and value diversity within the human population, however, we need to remember to value all biodiversity, whether it is in a city or not. With an ever-expanding global urban population, I believe citizen science opportunities like the City Nature Challenge, which seek to bridge the gap between “urban” and “natural”, provide enlightening opportunities for everyone to realize the intrinsic value in urban diversity. In doing so, we, as global citizens, can help further an understanding and responsibility to protect all beings on Earth, whether human or not.