Making Species Identification Accessible to the Masses

I was out in a prairie this morning (on crutches) and managed to get a little photography done.  Very frequently, I think about how fortunate I am that most of my photography happens out of sight of the general public, and today was a particularly good example of that.  I was army crawling along the ground with my splinted right foot in a plastic bag to protect it from the dewy grass, dragging a camera and tripod along with me.  Then I had to crawl back to my crutches, sling my camera bag over my shoulder and crutch along to another spot.  I managed to get a few decent photos, but missed a lot of potential insect shots because it takes me too dang long to get my body into place, and even the most patient insects can’t afford to wait for that slow and painful process.

Later, while going through my photos back at home, I grabbed a plant key (“Flora of Nebraska”) to make sure I was correctly identifying the New Jersey Tea I’d photographed.  There are two species in Nebraska, and I can never remember which is which.  As I was reading through the descriptions of the two species, I laughed out loud at the technical terms I had to wade through.  I understand the value of using precise language to describe plant (or animal) characteristics in a dichotomous key (a kind of flow chart used to step through characteristics of various species until you finally figure out which species you’re looking at).  At the same time, the avalanche of technical language that falls upon readers of identification keys also makes identification of species much less accessible to the average enthusiast.

I think I’ve correctly identified the New Jersey tea plant I photographed this morning as Ceanothus herbaceus, but it took a lot of glossary-searching to make my way through the descriptions.

We conservationists are always complaining about how people don’t learn basic natural history anymore.  One of the most important components of that learning process, of course, is identification of species.  Imagine someone who finds a plant they think might be New Jersey Tea, is excited to identify it so they can learn more about it, opens up the Flora of Nebraska, and reads this actual sentence:

“Capsules dehiscing loculicidally into 3 1-seeded lobes, the saucer-like hypanthium fused to it but persisting after the fruits have fallen; seeds reddish brown, plano-convex, the flat side with a low keel.”

Gee, I wonder why people are so bad at identifying species?

There has to be a better way.  Again, I completely understand the need for technical guides for species identification that use agreed-upon and well-defined terms.  But can we either add accompanying language in common English or create translated versions of those identification books that can be read by non-experts?  If we can translate books of literature, can we also translate books of technical jargon?

New Jersey tea in a southeast Nebraska prairie (Richardson County).

I played around with this idea briefly, and it’s a lot harder than you might think.  First, there’s the challenge of deciphering the individual words.  The glossary at the back of The Flora of Nebraska is over 30 pages long, and reading it brings back memories of trying to read dictionary definitions back in elementary school – most definitions require looking up more terms just to understand the initial definition.

Second, the advantage of technical terms is that they have very specific meaning, and that helps reduce the number of words needed to describe a concept.  The Flora of Nebraska describes New Jersey tea flowers as being umbellate, which basically means the blossoms are located on the end of stems arranged like an upside-down umbrella.  Umbellate is a pretty efficient way to say that.  Instead of being able to describe how a species differs from others with a paragraph or two of text, accessible language might require a page or more to say the same thing.  That causes its own problems.

For example, in the above description of New Jersey tea, the seed capsules are described in seven words (“Capsules dehiscing loculicidally into 3 1-seeded lobes”).  Very efficient.  While the words are awfully cryptic to most of us, at least there aren’t very many of them!  Translating those seven words requires a lot more words.  Saying the seed capsules split into three parts, with a seed in each, isn’t too bad.  The bigger challenge is the word “loculicidally” which describes where the split occurs on the capsule, a characteristic that helps separate New Jersey tea from other plants.  The glossary describes loculicidal dehiscence as “dehiscence on the locules rather than along the septations”.  Now we have to define both locules and septations.  See what I mean?  Good grief, this is difficult.

Can you see how these seed capsules are dehiscing on the locules rather than along the septations?  Yeah, I bet you can.

I don’t have a good solution to this.  One answer, of course, is field guides, and those can be great for animals like birds or large mammals.  But field guides don’t work well for all organisms, especially plants, fungi, and many invertebrate groups because there are way too many species to fit them into a field guide, and distinguishing species from one another often requires magnification and characteristics that aren’t easily depicted in a single photo or drawing of the organism.  Field guides can get us so far, but if we want people to learn how to identify more than just the common prairie plants, it would be great to have more extensive guides.

I still think we could do a better job of making comprehensive species identification guides more accessible, but the task is gargantuan.  It’s hard enough to put out a good resource like Flora of Nebraska, with precise and efficient terminology describing each species.  If we ask authors of that kind of publication to additionally provide accessible translations of each description for lay people, we risk never get anything published at all.  At the same time, I hear there are lots of youngish biologists with advanced degrees who are having a hard time finding gainful employment.  Maybe we can put some of them to work as translators.  Anyone want to fund a big endowment to pay for it?  Yeah, me neither.

Regardless, I really do think this is an important issue that deserves some thought.  Not everyone can cheat the way I do, which is to shamelessly send photos and/or specimens to experts who can identify them for me, saving me hours of trying to look up and decipher words like “loculicidally”.

P.S.  I want to be clear that I am not criticizing The Flora of Nebraska or its authors in any way.  That book is a fantastic and invaluable resource, and I use it frequently.  The issue at hand is much broader than any individual publication.  Robert, Dave, and Steve – you guys are heroes for getting that book done.  Thank you.

29 thoughts on “Making Species Identification Accessible to the Masses

  1. You make a very good point! For people who want to participate in citizen science projects, correctly identifying organisms is important but often rather difficult and having to read through academic terminology can be quite daunting! Perhaps including drawings with lines to the academic words so they can be visualized would help.

  2. One of my biggest frustrations as an amateur naturalist has always been trying to figure out ways to ID plants with subtle difference among species. Field guides only go so far and are never complete. Plus it can take a long time to leaf through a field guide trying to figure out family, genus, then species without possessing at least some of that classification knowledge already. I’ve found iNaturalist to be a wonderful resource for those of us in the “masses.” Their suggested ID capability from a photo, while definitely not perfect, at least helps get me in the neighborhood. After further research of my own to try to narrow it down more accurately, I can submit my observation to iNaturalist, and if I’m lucky and have taken and submitted enough photos of all the plant parts, the real experts will chime in with an ID. The best part is when they not only provide an ID, but also explain what characteristics make it that species. Each of those IDs help me learn a little more…in terms I can understand. This type of fun, non-threatening citizen science tool may be one way to help the general public get interested in moving toward more specific identifications.

    • Diane, thanks for your comment. You’re right that iNaturalist can be a great tool, and it definitely moves us forward on this issue – I should have mentioned it in my post. However, there are pretty strong limitations to phone cameras and their operators when it comes to getting the sharp and precise images (of the right parts) of species to get complete identification. That’s not a criticism of iNaturalist, just an unavoidable limitation. So to finish the ID process, you still have to dive back into something like Flora of Nebraska. But, providing people the kind of access to resources that iNaturalist (and also Bugguide) can provide is a huge positive step in the right direction.

      • Good point. Since I usually take photos with my camera and upload to the PC, I forget that probably the majority of observers use the cell phone app. I have used the cell phone app in the field for ID, to get me in the ballpark, but there are some significant limitations to that. For example, it identified a fairly rare plant in our area as something common. But I used a “text-a-friend,” who IDed it correctly (as he got rather excited) from the phone pic, confirmed later from the camera pictures on iNat by experts. But it does give a way for the masses to at least move closer to identifying what they see and learning more of the scientific names.

  3. Chris,

    I think you are trying to describe Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide (1989)… for the Midwest and Northeast.

    It relies mainly on the user identifying the leaf arrangement, physiognomy (herb, vine, tree), leaf toothing, and number of flower parts. You can see Amazon reviews and YouTube for more.

    It is not perfect, but then again no guide is. It was one of a few resources that I carried everywhere when I was starting off. It often got me to the right ID even if the snobs were disappointed in me for getting there the “wrong” way [eye-roll].

    Now… has anyone written one for the Great Plains?

    • I second using Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide when beginning. If you want to get a deeper understanding of botany then the comparative pictures in the glossary of “The Plants of the Chicago Region” are very helpful.

    • Hi Adam , good to hear from you. I’ll have to check out Newcombe’s guide. Sounds wonderful. I don’t know of something similar for this far west, but it’s good to know it exists!

  4. You communicate precisely and make your point understandable. If you weren’t busy enough with other things, I would recommend you for the job. You could defeat the jargon dragon!

  5. New jersey tea some time call red root. I monitor two Pioneer cemeteries with virgin prairie that are about 10 mile apart. One has americanus and one herbaeous . How can I tell the difference I am not sure which is which but they bloom at different times. There would be an advantage to bloom at different time to keep your species pure. I will not have to take time to key out these plants. I understand that new jersey tea gave sod breakers fits because of there strong root systems. they could stop a plow in its tracks. Some people used explosive to remove the roots of New Jersey Tea.

  6. Yes, I’ve struggled with this and its very daunting. I live in New Zealand and love Hebes but we have so many varieties. I have a lovely modern comprehensive reference book, but the technical jargon is a trial! It does have good diagrams near the front explaining many of the terms but you’re constantly flipping back and forth. You’d think they’d just put all the diagrams on a stiff card that sits in a pocket so you can pull it out and hold it next to what you’re reading!

  7. Hi Chris, I read your post and it made me wonder if you’ve seen this app and its extensive database for plant and animal species identification that is developing online called iNaturalist. I’ve been using it as a casual “citizen scientist” who is interested in identifying plants and animals when I go hiking, and I’d like to see what you think of it. Basically, you can upload photos of your plant/animal and the system gives you recommended identifications. After a few months your photo id is eventually verified by a scientist collaborating with the app. The information they provide seems legitimate, as it was established by the California Academy of Sciences. And the more data users contribute to the app, the better the ids become. I also wrote about it on my blog as well if you’d like to see my initial thoughts about using it — Enjoy your week and thanks for your great post!

  8. Despite being a fairly competent plant identifier, I almost never use technical keys to learn identification. In-person instruction and familiarity with plant families have been my way around. A walk through a new habitat with someone who knows the plants and a notebook has done wonders for me. I also ask (or look up) what family a new species belongs to. Becoming familiar with the look of most families has made looking up unknown species much easier. My point here: experts, be generous with the opportunities you provide to teach amateurs ID.

    • I second your final sentence. Have met some folks who’ll decline to ID when folks ask for the species name because that person is not exerting enough personal effort to try on their own (learning the various characteristics, habitat clues, etc). I get what they are ultimately trying to do, but outside of a formal professor-student relationship, it just comes off as patronizing.

  9. My hat is off to you for doing a great job under difficult circumstances. I would like to see a series of little pictures which illustrate the various attributes of the plants. This seems to work for number of petals, and leaf arrangement, to name two. The bloom time is also an important characteristic and the bloom color also helps to ID the plant.

  10. Agree, Chris. Perhaps taking each definition and comparing it to something we are already familiar with such as leaf shapes. It may take some doing to describe some terms.
    Term Latin Description
    obtuse obtusus Blunt, forming an angle > 90°.
    orbicular orbicularis Circular.
    ovate ovatus Oval, egg-shaped, with a tapering point and the widest portion near the petiole.
    palmate palmatus Palm-shaped, i.e., with lobes or leaflets stemming from the leaf base.

  11. Finding knowledgeable mentors has been invaluable for me. Joining groups like the Native Plant Society of Texas has allowed real-time conversation with people who have devoted their lives to grasses and forbs, and who know them from root to bloom.

    As someone who’s come to the world of prairies and plants very recently, I’ve also come to appreciate the beautiful simplicity and specificity of the technical language. Learning it is hard, but only because it requires patience, and we’re not always patient people. Books like James and Melinda Harris’s Plant Identification Terminology: An Illustrated Glossary have been invaluable.

    Strangely, I think it was a poet who got it just right. If you’ve not read Howard Nemerov’s “Learning the Trees,” I think you’ll enjoy it. I love it, and read it every time a new term frustrates me.

    • I agree with all you write here, especially the participation in a local Native Plant Society group. There are many there ready to share knowledge. Plus, the Harris & Harris reference is a superb reference because it is SO well illustrated. In my opinion, terminology used for classification is extremely important. Learn it and you will be rewarded when in the field!

  12. The use of tools such as iNaturalist and other means of identification can not replace the knowledge gained when the terminology needed to ID plants is learned. It’s difficult, I get that. It is what I did for a M.S. Repetition is key; just keep at it and it will only get easier. In my opinion, we need to stop dumbing things down and relying on electronic means for the identification of plants and animals. These tools quickly and more often become a crutch.
    Information is not knowledge. -Albert Einstein

  13. I like what Kim said. This stated, even with 45 years of experience in keying my group of expertise, I find I have to get used to and learn some new ways of looking for the features in more recently published technical keys to this day, so indeed, it’s never easy.

    Spelling note – herbaceus (without the ‘O’, with which it is English, not Latin spelling).

  14. Kim, while I agree that electronic tools like iNaturalist, LeafSnap, and the like can not replace the knowledge gained from knowing the terminology and using more authoritative sources, remember that the title of Chris’s blog post today is “Making Species Identification Accessible to the Masses.” The operative word here is *masses*. I’m an interpreter. It’s my job to help people feel a connection to the natural world and learn to care ABOUT it so they’ll care FOR it. One of the ways is by giving them a name to call things. If arriving at the correct name involves wading their way through many terms that look like Greek to them, most of the “masses” will tune out long before they figure it out. Heck, I’ll tune out. Hurray for the botanists and knowledgeable naturalists who either understand the terminology or are willing to invest the time to wade through terms like those Chris included in his post. But that won’t help the masses learn to care about the prairie. An easy-to-use app like iNaturalist, even if it only gets them part of the way there (or, dare I say it, even if it gives them the wrong ID), goes much further to advancing the knowledge, and thus the caring, of the general public than saying we shouldn’t dumb things down. Maybe one in 100, or 1,000, will be interested enough to learn more about terminology needed for ID, but the other 99 or 999 will hopefully feel that they met a new “friend” whose name they know and that they now want to help preserve.

  15. A resounding YES to your point, Chris—that everyday folks need easier ways to ID species. Technical language is efficient, but it sets up a hierarchy in which experts become the arbiters of nature connection. In an age when, as Diane above said, we need the masses of people connecting with and caring for the natural world, we need accessible language to support EVERYONE in knowing, recognizing, and connecting with nature. An idea: writers are in the biz of making the abstract accessible, as you know because you’re doing this all the time. Why not engage more writers in this quest of translating technical ID language into more common terms?

    • Or perhaps this? There are a good number of photographers and writers who are doing precisely what you suggest, and finding quite an audience for their work.

      As important as anything is the ability to stir curiosity, communicate a love of the natural world, show people that they can approach nature without being judged for their lack of knowledge, and stirring a bit of humor into the mix.

      • Shoreacres, those are yours? They’re lovely. Great use of language in an engaging manner to get information across.

  16. Hi Chris,
    I think good natural history field guides can overcome botanical nomenclature, and I bet you even have some good ones for your region that could help distinguish your ywo soecies of Ceanothus. If not, what a great publishing opportunity!

    I and my colleagues recently published a book on the ethnobotany of SE NM for the BLM. As part of the plain language requirement for the federal government, I think we were successful in translating botanical terms into plain language. There were some situations where this led to a loss of precision (and I was afraid a botanist would read it and be offended) but I think on the whole it was a straight-forward process. One of the key steps to IDing plants is understanding plant family gestalts, and if you organize sections taxonomically it saves a lot of text!

    Of course, there are also now very good online keys that work much better than anything in a book. For example, SeiNet and BONAP are both excellent tools.

  17. Hard to think of a part of a plant that would be described in a key that my smartphone can’t capture, save the way something smells or tastes, or how easily it pulls from the ground, or if the leaves are 50 feet in the air (though it would be difficult to see the abaxial leaf surface of an oak leaf 50 feet in the air even with a telephoto lens…). That said I do also use a variety of lenses with my DSLR which is much more important for small, moving things like arthropods. Image based species ID and communities like iNaturalist are pretty great ways for the masses to learn together while contributing to a huge database of info. Much better than it just getting send to some expert via email and then getting deleted…


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