iNaturalist: An App to Ease Plant Blindness

Ian Street finds your phone is getting ever more powerful, with a species recognition app.
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The original photo of a plant growing at the base of a streetlamp post in Chicago. Photo by Ian Street

Plant blindness – taking plants for granted – is a big problem in the world. The ability to identify the diverse panoply of plants is one way of easing plant blindness. However, carrying a field guide around isn’t always feasible. People may expect nature to be neat and organized like a field guide. Like nature itself, the California Academy of Science’s iNaturalist app is a bit messier than that. It’s a tool and citizen science platform that can help botanists and plant scientists explore the natural world with their students (& everyone else too).

iNaturalist turns a smartphone into a field notebook and guide. In my tests, it often get down to a confident genus prediction from its digital database (species predictions were often less certain). Then with human suggesters – some who are experts – make the IDs better.

The goal is to capture and document the living things during an event or localized area in some form to make amateur naturalists more aware of what’s around them. That can be done through personal observations or looking through those of others in the app or website. iNaturalist largely succeeds in its exploration goal. The more people that participate, the better their database will get. It lends itself well to pairing amateurs and professionals both formally and informally.

Getting Started with iNaturalist

The app requires you to create an account and pairs with the iNaturalist website where you can create projects and field guides for app users to contribute to (or sign up to participate in an existing one), like the recent solar eclipse project to document animal behavior. It can be a way of gathering data during a Bioblitz, for instance.

The website also collects data about where observations have been made for species, for instance, seeing just how common dandelions are:

Testing iNaturalist in the “wild”

ID suggested by iNaturalist and the community of iNaturalists. Photo by Ian Street

The app can run a little slow at times to upload photos, but mostly runs smoothly. Arguably, waiting a bit for a photo to upload is a good time to really look at the living thing you just documented and its context. After all, the goal is to explore nature and become more familiar with what’s around, not merely document it. I’ve had database suggestions for the several plants and flowers I took photos of around Chicago. In my testing, it was able to identify plants pretty well by their flowers. It picked the genus Asclepias based on a picture of its fruit and leaves. And for a houseplant I have, the community suggested the ID based on leaves and growth habit alone.

As noted above, iNaturalist isn’t specific to the plant world (animals and fungi are in its database as well, thus making possible layering observations of animals, plants, and fungi in one area). The app is focused on documenting nature in the wild (even if those wilds are a city). It’s not necessarily meant to take to a botanical garden to get IDs of plants in their collection (That are also starting to appear online). That is potentially what apps like the new Plant Snap are for, though even there, a human element is likely always going to be needed to affirm plant IDs.

The iNaturalist site has also started a blog featuring an “observation of the week”. Only one plant, a parasitic orchid, has been featured thus far (they also ID the naturalist who took the featured observation).  

There are many ways to explore the plant world. Botany One reviewed a book classifying plants. However, having technology as a tool can enhance the experience of the natural world. With iNaturalist, deepening connections to the natural world, the medium we all exist in, is easier than ever. It’s the beginning of an exploration of plants and just how fascinating they are.


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