Saturday, June 11, 2011


I've done some posts before about field guides, and I wanted to spread the word about a really neat new tool which is available for identifying trees. It's called LeafSnap, and it's an app for iPhones and iPads (they also have a website, which has all the same information as the app). This thing is really cool - it was developed jointly by the Smithsonian, Columbia University, and the University of Maryland, and it's one of the most comprehensive photographic field guides I've ever seen. Here's a sample of the photos it has on each tree's page, for the 182 species it knows (this is a screenshot taken from their page on Castanea dentata, the American chestnut):

Leaves, fruits, flowers, bark - it's all there. The neatest thing about it is that if your device has a camera built in, like the iPhones, iPod touches, and iPad 2 do, you can take a photo of a single leaf and the app will identify the tree for you! I spent a while walking around my neighborhood today taking photos of leaves, and it does a darn good job of telling what's what. It's not foolproof - for each leaf I uploaded, it gave me a selection of possible species, and in some cases the correct one was #4 or 5 on the list. But for a photo taken with a smartphone and possibly belonging to one of hundreds of species, that's not bad at all. It keeps track of all the trees you've identified in a "collection" on your device(s), and you can also look at a map to see where all your species are. The best part: it's FREE!! I can't even imagine how much work must have gone into creating this, and it's amazing that there's no charge for the app.

Actually, it's not so amazing - the project was funded in part by an NSF grant, otherwise known as our tax dollars. I think it's important to point this out because this is a phenomenal educational tool, that hopefully will encourage people to take more notice of the plants around them and inspire them to learn more about the natural world. It's a terrific way to merge a traditional field of science like botany with new technology to make something fun and functional. I'm thrilled to know that my tax dollars went to pay for this project and I wish more money went to support forward-thinking educational endeavors like this. I assume it's offered for free as a stipulation of receiving federal monies.

I should also mention that this app is geared for the Northeast - the default locations are Washington D.C., New York, and Northeast (last I checked New York was in the Northeast, but whatever). But I'm using it in Wisconsin and it's doing just fine!

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