There’s an App for That

By Elle O’Casey

It’s no surprise to seasoned Vermonters that Fall is on its way. Yet every year around this time, I get a bit angsty. I wonder just how cold it will be this winter. I hypothesize about peak foliage dates and whether the colors will be as good as I remember them from last year. But, above all, I grow fearful of “stick season”, that unsightly time of year Vermonters affectionately turned into an entire season celebrating bare branches and leaf-free woods. But to me, everything feels brown and somewhat raw. I grow worried I will not be able to tell one tree apart from another. Nerd Alert: I am the person who walks through the woods and gets an inordinate amount of joy from naming the species of trees I see along the way. If I know their name, I can consider them friends. In fact, I carry around a quote from John Muir that reads: “Whenever I met a new plant, I would sit down beside it for a minute or a day, to make its acquaintance, hear what it had to tell.”

Identifying a turtle I met on my hike using iNaturalist

Identifying a turtle I met on my hike using iNaturalist

Growing up on the West Coast, the phenomenon of bare tree limbs isn’t nearly as prevalent as it is here. I could still wander through late fall and early winter forests happily calling out the names of fir-flecked conifers while blissfully ignoring the naked alders and big leaf maples that were few and far between. But in Vermont, if you can’t identify the trees by their bark, you will be out of luck for the better half of the year, as I had been every stick and mud season. I needed to figure out a way to recognize these leafless limbs.

A coworker had been coaxing me to download an app called iNaturalist for years. I always shrugged off the suggestion after trying other plant ID apps with little luck. But during a walk through the woods this week, this same coworker pulled out his phone and used iNaturalist to snap picture of a mysterious plant he couldn’t identify. Four seconds later, he was able to name the plant and tell me all kinds of details about it.

“How did you do that?” I gasped. He went on to explain iNaturalist has a new feature that allows users to take a picture of plants and trees they encounter, upload them to their site, and the app instantly identified the species.

I was hooked.

iNaturalist came out of a 2008 master’s student project and morphed into a massive crowdsourcing app that relied on a committed community of over 150,000 people uploading photos of plants and animals for other users to identify. Nearly 6 million photos have been uploaded by users since the app began. This summer, the app developers added new functionality through artificial intelligence that allows the app to give you to instantly identify most any plant or animal you encounter.

Why does this matter? The truth is that if we don’t know something exists, we can’t advocate for it and we can’t protect it. My silly routine of naming all the trees I see actually helps me recognize these forest friends and advocate for them. Renowned naturalist E.O. Wilson says we are in the middle of the sixth great extinction. We all need to become advocates for the nature all around us – be it a bird, a flower, or an insect. iNaturalist can help build those connections by helping users develop an awareness and linking these users to a thriving community committed to conservation and stewardship. Try it out for yourself.

Do Just One Thing: Grab a plant guide or a smartphone that has iNaturalist and go for a walk in the woods this weekend. Meet some new leafy or furry friends while you’re out.

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