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L.A. takes on San Francisco in the first City Nature Challenge

L.A. takes on San Francisco in the first City Nature Challenge
Citizen scientist Sidney Higgins makes an observation in the nature gardens of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County)

Get out those cellphone cameras, nature lovers.

The citizens of Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area have begun a weeklong battle to see who can take the most pictures of the plant and animal life in their respective corners of the Golden State.

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It's the City Nature Challenge, sponsored by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

Coyotes and ladybugs count as wildlife. So do birds, slugs, worms and your backyard plants. Participants are being asked to upload their observations to iNaturalist, which is both a website and an app that you can download to your phone.

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L.A. residents can also email observations to nature@nhm.org or tweet, Facebook or Instagram them using the hashtag #natureinLA.

The contest ends at noon April 21, and the results will be announced the following day.

To learn more about the competition, and its scientific significance, we spoke with the architects of the challenge: Lila Higgins, manager of citizen science at the L.A. museum, and Alison Young, citizen science engagement coordinator at the San Francisco academy.

First, let's lay out the ground rules. Can I upload a picture of my dog?

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AY: No. Domesticated pets will not be included in our species counts. And if you go to the zoo and take wonderful photos of giraffes and elephants, that's awesome, but it won't count because they are not wild in these areas.

LH: Plants in people's backyards -- even though we know they were deliberately planted there -- will get accepted, but houseplants will not.

AY: And things can be alive or dead. If you find a print of an animal on the beach, that works too. That's evidence that it was there.

What are L.A.'s chances of winning?

LH: We've looked at the comparative data between our areas on iNaturalist, and San Francisco generally beats us on a monthly and weekly basis. But one of our power users, Cedric Lee, has been communicating with some of the other power users here and giving them tips on how to up the ante. He thinks that if the challenge is just a week long, we may have a chance.

UCLA student Cedric Lee is an iNaturalist power user who plans to help L.A. win the first City Nature Challenge between Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area.
UCLA student Cedric Lee is an iNaturalist power user who plans to help L.A. win the first City Nature Challenge between Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area. (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County)

What's the Bay Area's advantage?

AY: Well, iNaturalist was developed by a UC Berkeley graduate, so its incubation happened in the Bay Area and that helped us gain users. Also, the whole thing of beating L.A. is pretty ingrained in the San Francisco Bay area psyche. And it helps that our Giants did just win the first series against the Dodgers.

Are the scales tipped in one direction? Does one city have more urban wildlife than the other?

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LH: We are both in the California Floristic Province, which means we are both in biodiversity hot spots. There are species here that aren't found anywhere else in the entire world. I don't know if we have a comprehensive species list of the two geographic areas we are looking at, but my guess would be that they are really close.

AY: The challenge is between L.A. County and all nine counties in the Bay Area. L.A. has more people who could potentially be out there making observations, but we [in the Bay Area] have more area. If I had to guess, I would assume all nine Bay Area counties have more species than L.A. County. But, really, what this comes down to is mobilizing people to go out there and observe during the week.

How many observations are you each hoping to get?

LH: I'm hoping for 10,000.

AY: Wow. Then we are hoping for 10,001.

The idea of this challenge is a lot of fun, but does it have any scientific value?

AY: Definitely. Mobilizing the public is the only way to really get a comprehensive idea of where species occur. Especially as our world is going through so many changes, it's important to understand where different plants and animals are thriving now, so we can compare that to where they were found in the past and better understand where they might be going in the future.

LH: Who knows? We could find new L.A. County records of species, and we could find new state records. We have citizen scientists here in L.A. who have found things that had never been found in our state.

AY: One of our citizen scientists just a few weeks ago discovered a new species of nudibranch [a.k.a. sea slug] in the San Francisco Bay. Before she documented it and put it on iNaturalist, it was only known from China, the Philippines and Japan. You can discover so many cool things when you have so many eyes out there looking.

How can people participate?

AY: Any plants, animals or fungus that you see in L.A. or the Bay Area -- living or dead -- just take a photograph of that and upload it to the iNaturalist platform. The app is the easiest way to make those observations because you take a photo with your phone, and your phone knows where you are and what time it is and what day it is, and that makes the complete record that we need. Anything you find anywhere works. It doesn't have to be a park. It could be what you see just walking down your sidewalk, or in your school yard, or in your backyard.

LH: And in L.A., people can also email us a picture at nature@nhm.org or submit via social media using the hashtag #natureinla on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Lila Higgins, manager of citizen science at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, is one of the architects of the first City Nature Challenge
Lila Higgins, manager of citizen science at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, is one of the architects of the first City Nature Challenge (Mario de Lopez / Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County)

What does the winner of this challenge get?

AY: Bragging rights and the increased knowledge of the biodiversity in their area. Isn't that prize enough?

LH: It's a win for more people to be aware that we are in this amazing biodiversity hot spot with all this unique and amazing nature around us, and we are getting people out there to look and hopefully begin and continue their relationship with nature. Plus, they'll get some data for our scientists too!

AY: Exactly! But we definitely still want to beat L.A.

Do you love science? I do! Follow me @DeborahNetburn and "like" Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.

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