Wildlife photos submitted to iNaturalist for the 2020 Greater Kansas City Nature Challenge: Eastern carpenter bee, by kgastreich; Virginia opossum, by jaymayha; dome snail, by Scottfohey; Philadelphia fleabane, by Kristavalenzuela; redbuds, by jacobgaynor; American bullfrog, by kmsaluri.

Get out your smartphone, you have a chance to help scientists discover a rare or new species in Kansas City. Starting Friday, April 30, the Kansas City metro area is challenging residents to get out and discover the nature surrounding them in their backyards, neighborhoods and local parks.

For the second year, Kansas City and nine surrounding counties are participating in a four-day international event called the City Nature Challenge, where tens of thousands of people use an app called iNaturalist to document wildlife in urban areas. 

The event not only gets people out to experience nature, it also allows them to partake in citizen science by documenting their wildlife findings. The information can be used by researchers, like at the Missouri Department of Conservation, or by Kansas City when development planning.

“The goals of the nature challenge are to connect people in urban and metro areas to local nature that’s around them,” said Stacia Pieroni, conservation manager for the Kansas City Zoo. “Once people connect through the City Nature Challenge, I hope it encourages them to get out and enjoy nature and wildlife that we have in Kansas City on a regular basis.”

The Kansas City Zoo started hosting the City Nature Challenge in 2020. The program started in 2016 as a competition between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Last year, 244 cities and 40 countries participated.

“My big goal is that the zoo should be a leader in our community for encouraging people to get out appreciating nature and discovering what is in your own backyard,” Pieroni said. “I thought this would be a fun way, especially during the pandemic.”

In order to participate, residents download the iNaturalist app, available in Apple and Google Play stores. Once they take pictures in the app, they are automatically uploaded to the challenge. 

What you see in your backyard may surprise you

Kansas City has a surprising amount of biodiversity, Pieroni said. 

“If you really get out and walk the trail, or even your backyard, and are really looking, you’ll be so surprised about how many plants and insects and birds are in your yard or neighborhood every day,” she said. “I think it will be really eye-opening.”

That diversity can be seen by the number of observations participants found last year. Participants recorded 707 different wildlife sightings, from which 354 unique species were identified.

After participants upload photos, certified verifiers go through and confirm which species are in the pictures.

During the 2020 City Nature Challenge, wildlife sightings in the greater Kansas City area included snapping turtles, opossums and wolf spiders. Participants also recorded plants like creeping phlox, Virginia bluebells, rose vervain and buttercups.

An observation from the 2020 City Nature Challenge. Screenshot from iNaturalist.org

Those observations can be a saving grace for scientists. Residents are able to make a larger number of wildlife observations in a much shorter timeframe than researchers can on their own.

“Especially with the pandemic, more and more researchers are relying on these types of observations,” Pieroni said. “It really gives us a bigger picture of not only what is in the greater Kansas City metro area, but also all over the world.”

Last year, over 815,000 observations were made by people participating in the City Nature Challenge worldwide. Out of those, over 1,300 different rare, endangered or threatened species were documented.

A white-spotted slimy salamander was recorded in Arlington County, Virginia, for the first time since 1977. Another family spotted a western bobcat eating a jackrabbit in their neighbor’s backyard during the challenge.

“Things are getting discovered every day,” Pieroni said.

Planning a more holistic Kansas City around discoveries

This year, Kansas City, Missouri, is partnering with the Kansas City Zoo to get the word out about the challenge. 

But the findings also could prove useful for the city.

“If we know what’s out there in our parks and areas that are not yet developed, we can better plan our city around the residents that were living here before we ever got here,” said Lara Isch, sustainability manager for Kansas City.

She said knowing more about what kinds of wildlife exist can help the city maintain biodiversity and better plan for a more holistic city. For example, if an area is home to a threatened or endangered species, the city can try to prevent people from developing that space.

“There’s so much nature all around people that they don’t realize is here,” Isch said. “We have bald eagles in Kansas City. We have beaver and river otters and things that if you’re not looking for, you miss in your daily life.”

Isch hopes the people of Kansas City will step up and record thousands of observations for this year’s City Nature Challenge.

Other local research programs using the iNaturalist app include the Missouri Prairie Foundation  Citizen Science Biodiversity Project and the Kansas City Pollinator Project.

More info:

The City Nature Challenge runs April 30-May 3

Regions included: Jackson, Clay, Cass, Platte and Ray counties in Missouri. Johnson, Wyandotte, Leavenworth and Miami counties in Kansas. 

Download iNaturalist in the App Store

Download iNaturalist on Google Play

Join the City Nature Challenge 2021 in the iNaturalist app

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Brittany Callan covers health and environment at The Beacon, and is a Report for America corps member. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.