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Climate and Environment

The City Nature Challenge Turns Nature Enthusiasts Into Amateur Biologists

A  woman wearing a black shirt and green pants points to a butterfly alighting on a large plant in her front yard. Trees and other plants rise up in the background.
Ida Williams points to a butterfly on the plants in the front yard of her home in Leimert Park.
(Erin Stone
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The City Nature Challenge started as a friendly Los Angeles vs. San Francisco rivalry over which city could find the most nature in an urban environment.

Six years later, the four-day “bioblitz” has turned into an international affair that’s turning nature enthusiasts into amateur biologists. Cities compete to see which one can get the most people to document the greatest number of “observations of nature.”

The Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History’s Lila Higgins, who helps organize the event, says they’ve had to scale back on the competition due to the pandemic — some cities were under strict quarantine measures, while others were not — and focus more on the collaborative results.

“We're really on this micro level building community and bringing people together who are like, if I see something weird or interesting in my backyard, I want to find out what it is,” Higgins said.

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This year’s challenge set a record with nearly 1.7 million observations globally. In Los Angeles County, 1,368 observers documented 2,575 species. And the most observed species? The Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis).

Higgins says a photo can provide valuable information on rare and endangered species, like a Bolivian orchid that was first discovered within the last few months.

“As you can imagine, it's a new species, it's only just been described,” she said. “So there's very few records of it out there, and so that's one of the things that we love seeing.”

The challenge also helps organizers make decisions on how to protect the environment.

“Us coming together felt good, because we were in community, but we're also collecting data that's going to help towards coming up with answers and solutions towards the biodiversity crisis,” Higgins said. “And for conservation, we can't make conservation decisions in our cities, unless we know what plants and animals exist there.”

Back in 2016, Higgins hoped the City Nature Challenge would be fun enough to get people to join. At the time, a reporter asked her how many observations she expected to make. She randomly blurted 10,000, "just wildly out of the blue," she said.

Higgins remembers the California Academy of Sciences’ Alison Young, who helped launch the challenge, laughing nervously and saying “we want to make 10,001.” That year, 20,000 observations were made between L.A. and San Francisco.

The event has grown beyond a two-city rivalry to over 400 cities joining together to preserve local ecosystems and discover new species.

To learn more about the program and find out how you take part in the 2023 challenge, visit the City Nature Challengewebsite.

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