What’s Invasive? Find Out With Citizen Science.

By April 23rd, 2014 at 11:00 am | Comment

Headed outside? Learn more about how you can help report invasive species with the What’s Invasive? smartphone app!

Want more citizen science? There’s an app for that.

California Hillsides

A photo of the savanna oak woodland with invasive grass in the spring.

I first visited Southern California in the spring. The hillsides were covered in emerald green grasses and spotted with great old Valley Oak trees—a landscape that is known as savannah oak woodland. After visiting a few national parks I soon learned that all the beautiful green grass was invasive—most of it imported as seed in horse feed during the Spanish period from other regions of the world: Mexican feather grass, pampass grass, fountain grass—the list goes on and on. Grass was also used from as early as 1500 as ship ballast, for trade and as food.

The invasive grasses took over the hillsides to such an extent that they changed the landscape. This conversion to non-native annual species was so fast and all encompassing that very little is known of the original composition of the perennial species. What we do know is that natural Californian grasslands are among the most endangered ecosystems in the United States.

What was lost? One example is that traditional perennial grass such as purple needlegrass did not blanket the ground. They grew in clumps or patches, leaving space for wildflowers to take root. The flowers in turn attract a wide range of insects, which in turn attract many predators… and so the food chain grows.

The National Park Service along with the University California Los Angeles and two other partners have created a website and an app called What’s Invasive? (official site) where you can record any invasive species. The website is set up for just more than 90 parks and it’s growing—largely because you can add your own site. Once you have logged the park you would like to record invasive species for, you just have to wait for it to be verified. You provide the name of the park, GPS coordinates, description, website, and logo or picture for the site.


Screenshot of the app (click to enlarge).

You can select from a range of plants, plant diseases, insects, and animals that are lodged in the system. If you don’t see a species you want to add, you can request that it be entered into the system. You can also use this to create custom species descriptions for your park or site! And if you’re not a specialist, there is no reason to tackle invasive species on your own. Most of us only learn to identify two or three non-native species by site once we learn that they are invasive. You can add other people you work with as managers to edit the species list, site information, verify reports, or work with users who have made reports. So there is no real reason to fear adding a native species by mistake, since an expert will check it.

Invasive species are a threat to native plants and animals, crowding natives, consuming food sources, or acting as fire hazards. The NPS has found that having groups such as schools run short-term “campaigns” is highly effective for locating invasive species, and a lot of fun. And even if you are planning to visit a local national park as a family, download the app and get your kids involved in the fight against invasive species.

Bugs: Some people have reported issues with registration and signing in, while there are some bugs with the Android app. The iPhone app is listed as being available but Apple doesn’t have it in their app store.

Images: Ian Vorster

Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian’s work at dragonflyec.com.

Categories: Citizen Science

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