Bay Area nature challenge with California Academy of Sciences turns into global competition

ByDrew Tuma and Tim Didion KGO logo
Monday, May 6, 2024
Bay Area nature challenge turns into global competition
Armed with cellphone cameras, a team from the California Academy of Sciences joined volunteers in what's now become an international competition.

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. (KGO) -- You can't miss the dramatic view at Pilar Point near Half Moon Bay. But look a little closer, and you just might discover a hidden world.

"And this little hermit crab right here, it's the greeny hermit crab," said Alison Young, co-director of Community Sciences at the California Academy of Sciences.

Armed with cellphone cameras, Young and a team from the California Academy of Sciences joined a small army of volunteers, in what's now become an international competition. It's known as the City Nature Challenge, and the goal is to photograph and identify as many plant and animal species as possible in a matter of days. In the slippery tide pools around the point, they discovered everything from crabs to sea stars to anemones.

"We found a bunch of sea stars. Always trying to find them out in the mussel beds. So lots of mussels out there. We found a couple of little nudibranchs, which are just some of our favorite things to find. Little sea slugs, lots of anemones out there as well," Young said.

MORE: Volunteer project surveys Bay Area coast, sea life to predict impacts of climate change

The challenge started nearly a decade ago, as a friendly competition between San Francisco and Los Angeles. But Biodiversity and Community Science Coordinator Olivia VanDamme says it's now taken off around the globe.

"From the Philippines to Madagascar to Kazakhstan. And it's just really incredible. We're actually having people organizing and doing this challenge in all seven continents, including Antarctica. Yeah. And it's really incredible," VanDamme said.

Organizers describe the movement as community science. Volunteers use a platform called iNaturalist to upload images of their specimens. Academy researcher Rebecca Johnson says the mass of data is already making an impact.

"And there have been about 1.6 million observations. So that's 1.6 million individual records that tell us something about where a plant and animal, where it's found right now and those data are critically important for me," Johnson said.

MORE: Academy of Sciences digitizing more than 1 million plant specimens

The Academy regularly tracks endangered populations like the Sunflower Sea Star and local kelp forests, both, hit by rising ocean temperatures. The work is often as painstaking as it is vital. But perhaps made easier in the future, with help from a growing army of volunteers.

"And this big understanding of where plants and animals are found comes from the City Nature Challenge," Johnson said.

The total number of observations is scheduled to be announced later this month. And again, they're expected to be in the millions.

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