By Grant Bolton, Ph.D.
With a smartphone in so many pockets, everyone is taking pictures of the world and sharing them online. Believe it or not, in 2022 alone, there were 1.72 trillion photos taken, and 92.5 percent of those pictures were taken with a mobile phone!
But, what does that have to do with entomology?
If you’ve ever declared yourself a professional or amateur entomologist, then you know that people love sharing blurry pictures of insects with you, hoping for a quick ID. Instead of hunting down your local entomologist, for naturalists and nature-loving hobbyists, dozens of apps and websites now allow people to share pictures of plants and animals and get accurate identification from experts and enthusiasts.
In a research review published in August in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America, entomologists Michael Skvarla, Ph.D., and Ray Fisher, Ph.D., reviewed the impact that photo-sharing platforms have on the entomology community and some of the best practices for using the plethora of data out there to supplement different areas of study.
Skvarla, an assistant research professor of arthropod identification at Penn State University, and Fisher, a research associate at Mississippi State University and the Mississippi Entomological Museum, reviewed 2,123 entomology-based publications that used community photographs and metadata from 77 online photo-sharing portals, including community science apps, social media, and media-sharing sites.
“I use BugGuide and iNaturalist a lot for IDs and personal use,” Skvarla says. “I tried using that photo data in publications and got pushback from editors years ago. However, I started getting less of that pushback recently, and it was becoming more accepted in the scientific literature. I figured it was time to do a review on it.”
What Skvarla and Fisher found was that there has been an exponential growth in the number of publications that used community photos since 2006, with iNaturalist seeing a majority of that growth. With access to this body of citizen-science observations, researchers can potentially expand their pool of data and design studies to answer new questions about insects.
However, using this data does have its limitations. Skvarla and Fisher show in their study that clear biases exist when it comes to which insects are represented in these photos.
“A lot of the papers out there that use citizen-science data focus on big, showy insects,” Skvarla says, “because those are the ones that are most photographed or most easily identifiable. But this does show that there are gaps in the citizen science data that we can address and projects can be built around.”
Additionally, most of these publications used data that represent species from the Palearctic and Nearctic regions—in other words, primarily the northern hemisphere. That can limit the scope of certain research projects that want to focus on the diversity and population distributions of certain insect groups. But, with countries and communities in the tropics and southern hemisphere adopting and using more of this technology, there is tremendous potential for expanding the data to include a greater diversity of insects in those regions.
Much of the data on these photo-sharing platforms is being used in distinct categories, including:
- behavior, ecology, and natural history
- color patterns
- host plant ID
- new genera and species
And that’s just using the photographs themselves. Beyond that, metadata from these sites (i.e., the info that accompanies every picture, such as location, timestamps, etc.) can be used to study:
- monitoring and surveillance
- changes in species richness
- habitat, distribution, niche, and occupancy modeling
- population modeling
- and more.
With a little creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, researchers can use these underutilized data and information to explore and explain these patterns and trends in entomology.
So, what are some things researchers should keep in mind when considering community photo data?
These platforms offer a huge source of information, but researchers need to use it with caveats and understand the pitfalls of the platform. An example Skvarla and Fisher share in their review demonstrates this bias. A study reported a substantial increase in photographs of monarch butterflies on the west coast of California and a mistaken correlation with “unprecedented breeding activity” among the population. However, in the same time period, there was an exponential increase in monarch butterfly submissions on iNaturalist.
Additionally, researchers should consider “trends in photo-sharing, biases in when and where photographs are taken, and accuracy of identifications” when using photo-sharing data.
In sum, Skvarla and Fisher conclude that, while this data can be unstructured and prone to bias, there are opportunities to use community-generated data to supplement and reinforce future publications.
And for those getting started with photo-sharing platforms, it’s a great way to better understand the flora and fauna near you.
“If you’re interested in learning more about the world around you and want to know what’s out there, start taking pictures of what you see,” Skvarla says. “I’ve learned about what I have growing in my yard and in the woods because I take photos of them and put them on iNaturalist. Then people identify them for me. And don’t forget to take good-quality photos. Blurry ones don’t help as much.”
Annals of the Entomological Society of America