Technology Meets Nature: Apps Bring Us Closer to Flora and FaunaMar 31, 2022 ● By Sheryl DeVore
photo by Jackie Lentz Bowman
While exploring Seattle, Jackie Lentz Bowman noticed some bushes filled with pink and orange berries. She discovered she could safely eat them by using the smartphone nature app called iNaturalist. “I learned they were salmonberries and edible,” says the Chicago area photographer and birder. “I just had to try them. They were very similar to raspberries.”
Bowman is among a growing number of people using their smartphones to enhance their nature experiences. Phone apps are available for free or a modest price to identify mushrooms, bugs, birds, dragonflies, reptiles, beetles, wildflowers and other flora and fauna. “Whether it is to help identify a plant I’ve taken a photo of or to familiarize myself with what a bird looks like and sounds like, these are tools I’m always glad to have in my back pocket,” she explains.
At least 6,300 nature apps were available in 2015, according to Paul Jepson and Richard Ladle, Oxford environmental scholars and co-authors of “Nature Apps: Waiting for the Revolution,” a research paper published in the Swedish environmental journal Ambio. Such programs are only beginning to scratch the surface of what is possible. They write, “As most people own a mobile phone today, the app—though a small device—is a major way conservationists could be reaching a huge audience with transformative possibilities.”
Right now, some apps allow the user to point a smartphone to a plant or animal to get instant feedback on its common or scientific name. Others ask the user questions about what they are seeing and suggest an identity based on the answers. Some allow the user to interact with scientists, share their knowledge, record their observations and contribute to science.
Perhaps the most popular nature app is iNaturalist, which has all those features and more. “Our mission has been to connect people to nature through technology,” says Scott Loarie, co-director of iNaturalist, a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. “By 2030, we want to connect 100 million people to nature to facilitate science and conservation.”
The app began as a master’s degree project at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2008, and today 2 million people have recorded about 100 million observations, covering one in six species on the planet. “iNaturalist has grown to the point where it’s helping take the pulse of biodiversity,” he adds.
Newcomers are often mentored and helped with identifications by volunteers that are experts in different fields. One example is a worldwide competition called the City Nature Challenge in which beginning and advanced naturalists document urban flora and fauna for several days. During the event, people share their photos of plants and animals on iNaturalist.
During Chicago’s Challenge, Eric Gyllenhaal, who blogs about nature on the city’s west side, found an uncommon species. “A Canadian expert helped confirm the identification as a bronze ground beetle native to Europe,” says Cassi Saari, project manager of natural areas for the Chicago Park District. “It’s an introduced species in Illinois and could have implications for wildlife in the region down the line.”
Two other nature apps that Loarie likes are eBird and Merlin, both administered by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in Ithaca, New York. With eBird, users can report on their phones a list of birds they’re seeing in the wild, including when and where, and the sightings are added to a database for scientific research.
Merlin is a field guide app to help folks identify the birds they are seeing. “Merlin has taken on authoring content with great descriptions of birds, something iNaturalist doesn’t do,” Loarie points out. “Merlin also just released sound recognition in the app, so people can identify birds by sound. It’s huge for birders.”
Award-winning nature photographer Adriana Greisman, of Phoenix, says she uses both Merlin and iBird, another field guide app, to identify birds in the wild and when processing photos. “These are great resources to identify unknown species and to learn about their behavior.”
The favorite app of Joyce Gibbons, a volunteer at the Natural Land Institute, in Rockford, Illinois, is Odonata Central, which focuses on her passion—dragonflies and damselflies, collectively called odonates.
“I’ve loved solitary walks in the woods, prairies and other natural areas since I was a child,” she says. “I’ve always taken photos and tried to ID the many species I’ve observed. Now, with these apps on my phone, I feel like I am actually contributing to the scientific body of knowledge and connecting with other enthusiasts and not just keeping all this joy of discovery to myself.”
Sheryl DeVore is an award-winning author of six books on science, health and nature. Connect at [email protected]