iNaturalist as a monitoring tool: combining targeted surveys of sea star wasting (SSW) with community involvement

Graphic recording of session by Savanna Young.

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We provide an overview of iNaturalist and highlight its use as a biodiversity and habitat monitoring tool for community involvement, and as a source of open access data for research and conservation. Using the sea star wasting (SSW) epidemic as an example, we review methods for targeted monitoring for sea star wasting disease and discuss the development and implementation of monitoring programs, and the use of the iNaturalist platform. SSW caused an unprecedented widespread die-off of sea stars from Baja to Alaska, with consequences including a population decline in sunflower stars of over 90%. 

The epidemic started in 2013, influences up to 20 species of sea star, and remains broadly persistent at low levels. There are varying responses across sites and species, with indications of population recovery in some of the affected species and in some locations, while other populations remain depleted. This variation by species, space and time poses challenges to monitoring population response and recovery; citizen science involvement in tracking sea star wasting and recovery through tools such as the iNaturalist platform provides more eyes on the ground that are crucial to understanding the severity and geographic spread of the epidemic.