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We Took New Animal-Identifying App iNaturalist to the Zoo and It Did Not Do Great

Apparently identifying a panda on sight is harder than it seems.

Look at all those primates. Photo via iStock.
Yes, that’s a flip phone pointed at a panda. Why, what does your hike look like? Photo via Twitter/The Atlantic

Thursday morning the Atlantic tweeted out a link to a story about iNaturalist, an app that’s basically Shazam for animals. Point your camera at a critter, hit a button and theoretically get an answer to the question, “Hey, what’s that thing?”

Initially intrigued by the puzzling photo that accompanies the tweet, (What’s more recognizable than a panda? And why is that hand holding a flip phone??) I headed to  Smithsonian’s National Zoo to test it out.

The idea is simple. Take a photo, hit “View Suggestions” and see what comes up. The app offers a suggested genus or species, usually presented as,”We’re pretty sure this is in the [order/genus/species] [suggestion]. It then lists its top 10 species suggestions for whatever you’re looking at. Sometimes it’s right on. During my short experiment, it was mostly less-than-accurate.

First stop: Pandas

This is maybe not the greatest photo of a panda ever taken, but it’s still pretty obviously a panda. The app’s best guess, however, was a primate, most likely a small one, or possibly a human. iNaturalist gets a couple of points for staying with mammals and having a primary guess that’s at least black and white and lives in the trees. But still, this thing has one job, and it’s not off to a great start. Score: 3/10

Second stop: American Bison

I wanted to give iNaturalist its fair shake, so I waited around the bison exhibit for several minutes waiting for either Wilma or Zora to turn around and show her face. Eventually I gave up and snapped this pic of the tail end of one of them. To my surprise, the app nailed it. My hope was restored. Score: 10/10

Third stop: Porcupines

Encouraged by iNaturalist’s success with the back of a bison, I entered the Small Mammal House to look for some creatures a person might actually run into in the wild. The lemurs seemed unlikely and the skunk was hiding, so I settled on a porcupine. Surely the app could handle this. I mean, there are only so many things with quills. I took the clearest photo I could of the camera-shy rodent and put the app to work. iNaturalist’s best guess was a giant chameleon, which I guess I sort of see. I’ll give it a pity point for guessing something similarly shaped. Score: 1/10

Fourth stop: Ducks

I was trying my best to test this thing on a beaver, but those suckers are faster than you’d think, so I settled on a duck. This little guy ducked (ha!) his bill behind a log as I was taking the photo, but the app still got the correct genus and species. At this point I was trying to figure out what makes a good iNaturalist photo, because there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to its success and failure. Score: 10/10

Fifth stop: Gray Wolf

I thought this one might be more difficult for iNaturalist since Crystal here is white, not gray. I was willing to settle for anything in the wild canine family, but the app settled on goat. If you squint and try to forget what you’re looking at, it does almost look like a mountain goat with its head down from behind – almost. Score: 5/10

Final stop: Panda Revisited

On the way out I saw a second panda, this time of the costumed variety. Because it couldn’t possibly fare worse than it did the first time, I let iNaturalist attempt to identify the animal taking selfies with a horde of day campers. To its credit, this guy does kind of look like that dog in the photo. Score: 4/10

Bonus: Human

Having been discouraged by the app’s inability to identify some of the creatures along the American Trail and it’s brutal failure when faced with a panda, I turned to the front-facing camera for a quick test. The good news, iNaturalist’s best guess is that I’m a human. The bad news is it’s not confident enough to actually recommend that I’m human, and also I might be tree or a toad. Thanks for the confidence boost, app developers. Score: 8/10, but still rude.

Overall, iNaturalist is a good idea. It encourages citizen science and sometimes works extremely well (for example, identifying the specific duck species I was looking at). But it also can’t identify a panda at decently close range or a human face with sunglasses on, so take its suggestions with a grain of salt. Your eyes are probably still your greatest resource. Well, your eyes and, if you’re at the zoo, those helpful exhibit labels.

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Editorial Fellow

Christine Jackson joined Washingtonian as an editorial fellow in summer 2017. She enjoys writing about art, culture, history, news of the weird and, occasionally, hockey. She is originally from St. Louis, Missouri and is an alumna of the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri, more affectionately known as Mizzou. For now you can find her hanging around Cathedral Heights.