Alison Young: Citizen Science and Nudibranchs

By: Alison Young

[graphics & photos from Alison’s program]

Editors Note: At our November General meeting, Alison Young, from the California Academy of Sciences, spoke about their Citizen Science program, an interesting app called iNaturalist, and about nudibranchs. Using iNaturalist, anyone can photograph a given species .. of any animal or plant .. get it identified, logged into a world-wide network of professional and citizen scientists, have your data used to track that species, and contribute to natural history research. It’s a research-grade science tool that is operated by National Geographic and Cal Academy. It’s available for free on-line and as an app for your phone.

It was an interesting and informative program. She showed beautiful local nudibranchs that I haven’t seen before! Anyone can join Alison’s tidepool outings (see upcoming dates at the end) where you can find and identify nudibranchs and other species and join the citizen science program. It would make a fun club outing; if anyone wants to schedule an event with her; contact Alison at

Many thanks to Alison for speaking with us. Her report follows.

The California Academy of Sciences has a highly active research program, and their scientists work around the world to document where species occur, to discover new species, and to understand the relationships between species. The scientists often make specimen collections as “evidence” for these species occurrences.

When starting the Citizen Science program at the Academy, Alison and her co-director wanted to engage people in this type of science – the science of natural history – and have people participate in this process of exploring, observing carefully, and documenting biodiversity everywhere. But they didn’t want people to collect specimens and send them to the Academy – so instead, they use iNaturalist to have people record what they’re finding.

The iNaturalist platform is both a website and an app that’s designed for people to take photos of organisms they find in nature, to share their observations with others, to get help with identifications, and to explore what other people are seeing anywhere in the world. Using iNaturalist allows people to turn their photos of nature into data, since it creates the same kind of information that a museum specimen has: the location, the date, who found it, and the “evidence” is the photograph. iNaturalist has artificial intelligence which will give you suggestions on the identification of what you photographed, and once you upload your observation, other people in the iNaturalist community can help confirm, refine, or correct that ID.



Once an identification has been confirmed by ⅔ of the people suggesting an identification, that observation can become a “Research Grade” observation. Research Grade observations are shared with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF for short), which is a big database of species occurrence records, including museum specimen records and eBird records, and is often used by scientists who have questions about how species distributions are changing.

Intertidal biodiversity survey at Pillar Point.

One facet of the Citizen Science program at the California Academy of Sciences aims to engage people in documenting biodiversity along the California coastline. Alison and her co-director run two coastal projects: long-term monitoring at the Pillar Point reef where volunteers monitor a suite of species and work to build a species atlas using iNaturalist, and Snapshot Cal Coast, an annual 2-week event in the beginning of

June that mobilizes people from the Oregon border to the Mexico border to document coastal biodiversity. This program is funded by the California Ocean Protection council who is interested in using these data to inform management of California’s marine protected areas, and supports a research scientist in the Citizen Science Department at the Academy to analyze the data, look for trends, and to compare what’s happening inside and outside of these MPAs.

Most people participate in Snapshot Cal Coast by making observations in tidepools or along beaches, but the Academy would love to have more subtidal observations (hint, hint!). Getting lots of people excited about and interested in documenting coastal and marine biodiversity not only gathers lots of data, but it also means you’re bound to find things you weren’t expecting to find – like the Dendronotus orientalis nudibranch one of the Academy’s volunteers and her high school-aged daughter found under a dock in San Francisco Bay, which was not only a new record for California, but for all of North America! This nudibranch had only previously been found in Asia and the high schooler got to be the author of the paper letting the scientific community know about this new find.

Alison then went on to talk about why she was focusing on nudibranchs for this presentation, when iNaturalist allows you to document any and every organism. The Academy has a long history of documenting and discovering nudibranch species, and in their citizen science programs, they’ve found nudibranchs to be a gateway into discovering more about tidepools and marine life, because people get so excited about and interested in what else they can find once they find their first nudibranch.

Monterey Bay observations.

Alison gave some pointers on where to look for nudibranchs: big deep pools with red algae near the other edge of the reef are a great place to find them in the tidepools, or look for them on their food sources. She also presented an overview of where nudibranchs lie on the tree of life and what else they are related to, and talked about the two types of nudibranchs: dorids and aeolids. The easiest way to tell these two groups apart is to look for a visible plume of gills – dorids have them, aeolids don’t! There is a huge diversity of nudibranchs you find along the coast here in the Bay Area, and even in the bay itself, and Alison showed us photos of the more common and interesting nudibranch species in the area.

Alison ended her talk by circling back around to iNaturalist and showing some other useful features of the platform, like being able to keep track of all the species you have personally seen, exploring other people’s observations globally to find species you’re interested in or learn more about what can be found at places you’re interested in, and how to help other people identify what they’ve found. She encouraged everyone to check out iNaturalist, and participate in this ever-growing global biodiversity network by either adding observations on your own, or coming to one of the Academy’s upcoming citizen science events!


CalAcademy Citizen Science Upcoming Events

  • Monday, October 28: All-reef search and night tidepooling at Pillar Point
  • Tuesday, November 12 & Tuesday, November 26: Surveys at Pillar Point
  • June 1-16, 2020: Snapshot Cal Coast