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A selection of observations made during the City Nature Challenge 2023. (Photos: Saryu Mae, Matt Ruglys, Christopher Stephens, Dustin Lamont, Emily Roberts, Steve Reekie, commoncopper, naturewatchwidow, Leon Perrie, Luca Davenport-Thomas)
A selection of observations made during the City Nature Challenge 2023. (Photos: Saryu Mae, Matt Ruglys, Christopher Stephens, Dustin Lamont, Emily Roberts, Steve Reekie, commoncopper, naturewatchwidow, Leon Perrie, Luca Davenport-Thomas)

ScienceMay 22, 2023

The ‘America’s Cup of biodiversity’ uncovered some rare backyard sightings

A selection of observations made during the City Nature Challenge 2023. (Photos: Saryu Mae, Matt Ruglys, Christopher Stephens, Dustin Lamont, Emily Roberts, Steve Reekie, commoncopper, naturewatchwidow, Leon Perrie, Luca Davenport-Thomas)
A selection of observations made during the City Nature Challenge 2023. (Photos: Saryu Mae, Matt Ruglys, Christopher Stephens, Dustin Lamont, Emily Roberts, Steve Reekie, commoncopper, naturewatchwidow, Leon Perrie, Luca Davenport-Thomas)

Participants in this year’s City Nature Challenge spotted over 3,000 different species around New Zealand – including a handful of fascinating firsts.

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It’s always exciting finding a critter in your backyard: another living thing trying to make its way, make a home, alongside you. (As long as it’s not a spider in your bed. Or an ant in your pantry.) I’ve been lucky enough to find tree wētā, native skinks, and kākā hanging out in my garden. It’s amazing just how much nature there is to find, once you take the time to look.

That’s exactly what nearly 1,000 New Zealanders did across four days (28 April – 1 May) as part of the City Nature Challenge 2023. They looked, and they found: 33,723 observations of 3,631 different species.

The City Nature Challenge started in 2016 as a “friendly biodiversity battle” between San Francisco and Los Angeles, says Jon Sullivan, ecologist at Lincoln University and a founder of iNaturalist NZ – Mātaki Taiao. “It’s evolving into the biodiversity America’s Cup: it started in America, but now it’s gone super global.”

This year, more than 1.8 million observations of more than 57,000 species were made worldwide, with 482 cities from 46 different countries entering. Entrants are judged on three basic metrics: “Who can engage the most people, make the most observations and find the most species?” says Sullivan. La Paz, Bolivia, took out the top spot across all three for the second year in a row.

Five cities from New Zealand entered, and for those outside the urban centres, you could contribute your finds under a “Rest of NZ” umbrella. “It’s really just about exploration and getting people out there looking at things they’ve not seen before,” says Sullivan. He shouts out Wellington and New Plymouth for their super efforts.

Isanthribus proximus (Photo: Christopher Stephens, CC BY-SA 4.0)

But it’s not just about the numbers and friendly competition: Sullivan has been combing through the observations, finding plenty of “firsts” and discoveries that add to our scientific knowledge of biodiversity. There’s a “cute little endemic beetle” called Isanthribus proximus, spotted by Christopher StephensThis shiny lil fella is the first of his kind to be spotted in Wellington, and there’s only one other observation on iNaturalist from anywhere in New Zealand (Mt Ruapehu).

“Every observation made of rarely seen natives like this is super helpful for building a picture of the habitats and locations where they live, and form a baseline for comparison in the future,” says Sullivan. Another pioneering record comes from Taranaki, where Emily Roberts made the first iNaturalist NZ observation of the “poetically named” oriental latrine fly. It’s a known interloper here in New Zealand but is rarely observed.

Oriental latrine fly (Photo: Emily Roberts CC BY 4.0)

There were migratory birds sighted in Canterbury that should have left by now, and multiple moss species identified growing in Wellington and Taranaki for the first time (“likely species that have been overlooked until now”). And Sullivan himself found an exotic aphid (Aphis lugentis) in Canterbury that was only first spotted in New Zealand on 3 April this year (in Auckland).

“Every City Nature Challenge so far, we have species that are present in the north of New Zealand showing up for the first time in the south. As the temperature warms, the whole of iNaturalist is showing this gradual march southwards of all sorts of species,” says Sullivan.

He’s keen to see New Zealand “go big” for 2024’s City Nature Challenge, but emphasises that you don’t have to wait until next year to start making discoveries. Simply grab your smartphone, snap a photo or record a sound, and upload it to iNaturalist NZ.

The community, which includes many of New Zealand’s foremost biodiversity experts, will confirm the identity of your critter, and you’ll be contributing to a huge body of open scientific data. “For biosecurity, it’s really important to have lots of people observing in cities. We do find stuff that hasn’t been seen before,” says Sullivan.

Keep going!