Environmentalist Jon Sullivan has recorded thousands of strange and wonderful creatures that inhabit Christchurch. AMBER ALLOTT finds out how you can help him.
There is nothing that environmentalist Jon Sullivan enjoys more than the walks and bike rides around Christchurch.
But anyone following should be prepared for frequent stops.
Sullivan has taken tens of thousands of photos and audio recordings in almost every corner of the city – of almost every bird, insect, plant, mold, and fungus he sees.
He is one of the country’s most prolific users of iNaturalist, an app that doubles as an international scientific network and uses the power of ordinary people to map and catalog global biodiversity.
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The app has many uses, Sullivan says.
It can help track the spread of harmful parasites and show the impact of climate change on the ebb and flow of different species.
It has also been proven to help rediscover species once thought to be lost, and has even helped experts discover new species.
“[There are] many different ways to use iNaturalist. It’s a gateway to the world around you, âhe said.
Sullivan, who works at Lincoln University, is also a curator for New Zealand’s iNaturalist network, MÄtaki Taiao.
He was part of a Christchurch-based group interested in documenting the country’s biodiversity called the New Zealand Bio-Recording Network.
The group launched NatureWatch NZ in 2005 – which Sullivan described as a “worse” version of iNaturalist, where users couldn’t upload photos.
A few years later, iNaturalist was born in California, the result of the end of studies project of three university students for their master’s degree.
From there he grew. The service now has 1.8 million registered users worldwide and is owned by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society.
Sullivan and the NZ Bio-Recording Network have hung on to the new technology and have been instrumental in optimizing it for Kiwi users.
In 2014, New Zealand became the second country in the world, after Mexico, to establish its own special regional network.
âIt just launched in Australia too, it has become a real juggernaut,â Sullivan said.
âA lot of new discoveries came out of it and a lot of people got involved. It was awesome.
The iNaturalist app uses computer learning to give an immediate idea of ââwhat species might be in an image. But usually within half an hour, Sullivan said, experts around the world start stepping in.
“People actually spent a lot of their lives discovering new things – discovering new grass or finding an insect that was gone.”
Sullivan himself has over 40,000 entries to his name, but has identified nearly 50,000 species for other users.
Users can upload photos of their finds, and even audio recordings of birdsong or chirping insects.
“For me, if I don’t know what something is, I’ll take a photo and upload itâ¦ Many have turned out to be New Zealand firsts.”
Sullivan said he liked to keep the windows open in his University of Lincoln office to hear the birds, and one day an unusual butterfly entered.
“It was called a little tortoiseshell butterfly … it comes from the northern hemisphere.”
Its discovery triggered a campus sweep by Biosecurity NZ, but no other enigmatic insects were found.
âI’ve never seen another. Lincoln staff receive all kinds of unusual packages from overseas. The only way I can think of [as to how it reached New Zealand] was there a chrysalis in one of these packages.
iNaturalist has also been a tool for discovering many Canterbury premieres.
âThe world is heating up quickly,â Sullivan said.
“So [further South] is increasingly becoming suitable habitat for many species.
Sullivan first saw – and recorded – Australian blackfield cricket in the Port Hills in 2019.
âThey make a loud noise, you hear that loud chirping from the ground. Now I hear them a lot.
He and a colleague, spider expert Cor Vink, were following the spread of another Australian native who appeared to be settling in the Cashmere region.
“[It is] called the little humpback spider. They live in messy webs, in colonies, which is very unusual for New Zealand spiders.
Spiders also have a unique method of killing their prey. Rather than injecting them with venom, they quickly wrap them in silk, suffocating them.
Tracking the spread of new species is important for biosecurity and stopping pests, Sullivan said, and for protecting what is already there.
It is also something that anyone can help.
The Australian steel-blue ladybug, already common on the North Island, has recently appeared in Christchurch, he said, as has the harlequin ladybug.
“That one [the harlequin] is a general eater, he also eats other ladybugs.
âIt almost wiped out other species overseas, like in the UK. It will be interesting to see what happens as they spread and the numbers increase. “
Another species of interest is the South African praying mantis, a species already well established in Auckland, Northland and the Nelson-Marlborough region.
Sullivan said the species came this way and it could cause problems for native mantises.
“The excited males will try to mate with the much larger South African females, who just eat them.”
However, it’s not all bad news and iNaturalist users have made many positive findings.
The rocky copper butterfly of Rauparapaha, a native who is believed to have been extirpated from the area, was recently rediscovered alive in a hedge in Kaiapoi.
âNew Zealand nature is amazing, and we need New Zealanders to be aware of it and engaged with what is around them,â said Sullivan.
âBy paying more attention to nature, we see more new things.
âIt’s also a lot of fun. It makes every day a little more of an adventure.
In his own Cashmere backyard alone, Sullivan has recorded 591 species, including 209 plants and 119 butterflies or butterflies.
He even discovered a species of giant thrip, a winged insect, on one of his eucalyptus trees, the first time it was seen on the South Island.
“And I always find new things.”
How to make an observation on iNaturalist:
- Download the free iNaturalist app from the Apple App Store or Google Play. It is also available online at https://inaturalist.nz/
- Open the app and tap on the âobserveâ icon. Here you can choose whether you want to take a photo, record sound, or upload an older photo.
- Fill in what you saw – it’s okay to be vague like “duck” or “mushroom” if you are unsure. The app can also use artificial intelligence to make suggestions
- Add where and when you saw it. Be sure to use the “captive / cultivated” slider if it applies to your find.
- Tap share. Experts will weigh in quickly to help you verify your sighting.