Welcome to the New Age: how apps can help us to identify and conserve species

Welcome to the New Age: how apps can help us to identify and conserve species

This story first appeared in Wildlife Australia Magazine, published by Wildlife Queensland, with all proceeds directed to wildlife conservation projects.

There’s nothing quite as satisfying as discovering something that you have never seen before. For biologists this might involve the rediscovery of a previously-thought extinct species, for pharmacists it may be the discovery of a medical breakthrough, and for people like you and I it could be the sighting of something unusual and exciting whilst out exploring. Whatever it be, there is just something thrilling about witnessing the different, the curious, the new.

As that wise old man Confucius put it, ‘the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name’. An important part of our human nature is identifying and naming things around us, from garden plants to stationary items and from food brands to geographical locations, nearly everything and anything in our world has a name. And why? Well, it helps us to make correct decisions and act on them and to pass on accurate information to others in relation to things around us. If we didn’t have names for everything, we would be living in a world of chaos!

For those of us that enjoy exploring the natural world, things that we often want to name are the different plants and animals that we see on our adventures. This can then allow us to find out more about that species, how they interact with their environment, pass on our excitement to others and to even discover new or endangered species that may need our help. When we go out on a bushwalk, either in our local area or on a day-trip or holiday, we often see new and exciting living things that thrill us and entice us to know more, but putting a name to them can be particularly challenging. This is where identification guides come in.

Today there are thousands of identification guides available for almost all types of animal and plant covering almost every corner of the globe. Floras of Europe, online butterfly identification pages for Australia, bird guides to the Caribbean, even flipcharts of the lichens of Scotland; people have quite literally invested their lives into naming, describing and sharing the myriad of species that call our planet home. These books often contain stunning photography, precise descriptions of the way species look, their behaviour, habitats and distribution and are wonderful companions for active enthusiasts and armchair naturalists alike.

In Australia, we have a growing body of identification guides with many extremely good ones available to buy and many now available online as web links. And boy do we need them, with between an estimated 600,000 and 700,000 species in our large and diverse nation, we indeed have a lot to name, understand, conserve and celebrate! But for our regular bush-walkers and nature-lovers, we all know the pain of having to lug around a library of different books in order to identify something new and exciting, especially when we go somewhere different. What if there was a way all that valuable information contained in these guides could be made available in a more mobile and light-weight fashion for you to carry around, perhaps even small enough to fit in your shirt pocket?

Well, enter the smartphone or tablet. These compact electronic devices have quite literally taken Australia, and the world, by storm. Over 75% of us in this country now own a smartphone or tablet and over 80% of those people take their device almost everywhere they go. Primarily designed for communication, these devices now also boast a plethora of lifestyle functions known as applications or ‘apps’. These apps include everything from sleep aids to taxi services, from dating and networking to social media and photo sharing, and from games to educational packages. The app world is as diverse as the real one.

Apps have also made it into the realm of science and natural history as well, and have become particularly useful as identification guides. About 5 years ago amid the flurry of app development, some of the first natural history apps began to appear on the market. In Australia, these primarily included apps for identifying birds with bird-watching one of the most popular nature-based activities in the country. Among them, the now well-known and very popular Michael Morcombe and David Stewart eGuide to the Birds of Australia was one of the first and most concise. But soon to follow were more and more apps that allowed people to expertly identify the new and exciting things they were discovering outdoors.

But why are these apps so useful and what can they do that books can’t? Well, one of the main reasons is that once you have downloaded an app from an app store online onto your iPhone or tablet, it then becomes part of something you would carry around during your daily life anyway, in other words, it weighs nothing! This means that you can own an entire virtual library of information in your bag or pocket and have it ready at your fingertips in seconds. Once downloaded on the device, apps very rarely require further internet connection in order to use them. This means that you can go exploring the very remotest corner of Papua New Guinea and (so long as you have battery life) you can access all the information you may want on your (not invented yet) ‘Birds of Papua New Guinea’ app! Thirdly, the apps are often a lot cheaper than books with many averaging around the $2 – $10 mark, and many more of them are free! These apps are paving the way for a brand new, lightweight, quick and affordable way of identifying and learning about the natural world.

But what about the quality of the information? Well, unlike books, which are static objects containing text and images, apps can contain a whole range of media to help you accurately name and learn about different plants and animals. This includes filtering systems to identify a species step-by-step, photographs which can be enlarged to see fine detail, videos and sounds and even guided walks helping you gain the most out of a particular natural area. For those that like written information, these apps also have the added bonus of being able to zoom in on often greatly detailed texts which are not confined by the limits of publishing space! All in all, apps provide a wonderful platform in which to identify plants and animals. So what is actually out there for us to use? Well, here are a few of my top picks. In Australia we are lucky to have so much biodiversity and a number of governments and non-governmental organisations are really beginning to embrace this through identification guide apps. For example, the Australian Government and Museum Victoria have worked in collaboration to design some beautiful and easy-to-use apps that allow us to identify wild animals across our entire nation; these are called the Field Guide apps to Australian Fauna. The apps are divided into the eight states and territories and between them cover 2,100 species from butterflies to large mammals. Each species has beautiful imagery, descriptions, distribution maps, conservation statuses and some have audio clips of their calls and sounds. So long as you have a smart phone or tablet of some kind, you can happily download the app for free and get started on learning more about Australia’s unique fauna!

Other groups of apps have focused more concisely on specific groups of animal taxa. The Frogs of Australia (Hoskin et al.) and Snakes of Australia (Zozaya and Macdonald) apps are perfect examples of individuals who have tirelessly collated information on these species from across the nation and compiled them into app-based identification guides. These apps allow you to identify between similar species using scale counts, filter your search terms, observe multiple high definition photos, hear calls and even generate a species list for your current location using high-tech GPS hardware. These apps are perfect for naturalists with a passion for reptiles and amphibians!

Another suite of interactive apps has recently emerged from Griffith University, the Queensland Museum and the Queensland Government allowing people to identify species in south-east Queensland; one of Australia’s fastest developing bioregions. The project was initiated on World Environment Day 2013 with the release of the Grows At Griffith app and a year later, the Coastal Life app. Grows At Griffith has become a popular tool for identifying native and weed plants in the region allowing people to identify a plant step-by-step using a filtering system and entering the different morphological characteristics they see, for example “diamond-shaped leaves, white flowers and a shrub growth form”. Once this information is submitted to the app, the database searches for plants that fit the description and in seconds the app presents you with your species. Local schools, councils, private teachers, universities and environmental authorities have now adopted the app in order to identify local native and weed plants and the app has had over 5,000 downloads in total. The app has even featured on the TV show ‘Totally Wild’, in several newspapers and magazines and is now being taught as part of the school curriculum and in some university courses in the region. Its popularity has lead onto a rare and threatened walk at Griffith University’s Gold Coast campus exhibiting some of the most endangered plant species from the region and using QR codes that allow visitors to access online video stories about the plant.

Coastal Life of South East Queensland, co-produced with the Queensland Museum, is a similar app that is designed as a concise, digital companion to their popular Wild Guide to Moreton Bay. The app is used for identifying over 500 invertebrates and plants along the south-east Queensland foreshores and coastal wetlands. From crabs to cuttlefish and from sea grass to sand hoppers the app boasts incredible photography allowing users to examine precise anatomical detail of each species. The app is now used by many education centres in the region and is a popular tool for children out rock-pooling. Both of these apps are free.

There are also now a number of protected area authorities in Australia who are releasing apps that detail the wildlife found within their parks. A perfect example is the Bunurong Marine National Park Field Guide, which has been developed by Parks Victoria and Museum Victoria. It has a ‘Do and See’ function which allows you to plan a day’s activities in the park and then view a database of species which you may see on your trip. The app even provides maps of the park and marks trails that you can use. The animals and plants are divided into different groups each with photographic images and details on habitat and conservation status. This app has become a benchmark for other protected areas in Australia in developing similar interactive identification and activity guides for visitors which, with the integration of a recording system, could possibly in the future be used to help managers learn more about plants and animal populations in the park and also the state of park resources.

Outside of Australia there is even more progress being made in transforming identification guides into liveable interactive experiences. In South Africa, the Whispers of the Wild app has recently been released and has taken the app identification guide to a whole new level by relying more on audio than on text. Its creator Samir Randera-Rees, is a qualified safari guide and understands the incredible sensation visitors get when discovering something new on an expert-led safari in the African bush. Increasingly however, visitors are now conducting their own self-driven safaris in South Africa and Samir saw this as an opportunity to create an app that becomes the expert and teaches you about each animal you see. Essentially, once you’ve pulled over your vehicle, a search engine allows you to filter through different life-forms and identify your animal and then the audio provides you with cutting-edge, expert-delivered narrative about that animal. This allows you to look and learn watching the animal’s natural behaviour and listening to the facts. The aim of this is to keep people immersed in nature, allow nature to take the front seat, to avoid people missing the action by having to read and to ensure you get the full experience from your self-drive safari! The app also includes all the additional information you’d expect in other apps such as photos, videos, distribution maps, conservation data and even safety tips that you can tap into when not in the moment! It even includes a game for kids on the journey home! And if you witness something that really touches your heart the app even allows you to donate directly to the Endangered Wildlife Trust (the app’s conservation partner) which is a well-known and respected South African animal conservation organisation. To date it is the newest and most exciting app of its kind and with over 400 downloads in just 2 months from being released, it is setting a benchmark for the future of identification guide apps.

The app world has great potential to enhance our current knowledge of the plants and animals around us. More importantly it provides an exciting, lightweight and easy way for beginner naturalists to learn how to identify species, understand their biology and hopefully, develop a respect and passion that helps protect them. It is fast becoming obvious that apps are the gateway to allow the new technocratic generation to engage more in understanding the natural environment and to inspire them to get out in it, to embrace it and to treasure it. As more and more of our natural areas are being lost and more of the world’s species are declining, it is crucial we encourage young people to find excitement and novelty in nature, rather than just continually reaching out for help from an older, already dedicated generation of naturalists. Apps can even be incorporated into citizen science allowing people to record and upload their findings into a public database and to plot species populations and health over time. If this is the way that we can bring conservation to more and more people and teach them about the world’s incredible biodiversity, then let the app world roll! And if you needed any more convincing, apps don’t need any paper, ink or plastic and take up no further resources than that required by the phone you’d be buying in the first place, so they have the added bonus of reducing consumption!

So what does a bushwalk look like 10 years from now? Well, a lot lighter that’s for sure! With apps gradually enriching our identification experience, studying and enjoying wild plants and animals is likely to become a more popular pastime. You can expect more and more apps that engage all of your senses in understanding the species around you. You can expect apps that allow you to become an active part of recording, monitoring and mapping species therefore allowing you to become a real conservationist. And you can expect apps that make the identification process easier and more approachable to all people with functions such as filter systems, recognition software and more. Although we still have a lot to learn, it seems that apps have an important role to play in the future of our environment.

So if you are thinking of taking up a new hobby, make it the hobby of learning how to identify and love what lives around you in the natural world. Put a name to what squawks, crawls, scuttles and grows in your neighbourhood, local park or even on that holiday destination you are avidly dreaming of visiting! Grab your smart phone or tablet, download an app of interest by searching on the App Store or Google Play and go find out just how good it feels to discover something new!

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Story by Mark Runkowski.

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