The Washington Post “climate advice” columnist, Michael Coren, has a great article up today about his experience trying out apps that identify plants and wildlife [gift link] from smartphone images or audio recordings, like iNaturalist or Merlin. It’s clear from Coren’s description that being able to put names to the living things in his neighborhood gave him a new connection to that urban biodiversity
I’m not a master naturalist, but I have one in my pocket. Thanks to artificial intelligence trained on millions of observations, anyone with a smartphone can snap a picture or record a sound to identify tens of thousands of species, from field bluebells to native bumblebees.
If I’m honest, it’s the kind of thing I would normally miss while walking or pedaling to work. Birdsong might be gorgeous but I’d barely hear it. I’d note “pine tree” as a catchall for conifers.
That has changed. I’m now on a first-name basis with most of my wild neighbors. It has reconnected me to a natural world I love, yet never studied deeply enough to know all its characters and settings.
This is very much the experience I hope students have in my undergraduate plant systematics course, and I’m delighted that smartphone apps are making it more accessible. (This year I actually started providing my plant systematics class with explicit guidance in using iNaturalist as one resource for plant identification, in concert with formal botanical keys like the Jepson manual.) But Coren also illustrates the article with images of plants he’d identified using apps and … they’re not very good?Continue reading