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.

Photo of the Week – June 4, 2015

Kim Tri inspects a skunk skull in the prairie while Evan Barrientos looks on.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Kim Tri inspects a skunk skull in the prairie while Evan Barrientos looks on. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

This week, we began the third year of our Hubbard Fellowship program here in Nebraska.  Evan Barrientos (Wisconsin) and Kim Tri (Minnesota) are both recent college graduates who will be spending the next year with us, learning all we can teach them about ecology, land restoration and stewardship, conservation strategy, fundraising, marketing/outreach and more.  After a short orientation day on Monday, we spent Tuesday and Wednesday at a big conference with other employees of The Nature Conservancy.  It was an uplifting, but somewhat overwhelming experience for Evan and Kim.  While they learned a lot and met a lot of people at the conference, I was glad to get them back out on the prairie today so we could just take some time to wander the prairie together and talk about natural history and ecology.

There are countless positive attributes of the Hubbard Fellowship program, but one of my personal favorites is the opportunity I get to interact with young, bright, and enthusiastic conservationists.  I love seeing our work and sites through their eyes, and their questions and ideas challenge and inspire me every day.  You’ll get the chance to hear much more about and from Kim and Evan in the coming year, and I hope you’ll feel some of the same hope and energy I do.

We have a lot of conservation challenges to face in the coming years, but I think the next generation of conservation professionals is going to be equal to the task.

Seeding With My Son

Our family owns a prairie about 15 minutes south of our house, and that ownership gives me some wonderful opportunities to share my enthusiasm about prairie ecology with my kids.  I don’t expect any of my three offspring to become prairie ecologists when they grow up, but I do hope they’ll always enjoy and appreciate prairies.  In addition, I want them to understand the importance of land stewardship and the conservation responsibility we all have – especially those of us with direct management control over land.

Daniel Helzer throwing prairie seeds at the Helzer prairie farm near Stockham, Nebraska.

Last weekend, I got to spend a couple hours with my youngest son (Daniel, age 7) overseeding of a portion of our prairie.  During the summer and fall, all three kids helped me harvest seeds from local wildflower species that are rare or missing in our prairie.  Since the end of the growing season, I’d been waiting for the right day to put together a nice family outing to throw the seeds out.  It’ll be a good bonding experience, I thought.  A great way to share in the process of restoring a piece of family land.  Something my kids can tell their grandchildren about.

So yesterday, I asked for volunteers to help me spend a beautiful afternoon at the prairie.  Not one kid wanted to go.

Fortunately, my wise (and beautiful) wife pointed out to me that asking for volunteers wasn’t always the best way to handle children.  Adjusting my tactics, I cornered Daniel and simply asked him what time he wanted to go to the prairie with me.  I then explained that we’d be working in very short grass (really tall grass can be hard on a 7-year old) and that we could quit if he got tired of it.  I also described the satisfaction he’d get next year from finding new wildflowers in the prairie and knowing that they were only there because of his work.  I’m pretty sure that’s what swayed him.  Or maybe he realized that his brother and sister were going with their friends for the afternoon and his other option was staying home with his mom – who was cleaning house.  Probably it was the satisfaction thing.

Regardless, off we went. 

The right half of this August photo is the area Dan and I seeded yesterday. A season of intensive grazing (which continued well into October) knocked back the vigor of the grasses and other plants in that part of the pasture, opening up root space below and soil and light space on the surface. The portion of prairie on the left had the same treatment the previous year, but was ungrazed and recovering this year. The majority of this prairie was converted from cropland to grasses in the 1960's by my grandpa. Some wildflower species have colonized over time, but its overall wildflower diversity is still a little low - but growing.

(I wasn’t kidding when I told Dan we were going to be working in short grass.  I’d set up the grazing on our prairie this past year such that about a fourth of the site was grazed very intensively for most of the season.  Past experience has shown me that season-long intensive grazing can lead to decent establishment of seeded plants – particularly at this prairie.  The grazing opens up bare ground for seed-soil contact, but also greatly reduces the root mass of grasses to allow new seedlings a chance to compete with those normally dominant plants.  Next year the overseeded area won’t be grazed at all, which will give the seedlings a chance to start and the existing plants a chance to recover their vigor.  I’ve never seen any long-term damage to existing plants, but this kind of grazing opens up temporary space for new recruitment.) 

When we got to the prairie, I handed Daniel a bucket of seed and explained my special technique for overseeding.  “Take this seed and throw it on the ground,” I said.  Being a very bright young man, he picked it up quickly.  Did I mention how smart he is?

We did have a brief minor issue with the wind, but that was really my fault for not including that in my explanation.  What I should have said was, “take this seed and throw it WITH THE WIND.”  After we dug a few seeds out of his eyes and he spit out the rest, things went very smoothly.

The first test throw helped us refine our methods.

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Throwing seeds with the wind is much more productive.

We spent more than an hour walking around and throwing seed on the ground (more or less strategically) – pausing now and then to look at tracks he found in the dirt.  “Those are deer tracks,” I explained.  “Yep, those too…  and those and those and those.”  Apparently, we have a lot of deer this year… 

As we worked, we also spent some time discussing the best ways Dan might try to break the ice on the pond without getting muddy.  Eventually, it dawned on me that his questions about breaking the ice were less theoretical and more like hints about what he’d actually like to be doing with the remainder of his prairie outing.  So we put the remaining seed back in the truck and headed down to the pond, where we had a great time chucking sticks and rocks onto (and occasionally through) the ice.  And, yes, he got muddy.

When we got home, I was proud to listen to Daniel explain to his mother – in great detail – the specifics of our afternoon’s conservation work.  In fact, he very precisely described both the kinds of sticks and rocks we threw at the pond and exactly how high we had to throw them so they would punch holes in the ice when they landed.  He even used the word “plummeted” appropriately.  (Did I mention he’s very bright?)  I’m sure he would have gotten around to describing the deep satisfaction he’d gained from personally participating in the restoration of prairie function and diversity, but he got challenged to a ping pong game and forgot. 

All in all, it was a pretty great day.

Photo of the Week – October 21, 2011

Garden spiders, aka black and yellow argiopes, are one of the most recognizable spiders in many prairies (not to mention backyards).  In fact, my kids spent several weeks this August doing daily checks on one big spider in our yard, feeding it every kind of insect they could find.  They had a great time catching insects and figuring out the best way to toss them into the web so that the insect would get tangled up and the spider could rush over and finish it off.

A black and yellow argiope (Argiope aurantia) with its egg sac. Lincoln Creek Prairie - Aurora, Nebraska. (For context, the egg sac was about an inch wide.)

A couple weeks ago, I took the above photo of a black and yellow argiope and its egg sac in a local prairie.  Female argiope spiders typically lay several hundred or more eggs in the early fall, encase them in an egg sac, and die soon after.  (Remember Charlotte’s Web?)  In Nebraska, the eggs hatch in the fall, but the spiderlings remain in the egg sac over the winter before emerging the next spring.  The tough egg sac protects them from winter weather and helps protect the eggs and spiderlings from many predators.

I’ve spent this week at a big conference for scientists of The Nature Conservancy.  One of the themes of our conference has been the need to do a better job of involving people – particularly kids – in conservation.  Clearly, one of the keys to getting kids into conservation is helping them to make personal connections with nature.  I’m convinced that intimate experiences like feeding a spider, holding a turtle, or watching a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis create long-lasting impressions that shape future convictions about the importance of nature.  When my kids are older, I hope that memories of watching and feeding that big spider in our yard will be influential and inspirational to them, regardless of where they go or what they do.  Now if we could just get a big spider in the backyard of every kid in the world…

Black and Yellow Argiopes – the new worldwide ambassador for conservation!