Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Identifying Trees in a Snap!

Fall is here again. A time when the seasons change and nature shows her full color in the leaves of Autumn.  It's also the perfect time to introduce our new Fall "Tuesday Tools of the Trade" postings for citizen scientists.   These are tools that people can use in their own scientific endeavors or to get more from existing projects put together by others.  But these tools aren't exactly projects in and of themselves, they just help you perform your citizen science job better.  So we'll be highlighting a new one each Tuesday for the next few months and showing ways they can help in a wide variety of projects and other uses.

Fall is also the perfect time to talk about LeafSnap, a tree identification and marking program that is first up in our "Tools of the Trade" lineup.  This free iPad application let's you take pictures of leaves and have the tree they came from automatically identified by the program.  It also tags the tree's type and location for use by anyone looking for the data.  So I can use it to figure out the types of trees we have in my backyard, along with information on their flowering ability and species names.  I can also see the trees my neighbors have assuming they use the program too.

The program is built on the power of facial-recognition software initially written at Columbia University and the University of Maryland, and utilizes the botanical collection information of the Smithsonian Institution.  So it's another great example of combining forces to create a field guide that can be used by anyone to advance citizen science.  Currently the program can only identify trees in the Northeastern U.S. (e.g., New York and Washingon, DC areas) but they are looking to expand nationwide.  It is also not yet available for either Android (or even the iPhone) but additional versions are promised soon.  But let's now wait any longer...let's dive right in!

Getting Started is Easy!
  • Go to the LeafSnap web site to learn more about the program, or just go straight to the iPad App Store to download the program.  Just search for "LeafSnapHD" and install it for free.
  • Find a tree in your backyard and (gently) remove a leaf that appears typical to that tree.
  • Place the leaf flat on top of white piece of paper making sure it is in a reasonably well-lit area.
  • Open the iPad Leafsnap App and once it loads click on the "Snap It!" icon.  This will start the iPads camera function. 
  • Center the leaf in the center of the white-framed area, being sure to get as close as possible so the leaf fills the white-framed screen.  Click "Snap It" to take the picture.
  • Once the picture is taken your iPad will analyze the photo by connecting to the internet and comparing it to known shapes in it's database.  If you don't have an internet connection you can always upload it for identification at a later time.
  • If this is your first time using the program, uploading the first leaf sample will trigger the app requesting a username and password to set up an account.  You can also determine if you want the location tagged on your data.
  • That's all there is to it!  Now that you know the species open your web browser and learn more about the trees around you.

In the picture above you can see I've tried the program with a Japanese Maple tree from my own backyard.  It's a beautiful specimen with strong green leaves that also have a solid red tinge to them.  They turn a lovely bright red in the fall (which is a sight to behold) so I've always been curious to learn more about them.  Thanks to Leafsnap, now I have my chance.

So what can you do with the program?  Well, for one the data is now available to see what neighbors around you have and to see what the local ecology is like.  For birders, you can use LeafSnap to see where the birds you hear are residing and if there are any preferences to those you follow most often.  For participants in Project Budburst or other phenology projects, this will help you identify the flowering plants you are reporting on.  But it's also just a great way to learn more about your local environment. 

So have fun with LeafSnap, and let me know what interesting uses you are putting it to!

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