From the Pen of Carter P. Smith
The gaggle of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists, huddled intently outside the west wing of our headquarters, was a dead giveaway that something was up. Indeed there was. A keen-eyed colleague returning from a walk over the lunch hour had spotted and caught a juvenile western coachwhip nestled in a tuft of grass just yards away from the building’s side door.
After a short examination of the snake’s condition, the group’s discussion quickly turned to where to release the snake in the adjacent McKinney Falls State Park. But, first, everyone agreed, the coachwhip’s occurrence needed to be appropriately recorded in the Herps of Texas database, an online repository for amphibian and reptile sightings housed within the iNaturalist Web platform.
Yours truly got the honors. And, after a quick photo of the snake with my phone, an upload of the picture into my Flickr account and a cursory entry of details into the database on the species of snake, the nature and date of observation and its location, I was all done. The whole affair took about 10 minutes or so. It was my first foray onto iNaturalist and, specifically, the Herps of Texas Project site. It will not be my last.
The iNaturalist-Herps of Texas Project is the brainchild of a couple of biologists looking into novel ways to collect more biological data on the state’s herpetofauna through the use of crowdsourcing. By tapping into the observations of the state’s myriad nature and outdoor enthusiasts, the biologists hypothesized that they could capitalize on the burgeoning citizen science movement, engage more people in documenting needed information about species of concern and use technology as a way to engage more young people in the wonders of science and nature study.
They were absolutely right.
After just one short year in existence, the site has already documented well over 4,000 unique biological recordings of amphibians and reptiles around the state. This information is used by TPWD biologists, various universities and others to monitor and predict the distribution, habitat utilization and occurrence of species from salamanders to turtles.
It has also spawned another rivalry of sorts, one historically rooted on the football field. Biology professors from the University of Texas and Texas A&M have set up their own sub-sites under the iNaturalist-Herps of Texas Project, whereby students enrolled in field herpetology classes are required to collect and record their own sightings. The competition between schools is readily apparent. My last visit showed UT ahead by 1, with the Aggie professor exhorting his students to catch up and the UT professor exhorting his to maintain their lead. Johnny Football may have met his match with this merry band of herpetologists!
Texas is filled with residents who are keenly interested in the natural world around them. Through TPWD’s Wildlife Diversity Program, and specifically our Texas Nature Trackers Program, they can contribute to our body of knowledge on a range of species from box turtles to tarpons to whooping cranes to our state’s most famous herp, the horned lizard.
For more information about this unique way to experience and contribute to our science and conservation efforts, take a look at the accompanying article by my colleagues Cullen Hanks and Natalie Reina. Even better, show it to your kids or grandkids and get them involved in the nature of their nature.
Thanks for caring about our wild things and wild places. They need you now more than ever.