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.

Properly Portraying the Power of Prescribed Fire

At a recent Nebraska conference, Shelly Kelly of the Sandhills Task Force made a point worth some serious consideration.  She told a roomful of wildlife biologists that if they want reluctant ranchers to seriously consider using prescribed fire, using photos of big scary flames in presentations and social media posts is probably counterproductive.  Instead, Shelly suggested sharing more photos of fires that are clearly under control, with people calmly working around them.  Even better, she suggested, we should share photos of green grass beneath the skeletons of dead invasive trees, showing the positive results that follow fire.

We got our first prescribed fires of 2018 done last week.  This photo captures some of the 5 minutes or so of intense fire following about an hour of boring backing fire lines on one of those burns.

I appreciate her point.  Most of my favorite prescribed fire photos are the ones I took during the big head (wind-driven) fire at the end of a burn – when the flames are high and there’s lots of color and action.  Visually, those images are certainly more powerful than photos of a small fire backing slowly into the wind during the early stages of a burn.  However, it’s important to remember that “powerful” might not be the attribute to lead with when talking to a skeptical audience that fears the potential negative consequences of fire.

On the other hand, I don’t necessarily think we need to stop showing people powerful images of fire – we should just try to provide appropriate context for those images.  After all, the power of fire is why it’s so valuable as a management tool.  It can take some pretty tall flames and a lot of heat to kill eastern red cedar trees, for example.

Context is important.  Posting an image of huge flames and a towering smoke column on Instagram or Facebook with a short caption like, “Woo Hoo!!  We had a great burn today!!” will probably get lots of likes from experienced fire folks.  However, someone unfamiliar with prescribed fire might look at that same image and assume it was taken by a reckless pyromaniac who was endangering the public and him/herself.  As a result, that person might be much harder to turn into a prescribed fire supporter.

Expounding a little in an image caption can help quite a bit.  Something like, “Here’s an image from the finale of today’s controlled burn.  After two hours of slowly burning out a boundary around our fire unit, we were able to send this hot fire through the prairie to kill lots of invasive trees before it ran into what we’d burned earlier and put itself out.”  Or whatever – you get the idea.

We start each burn with a small test fire in the downwind corner . That gives us a chance to see how the fire and smoke are going to behave before we commit to the whole enchilada. If we don’t like what we see, we can easily shut down and wait for a better day.  Last week, we had dry conditions, but wind speeds were low enough that we could burn safely.

Even better, we should probably share broader series of images showing the entire process of the fire, including the boring backing fire that sets the stage for that big finish.  Photos of a nice straight firebreak, with black on one side and unburned grass on the other, can help drive home how careful, competent, and effective we are.  After posting a few shots of people in yellow suits laying down lines of small flame inside neat boundaries, it’s probably ok to slide in a couple photos of flaming infernos and torching cedar trees.  It might be smart to include at least one more photo after those flashy shots, though, showing that everything turned out well in the end…

In this photo, we’re laying down a band of water along the edge of a mowed strip surrounding our burn unit, and Olivia is lighting the grass just upwind of that wet and mowed line.
With both a wet line and a mowed firebreak to catch it, Alex lit a line of fire that we allowed to back into the wind. Several vehicles with water followed behind to make sure the flames stayed inside the unit.
Eventually the backing fire created a wind band of black that acted as a catcher’s mitt when the big fire ran into it later.
Once the black lines were prepared, we ignited the upwind portion of the unit and allowed fire to roar through the unit until it hit the black and was extinguished.
These lines of fire are safely inside wide bands of black that have already burned.
Olivia watches the last of the smoke dissipate as the fire burns itself out.

I’ll try to follow my own advice about fire communications in the future, and you can remind me when I forget.  It’s absolutely appropriate to celebrate the power (and let’s face it, the beauty too) of fire by taking and sharing photos.  However, we should also celebrate and share the care and strategy that go into making those powerful fires safe and effective.

Be safe out there.

Opportunity to Network Between Southeastern and Midwestern Prairie Ecologists

A few months ago, I wrote a post about the necessity for better communication between those working on grassland restoration projects in longleaf pine woodlands and those in midwestern prairies.  At the time, I suggested the need for opportunities to bring together restoration practitioners from both ecosystems (and others) to share experiences and ideas.

Longleaf pine woodlands are just grasslands with pine trees.

As it happens, just such an opportunity has arisen in the form of the Southeastern Prairie Symposium, which will be held in Starkville, Mississippi May 14-17, 2012.  The symposium is not focused on longleaf pine, but more generally on prairies and grasslands of the southeastern United States.  If you’re an ecologist or land manager working on prairies outside of that region, I would encourage you to take a look at the conference website and consider attending.  It looks like a great chance to see some excellent prairies and to interact with the people who restore and manage them.

The website for the symposium is:


(What We Have Here is) A Failure to Communicate

Picture a grassland dominated by little bluestem and other grass species.  One that has an abundance of wildflowers, including bird’s foot violet, goat’s rue, partridge pea, and numerous varieties of goldenrod, bushclover, and tickclover – among many others.  This prairie is one of only a few remnant prairies remaining in an ecosystem that once covered large swaths of North America.  Less than 1% of that ecosystem now remains in good condition, and most of its remnants are on sandy soils or steep slopes where farming and other human practices are difficult.  Sound familiar?  What if I told you this grassland ecosystem is found in places like North Carolina, Alabama, and Florida?  Oh, and that when it’s in really good condition, it’s full of pine trees…

Longleaf pine woodland (grassland?) in North Carolina.

If you live in the Midwest or Great Plains regions of North America, you were likely picturing a nearby tallgrass or mixed-grass prairie as I was describing that grassland.  Our prairies here sound, look, and function very much like the grasslands of the longleaf pine ecosystems in the southeastern United States.  Both rely heavily on frequent fire to maintain the species and habitat structure their species rely on.  The main difference is that longleaf pine grasslands have longleaf pine.

So if longleaf and midwestern prairies are so similar, why is there so little interaction between those of us working in the two ecosystem types?  It’s a question that has bothered me for years.  I’m not anywhere close to an expert on longleaf, having visited only twice during prescribed fire training courses.  On the other hand, I felt very much at home while I was there.  I recognized many of the plants – if not the species, at least the genus – and it wasn’t hard to imagine that I was walking through a midwestern oak savanna (with pine cones).  Click HERE to see some photos of longleaf pine wildflowers.

Frequent fire is used to keep longleaf ecosystems in good condition. Mature longleaf pine trees are very resistant to fire, and the fire keeps woody species from becoming overly abundant in the understory.


Deciduous trees and shrubs can quickly start to encroach in longleaf pine communities when fire frequency decreases.


Young longleaf pines - not just older ones - are resistant to fire. When very young, longleaf pines spend several years in a "grass stage" in which the growing point is at the ground level. In the grass stage, the tree invests in root growth belowground and resembles a bunchgrass aboveground - protecting it from fires. The tree in this photo is in the "bottle brush" stage, a phase in between the grass stage and a more mature tree. During this stage, the tree is at its most vulnerable to fire - until it reaches a size that it can again withstand burning.

It seems crazy to me that we’re not consistently exchanging ideas and strategies between midwestern prairies and longleaf pine grasslands – especially because we’re both struggling with many of the same issues.  Both systems become choked with brush and trees in the absence of frequent fire.  Invasive species are a major issue.  Perhaps most importantly, both midwestern prairie and longleaf pine are nearly gone, making restoration a critical need if the ecosystems are to survive.  Restoration efforts involve both the rehabilitation of degraded remnant natural areas and the reconversion of farm land to native vegetation.

I’ve been part of a couple efforts to start information exchanges through The Nature Conservancy and through the Grassland Restoration Network.  Both have mostly fizzled, but the little bit of exchange we managed only strengthened my conviction that we need to keep trying.  From what I can tell, many midwestern prairie ecologists could learn a lot from the way longleaf ecologists focus on ecosystem function – especially fire – as a way to measure success and manipulate habitat.  That heavy emphasis on restoring ecological process is very different from the more species composition-oriented thinking among many midwestern prairie ecologist.  At the same time, I think many longleaf ecologists could gain from infusing their process-oriented approach with more emphasis on plant diversity and the insect and animal diversity associated with those plant species.  In some ways, the differences between longleaf and tallgrass prairie thinking are similar to those between eastern and western prairie thinking within the Central U.S. (as discussed in an earlier post).

One specific opportunity I see is to provide longleaf ecologists better access to lessons learned from the long history of diverse prairie restoration efforts in the Midwest, in which hundreds of plant species are included in seed mixtures.  Most efforts to convert farm fields to longleaf pine communities (with notable exceptions) focus mainly on establishing longleaf pines and grass – largely as a way to facilitate reintroduction of fire.  Increasing the diversity of herbaceous plant species could have some big benefits ecologically, and shouldn’t slow down process of reintroducing fire.  The extent to which midwestern techniques would transfer south is something we should be exploring together.

How do we build the connections?  If I knew the answer, I wouldn’t be writing this post.  However, I do think there are some important steps.  One would be to ensure that longleaf pine ecologists are encouraged and invited to attend the meetings such as the biennial North American Prairie Conference.  Getting us all in the same place to share ideas is absolutely the best way to exchange information.  Better yet, maybe someone in Alabama or South Carolina can host an upcoming prairie conference so that Midwestern prairie folks are forced to come down and see for themselves the wonderful longleaf grasslands.  Facilitating involvement from Midwestern prairie ecologists in existing longleaf conferences would also be valuable (to everyone).

In addition, I think organizations like The Nature Conservancy and others that span multiple states have a responsibility to lead the way in facilitating communication and collaboration.  It’s certainly not easy.  It’s hard enough to work between adjacent states, let alone regions.  On the other hand, none of us have figured out all the challenges in grassland conservation, so we need all the help we can get.  Working and experimenting in separate laboratories without sharing results is just silly.

If anyone sees an opportunity for building bridges between north and south on this issue, please let me know if I can help.

For more information about longleaf pine ecosystems, visit the Longleaf Alliance website.