iNaturalist Strikes Out on Its Own

A new $10 million grant is helping the new nonprofit.

September 12, 2023

This summer, iNaturalist, the global social network for recording and collectively identifying the biodiversity around us, went independent. With the help of a $10 million startup grant, the organization that started as a UC Berkeley master’s project separated from the California Academy of Sciences and National Geographic Society and became its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

“This is a necessary step in order for us to really reach our potential,” says Scott Loarie, co-director of iNaturalist. “We’re so grateful for them to give a home for the last nine years and help us through this process of finding our feet as an independent organization.”

iNaturalist is both a social network and “the world’s most powerful biodiversity data set,” according to Alison Young, iNaturalist board member and co-director of California Academy of Sciences’s Center for Biodiversity and Community Science. It’s an online platform—as Bay Nature has written—where a backyard bee spotted by a four-year-old was identified by a bee expert living thousands of miles away; a place where two teenagers identified two new scorpion species. Its users have pitched headfirst into the world of plant galls, and tracked the impacts of the harmful algal blooms that took over San Francisco Bay in 2022 and 2023. And it is a place where people can find new friends, as Young has, among those who are interested in the same parts of the outside world. 

Teenagers Prakrit Jain and Harper Forbes described two new scorpion species (including the above Paruroctonus soda) after spotting two unidentified iNaturalist observations. Here and here are links to the iNaturalist observations that led to the new classifications. (Photo by Prakrit Jain)

Data from iNaturalist have been used in more than 4,000 research publications, and users have identified new species through browsing its observations. “We have a better understanding of current biodiversity than we have ever had because of iNaturalist—hands down,” says Young. In total, more than 2.8 million observers have uploaded more than 150 million verifiable observations to iNaturalist, and in July, an average of 124 observations were uploaded per minute. 

Every month, around 350,000 people record observations. But Loarie recalls a time when he considered 50 regular iNaturalist users a triumph. Like any critter on its site, iNaturalist has gone through a number of life stages. 

In 2008, iNaturalist was born through its cofounder Ken-Ichi Ueda and fellow master’s students Nate Agrin and Jessica Kline’s joint final project. After Loarie joined in 2011, it grew into a limited liability company, and three years later, iNaturalist’s staff and office moved to the California Academy of Sciences as the two organizations joined forces. In 2017, the National Geographic Society came in as a partner, and iNaturalist became a joint initiative of these two nonprofits, funded by a combination of grants and small individual donations.

iNaturalist current staff. Back row, left to right: Sylvain Morin, Patrick Leary, Tony Iwane, Scott Loarie, Yaron Budowski, Abhas Misraraj. Front row, left to right: Alex Shepard, Angie Ta, Amanda Bullington, Carrie Seltzer, Johannes Klein, and Ken-ichi Ueda. (Photo courtesy of iNaturalist)

As the platform has grown in size and impact, its need for a more stable financial future has intensified. “It was making me personally feel a little uneasy that it felt so unstable as a project, not really knowing a couple months out what was going to happen,” says Loarie. Shifting toward independence allows iNaturalist to plan for longer-term goals. “I think iNaturalist has just barely, barely scratched the surface” of what it can do, Loarie says. 

On May 11, 2014, this New Zealand pigeon marked the 1 millionth observation uploaded to iNaturalist. Now, iNaturalist has more than 157 million uploaded observations. (Photo by Jon Sullivan, CC-BY)

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, a longtime iNaturalist donor with a $9.5 billion endowment, gave the newly independent iNaturalist a $10 million grant to help it achieve liftoff. Long term, iNaturalist aims to sustain itself through grants and individual donations.

“Powered by the participation of its growing user community, iNaturalist has demonstrated its promise for connecting people to nature in ways that drive scientific and conservation insights on both local and global scales,” Janet Coffey of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation said in a statement. “We are delighted to support this stage of the organization’s growth.”

As it takes this next step, Loarie reassures iNat users that the move toward independence isn’t a pivot. Its mission has stayed the same, as has its user interface. The platform’s leaders intend to double down on its goals to connect people with nature and produce good-quality ecological data. In particular, iNaturalist is interested in expanding its use in regions where biodiversity is high but access to iNaturalist is limited, such as parts of South America and Asia. 

iNaturalist is also interested in expanding its use of artificial intelligence, which the platform already uses to suggest identifications for observations based on image matching and geographic data. Its AI can currently identify 77,000 species, and it adds 1,000 to 2,000 new species each month. Already a pioneer in the use of AI for community-based science, iNaturalist hopes to use AI to guide predictions on species distributions, perhaps helping researchers and conservationists predict trends for invasive or threatened species. 

Managing the ever-growing iNaturalist presents unique challenges. Maintaining a safe and respectful social environment and avoiding online toxicity as the platform grows is a primary concern. And the platform’s leaders want to continue generating good-quality, scientifically useful data while keeping iNaturalist accessible for all. 

Moving forward, iNaturalist looks forward to collaborating with both of its former partner organizations. Many ongoing collaborations with Cal Academy—including the annual City Nature Challenge (the event that brings the most new users to iNaturalist each year), Snapshot Cal Coast (which we wrote about here), and California Biodiversity Day—are already in place, and plans for new projects are in the works. 

Though iNaturalist is now independent, it remains an inherently collaborative organization, built upon the efforts of millions of people observing the natural world. “What everybody wants is for them to fledge and become the best version of iNaturalist that they can be,” Young says. 

First seen on iNat

Here are six of the more than 5,000 species whose first known photographs of live individuals were observations uploaded to iNaturalist.

About the Author

Lia Keener is Bay Nature's outreach fellow. She graduated from UC Berkeley with a major in environmental biology and minors in journalism and Chinese language.