From Snapshot to Science: Photos of Biodiversity as Useful Records

The Great Nature Project logo

By Carrie Seltzer

When was the last time you took a photo of an interesting insect or flower? Did you do anything with that photo?

Sharing your photos can be about more than photography — it’s about what those photos represent. For many kinds of organisms, photos with clear documentation about where and when they were taken are useful scientific records of an organism in a place at a specific time. In some ways, these records are like virtual museum specimens. And like a museum specimen, the location and date is important to its scientific utility.

National Geographic’s Great Nature Project is a way for people to use their photos as data by including information about what was seen, where, and when. The Great Nature Project is powered by, which is a social network of nature enthusiasts all over the world who interact with a database of biodiversity observations to add comments and suggest identifications.

Anyone can download data collected by iNaturalist users. Observations of wild organisms (i.e. not captive or cultivated) that receive the same identification from more than one user are considered “research grade”. These observations are shared with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and are available for download along with thousands of other datasets in peer-reviewed publications.

There are many possible ways that this kind of data can be used, but range extensions are among the simplest and easiest examples to understand. Scientists have maps for many species that show the boundaries of their known range, but between moving people and a changing climate, those boundaries shift. Focused inventories such as bioblitzes (like the one in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park) as well as casual observations made by ordinary people can be records that result in changes to species range maps. This is especially important for invasive —> Read More