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 – November 16, 2017

Most of us don’t think about ants very often unless they’re marching across our kitchen counter (or up our leg).  That anonymity isn’t their fault, it’s ours.  Ants play major roles in ecoystems, and their biomass in prairies can rival that of bison, so if we’re not paying them sufficient attention, that’s on us.

Ants on upright prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera) – The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska

I took the two ant photos in this post at the Niobrara Valley Preserve back in June of this year.  As is usually the case, I spotted the ants only because they happened to be crawling around on some flowers I was looking at.  Ants are often spotted on flowers, especially those that have easily accessible nectar that helps satisfies ants’ attraction to sweets.  While they don’t usually do much good as pollinators, ants might provide some protective services for plants by helping to keep herbivores away.

Ants spend most of their time underground, of course, where it’s easy for us to forget about them.  When they’re not in their tunnels, they still aren’t all that visible unless we’re looking for them.  Regardless, they are major predators in prairies, collaborating with each other to take down prey much larger than they are.  In addition, ants are scavengers, major forces in nutrient cycling, and important seed dispersal agents for some plant species.  Ants can also steal food and workers from each others’ colonies, “herd” aphids and harvest their honeydew and meat, and are themselves an important food source for other animals.  We should probably stop ignoring them.

Golden early morning light shown on this ant as it crawled down the stem of an upright prairie coneflower plant.

Most prairies probably have around 30 species of ants living in them, which is more local diversity than is found in grassland nesting birds, which we pay infinitely more attention to.  In addition, if we lost all our grassland birds tomorrow, it would be sad, but I’m pretty sure it would have much less impact on prairie ecosystems than if we lost our ants.

Let’s try to keep them both around, shall we?

 

Here are some previous posts I’ve written about ants if you feel like reading a little more about them:

https://prairieecologist.com/2011/01/03/the-density-of-ants-in-prairies/

https://prairieecologist.com/2015/05/20/ants-in-the-sun/

https://prairieecologist.com/2015/08/18/killer-thistles/

Photo of the Week – October 14, 2011

Back in June of this year, I went up to The Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands in northwest Iowa for a meeting on prescribed fire.  As we were starting a field tour, a group of us was walking from the parking lot to the hills when we spotted this tiny little turtle (about the size of a 50 cent piece).  I hung back and followed it around with my camera for a few minutes before catching up with the group again.

A very small painted turtle at The Nature Conservancy's Broken Kettle Grasslands.

Painted turtles are common but fascinating creatures with lots of interesting natural history trivia – especially related to temperature.  First, the gender of turtles is determined by the temperature of the eggs in their underground nest.  Males are produced in cooler temperatures, and females are produced in warmer temperatures.  A second temperature-related fact is that painted turtles hatch out of their eggs in the fall, but remain underground through the winter and emerge in the spring, surviving temperatures down to at least 5 degrees F.  They eat the shells they hatched out of and, apparently, get some nutrition from the surrounding soil minerals.  Finally, the basking that painted turtles do in the sun not only helps them with thermoregulation but also activates enzyme production for digestion of their food.

Oh, and they’re cute too.

The Density of Ants in Prairies

About five years ago there was a major rainstorm in early May that dropped 12 inches on our Platte River Prairies within 24 hours, and flooded most of our sites for several days.  I wasn’t too worried about most of the prairies (they’re floodplain prairies, after all, and should be used to flooding) but I was concerned about the influx of purple loosestrife from the out-of-bank river and about the fate of a few young prairie restoration seedings. A the same time, I was hoping the big rain would help end the drought we’d been in for more than five years (it didn’t).

As the prairies dried out, I started checking them to see how things looked. I was walking through a 5-year –old prairie seeding looking at the prairie plants, which were looking very good, when I suddenly noticed the ant hills. Everywhere I looked, there were ant hills. I couldn’t take a step without trampling one. I had a quick illogical thought that we’d been invaded by fire ants. Once my brain kicked back into gear, I realized that I was likely seeing the simultaneous rebuilding/repair of all the ant tunnels that had been in place prior to the big rain.

Ant hills in a 5-year-old prairie seeding about 2 weeks after flooding.

Ants are extremely important to prairies as predators and earth movers (and fill other roles as well) and I knew that they were really abundant, but until I saw the density of hills after that flood I didn’t really have a good idea HOW abundant they could be. After all, the hills are the tip of the iceberg, and only indicate the presence of numerous and extensive tunnels beneath the surface.  Before writing this post, I contacted James Trager (Missouri Botanical Garden) to see what he could tell me about the phenomenon I’d observed.

James said he thought most the hills were probably made by Lasius neoniger, the “cornfield ant”, which is a very abundant species common to prairies with sandy soil. He also said ants can survive floods by finding refuge in air pockets within their underground nests. That’s something I hadn’t thought about either – all the invertebrates living belowground have to be able to survive saturated soils, especially in floodplain prairies.

I thought about using these photos and story as the basis for a larger post on prairie ants, but decided that it would be redundant.  James has already written an excellent and succinct synthesis of the fascinating world of prairie ants.  Rather than trying to steal his ideas and re-write them, I’ll simply give you the link to his.  If you haven’t read his introduction to prairie ants, it’s well worth the few minutes it’ll take you to read it.

A wider view of the same site. This density of ant hills appeared to exist across the entire 80 acre prairie.

It’s an amazing world, isn’t it?