RutgersBioblitz and other nature-based apps help students of all ages honor 50th Earth Day at home

There are not many upsides to being stuck at home during a pandemic.

But since our shelter-in-place orders overlap with the start of spring and the 50th anniversary of Earth Day (April 22), it does present a unique opportunity to get acquainted with the plant and animal life native to our neighborhoods.

“When people think about nature, they think of places like Yellowstone National Park, but we have nature in our backyard that’s important to study, because that is the nature we experience daily,” said Myla Aronson, an assistant professor in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. “Having the time to experience that and be outside will make us appreciate our immediate nature more. Plus, there is a lot of evidence that spending time in nature is good for physical and mental health.”

And does our improved air quality – however temporary – translate to significant changes in our local ecosystem?

boy with catepillar

“In my East Brunswick neighborhood, I’m seeing more deer, fox and wild turkey,” said Aronson, an urban ecologist whose interests focus on the conservation, restoration and maintenance of biodiversity in human-dominated landscapes. “But I’m not sure if there is more wildlife or if we’re just observing more because we are home during the day.”

Not sure what plants, insects or animals you’re observing? Thanks to multiple smartphone apps, including iNaturalist, even armchair ecologists can identify flora and fauna found feet from their front doors by snapping and posting a photo.

Each spring, Chrysler Herbarium at Rutgers University-New Brunswick collaborates with iNaturalist (California Academy of Sciences and National Geographic Society) to host a Personal Bioblitz aimed at getting people to learn more about life around them, to collect species data for scientists and to promote conservation in an era of rampant habitat destruction. It is open to anyone with a connection to Rutgers, including students, faculty, staff, alumni and their family members and friends, said Lena Struwe, a professor with the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences who is helping to lead the seventh Spring Personal Bioblitz at Rutgers.

After joining the project and downloading the app, participants take photos and record the sounds of species – wild and naturalized species that survive without human assistance, so no pets – found on Rutgers campuses and anywhere in the world from March 1 through May 15, 2020. All observations must be uploaded onto the iNaturalist website by day’s end on May 25.

Struwe reports an uptick in observations and members in this year’s Personal Bioblitz, noting the app works well for students 15 and older and includes multiple other biodiversity projects, including one that allows participants to identify wild species found within your own home. It’s her hope that all this time at home will deepen our connection with our environment.

“When you start to really look at little critters and flowers, to really SEE them, then you suddenly realize a whole new world is out there,” said Struwe. “The more you see, the more you learn, and the more you learn, the more you will care about the conservation of all species in the living webs of our ecosystems, right here, right now.”

In addition to Bioblitz, which is geared toward older students, Rutgers Cooperative Extension launches the free webinar series “Earth Day at Home” on April 20 at 6:30 p.m. These weekly hour-long interactive sessions, featuring Rutgers extension experts, will focus on steps everyone can take to protect the environment and make our homes more sustainable – from environmentally friendly lawn care to composting and reducing plastic waste. Participation requires registration.

Struwe and Aronson also recommend multiple other free apps and sites that encourage exploration of self, home and surroundings.

  • SEEK: Also made by iNaturalist, this app offers a simple approach to the bioblitz geared toward children under 15.
  • Botany Depot: Struwe launched and oversees this global landing page full of creative ideas and materials for teaching botany in the 21st century for all ages and levels. Here you can find links and downloads to resources, stories and publications, lesson plans, manuals, figures and a lot more – all shared by active botanical educators.
  • Your Wild Life: Track your cat’s comings and goings, get to know the biodiversity of your belly button and meet your forehead mites with these citizen science and science education projects.
  • 4-H From Home: Rutgers NJEAS began offering interactive virtual lessons March 19 on varying topics such as healthy living, STEM, civic engagement, the arts and more. Webinars take place Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3–4 p.m. using Zoom video conferencing for middle school age youth.
  • Zooniverse: Study authentic objects of interest gathered by researchers, like images of faraway galaxies, historical records and diaries or videos of animals in their natural habitats. By answering simple questions about them, you’ll help contribute to our understanding of our world, our history, our universe and more.
  • Merlin Bird ID: Answer three simple questions about a bird you are trying to identify and Merlin will come up with a list of possible matches. 
  • LeafSnap: Curious about a tree on your block? This free mobile app uses visual recognition software to help identify tree species from photographs of their leaves. The app contains beautiful high-resolution images of leaves, flowers, fruits, petioles, seeds and bark.