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Grab a camera — the City Nature Challenge is coming to Iowa City for the first time


A bumble bee digs into some bee balm at Hickory Hill Park in Iowa City. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

What began as a way for scientists to tap into the (mostly) friendly rivalry between Los Angeles and San Francisco is now an international event, and this year Iowa City is joining the City Nature Challenge.

The challenge is open to anyone who will be going outside this weekend and is willing to take a few photos with their phone.

“Between Friday, April 29 and Monday, May 2, Iowa City residents are encouraged to see how many plant and animal species they can find and photograph,” the University of Iowa Office of Sustainability and the Environment explained in a news release. The office partnered with the City of Iowa City to sponsor the challenge locally.

The photos can be of “any WILD plant, animal, fungi, slime mold, or any other evidence of life, such as scat, fur, tracks, shells, or carcasses,” in backyards, parks or anywhere else in Iowa City, according to the news release.

Participants will then upload their photos to the Iowa City page on the site of the nonprofit iNaturalist, using that site’s free phone app. Iowa Citians can follow the results of the weekend survey. The findings will also be available to researchers worldwide through a free and open-access database.

Beth MacKenzie, Sustainability Program manager for the UI Office of Sustainability and the Environment, told Little Village the challenge will provide important information for UI and the city as they try to increase biodiversity through reintroducing native plants.

“We’re trying to expand out pollinator and native plant habitat on campus,” she said. “So, this can give us some good baseline data about where we’re at with the plants and animals and insects on campus, and, of course, elsewhere in Iowa City. To learn where we’re starting from, and see what changes there are over the years as we add more native habitat.”

Talk about reintroducing native plants brings up images of large prairie restoration projects, but MacKenzie said there are also smaller, important changes people can make around their homes to promote biodiversity.

“It can be as simple as swapping out some of the plants in your own yard, making an effort to put in native plants where non-native plants are,” she said. “Or planting a tree. Oak trees are one of the best trees you can plant for biodiversity. They support so many pollinator caterpillars.”

It’s not just caterpillars and other animals that benefit from people planting species native to Iowa.

“Their deep roots systems help manage storm water to reduce flooding,” MacKenzie said. “You don’t have to use pesticides and herbicides on them because they evolved here.”

For anyone interested in learning more about native species they can plant at home, MacKenzie recommends the site of Tallgrass Prairie Center as a valuable source of information. She said she and her colleagues hope bringing the weekend-long challenge to Iowa City will get more people interested in sustainability issues.

That was the goal when the City Nature Challenge first began in 2016, as the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and the California Academy of Science in San Francisco competed with each to see which institution could turn out more local residents for a weekend of documenting local species. Since then, the challenge has expanded around the world, with 240 cities participating last year.

“I hope we get enough participation that we might see that there are plants growing in Iowa City that we didn’t know were here,” MacKenzie said. “Or a species of bird or frog we thought was no longer here. I’m hoping we find some interesting, fun things like that.”


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