King of the swamp: The story of an iNaturalist passion project

King of the swamp

The story of an iNaturalist passion project

King of the swamp

The story of an iNaturalist passion project

By Lucas Napier-Macdonald, Communications Volunteer, National Environmental Treasure

With the help of his students, Ottawa science teacher Michael Léveillé catalogs the region’s biodiversity with iNaturalist.

Michael Léveillé, username “Swampy,” has logged over 21,600 observations into iNaturalist.org, a website that lets users identify the plants and animals around them. Put otherwise: if Léveillé were to log one observation a day, every single day, it would take him sixty years to accumulate this many. That is a colossal quantity, especially for someone who’s only been using the website for a few years.

Macoun marsh with pond and wetland plants
Macoun Marsh in Ottawa, Ontario. Photo by Michael Léveillé from Wikipedia Commons.

“I see it as a personal challenge, a passion project,” he says. “And then I can bring that passion to the classroom. You know, if you get really excited about something, it rubs off on the kids.”

Léveillé is a science teacher at the St. Laurent Academy in Ottawa, where he teaches students anywhere from kindergarten to grade 11.

Léveillé chose Swampy as his iNaturalist username because most of his observations occur in, well, swamps. Namely there is Mud Lake, a 60 hectare complex of wetlands stretching along the Ottawa River in the west end of the city. And then there is the Macoun Marsh, a small wetland inside Beechwood Cemetery in the east Ottawa neighborhood of Vanier. Léveillé struck a deal with the cemetery’s directors in 2003 allowing for him and his students to use the then-unnamed marsh as an outdoor classroom. Now, it’s called the Macoun Marsh Project.

After two years of bringing his students out there for field trips, Léveillé ran a contest for them to name it. Although one pupil made a great case for Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, the contest eventually went to legendary field naturalist and scientist John Macoun who, on top of being Canadian, is also buried in the cemetery.

“I guess Canada just doesn’t have that much to do with Sweden,” says Léveillé, laughing.

Midland Painted Turtle on stump in wetland
Midland Painted Turtle in Macoun Marsh. Photo by Michael Léveillé from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-NC)

The importance of keeping track

In Léveillé’s words: “Scientists can’t be everywhere at once. They can’t know (that species are present in a certain place) if there aren’t enough people looking.”

In that sense, Léveillé and his small army of students act as the eyes of scientists on the ground. They put in the hours looking in trees, at the edges of water, and under rocks, cataloguing all of the area’s species. As Léveillé says: “I spend a lot of time looking under rocks.”

Eastern Tailed Blue butterfly
Eastern tailed blue. Photo by Michael Léveillé from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-NC).

That is actually how he discovered an eastern tailed blue butterfly at the swamp, which he says “caused an uproar” online. “(The people at the Ottawa Field-Naturalists Club) got really excited because it was rarely seen in our region before,” says Léveillé.

But of course, not all hobbies need to be put to use. Sometimes, something can just be done for pleasure.

“On Jan. 1st, 2019, I decided I was going to put 1,000 species on iNaturalist in a year,” says Léveillé. “It was definitely difficult. I was looking at microscopic stuff, nematodes, water bears, and sending things out to get identified. I thought for a while I wasn’t going to make it. But on Jan. 31st, I got my thousand species. Literally, just on the line. It was fun, but yes, I put a lot of effort into it.”

It’s this passion that has vaulted Léveillé to the top of iNaturalist’s Ottawa rankings, a penthouse he occupies with a considerable lead.

A boon to biodiversity

That said, it cannot be denied that Léveillé’s contributions are invaluable to scientific study. On its website, Ecology Ottawa notes that monitoring is “one of the most important steps for urban biodiversity conservation.”

“Without this critical information, we are not able to celebrate our conservation successes or improve our tactics where needed,” the website says. Although it isn’t referring specifically to “Swampy’s” work, it may as well be. His is the exact kind of cataloguing that makes those things possible.

Thankfully, one needs neither to have studied science at the University of Ottawa nor to have worked at the Canadian Museum of Nature, as Léveillé has, in order to participate.

As per the Ecology Ottawa website: “With today’s technology, it is easier than ever for anyone to champion biodiversity by using (their) smartphone to record any critters and plants (they) observe while out in nearby nature.”

Gray treefrogs on hand at wetland
Gray treefrogs at Macoun Marsh. Photo by Michael Léveillé from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).