Wild Ideas: What species feeds on . . . apps?

Having lugged several volumes of nature identification guides into the field for years, I’ve longed for a small electronic device that would carry all of them. Fortunately, there has been an explosion in species-identification applications for mobile devices ever since smart phones and electronic tablets came onto the market. Some of these apps actually go beyond just a database of photos and descriptions, including a new free one from Virginia Tech that should be useful to any us here trying to identify local species.

Can you identify the native Virginia tree this leaf comes from? New mobile apps can help. (If you don’t have yours yet: It’s a white oak.) Photo by Ninjatacoshell via Wikimedia Commons.
Can you identify the native Virginia tree this leaf comes from? New mobile apps can help. (If you don’t have yours yet: It’s a white oak.) Photo by Ninjatacoshell via Wikimedia Commons.

Before I get too far into these promising apps, I need to say that I gave up my smart phone some time ago, since it was expensive and, with no signal available in much of Rappahannock County, I rarely used it. My Kindle Fire can handle Android apps but needs a wifi signal for connectivity. A further complication is the war between Amazon, which developed the Kindle, and Google, which developed the Android architecture. Downloading any Android app that Kindle doesn’t offer requires reprogramming my Kindle (“rooting” it). Since I’m leery of permanently damaging my Kindle, I haven’t tried that – yet.

So I’m not prepared to give reviews of any of the nature apps out there but thought those of you who are equipped with the right technology might be interested (and maybe could give feedback). Some of the apps have features that require a broadband connection or GPS capability, but all seem to offer valuable identification tools even without connectivity, including the Virginia Tech Tree Identification (vTree) app.

Just released in November, this free app was developed by alumni distinguished professor John Seiler and laboratory specialist John Peterson of Tech’s department of forest resources and environmental conservation, and forest landowner and programmer Bob Potts. It’s available for Android devices, with an iPhone/iPad version on the way, according to the Tech department’s website (dendro.cnre.vt.edu).

The app contains fact sheets for 969 woody plants from all over North America, with in-depth descriptions, range maps and “thousands of color images of leaves, flowers, fruit, twigs, bark and form.” The cool thing about it is that it can narrow the identification by determining where you are and what trees are likely to grow there through a mobile device’s GPS receiver or network signal.

Even if you’re not connected, you can enter a zip code, GPS coordinates or description for any location to narrow the range. You can further narrow the possible species by answering “a series of very simple tree attribute questions such as where the plant is growing, leaf shape, leaf arrangement, flower color or fruit type,” or by entering a keyword (such as “oak”). The app includes more than 6,400 color photographs of leaves, flowers, fruit, twig, bark, form and in-depth descriptions of all plant parts.

If all else fails, and you have a signal, you can send a question via vTree, including a tree description and photos you’ve taken with your device, to “Dr. Dendro,” a Tech tree expert who will help with identification.

There are other apps for identifying U.S. tree species, including Leafsnap. Free from leafsnap.com, this app was developed by researchers from Columbia University, the University of Maryland and the Smithsonian Institution, for identifying trees in the New York and Washington, D.C. areas, and has been expanded to include species throughout the Northeast.

If you don’t have a mobile device and want help with tree identification or learning more about trees in general, the Tech dendrology department has also developed “Woody Plants in North America.” Starting out as a CD set, it has been updated in a 2012 DVD edition. Its multimedia tutorials cover 920 woody plants with more than 23,000 color photographs of leaves. The DVD is pricey ($98.99); the Rappahannock County Library does have the 2005 CD version in its conservation collection. The set is available for checkout to patrons of the library and others in our local interlibrary loan system.

There are also apps for identifying other things in nature. Audubon (audubonguides.com) offers companion apps to their photo-filled print field guides for trees, birds, mammals, butterflies, fish, insects and spiders, mushrooms, reptiles and amphibians, seashells, seashore creatures, tropical fishes and wildflowers. Naturalguides.com offers, among other nature apps, FalconGuides’ Scats & Tracks of N. America, which has signs of nearly 150 wildlife species.

Not to forget Peterson, there are now companion apps to their excellent field guides, including “Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America,” available at Petersonguides.com. For those of who prefer the Sibley guide for birds, the Sibley eGuide to Birds App is available at Sibleyguides.com.

If you haven’t found the right one for your device yet, you’re likely to soon. Just keep checking iTunes (apple.com/itunes) or Google Play (play.google.com), or go a-Googling. Unfortunately, until I get brave and root my Kindle, or get rich and buy another mobile device, I’ll just have to keep lugging print guides into the wild.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 281 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”