Under the Um… What’s the Name of That Tree?

by Bill Chameides | June 9th, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Now there’s no longer any excuse for not knowing which tree you’re barking up.

A few years ago at Nerd Nite in NYC, a botanist delivering one of the evening’s three lectures showed a slide of a pretty nature scene — a deer in front of a grove — and posed an easy enough question: “What’s this picture of?” Eruptions of “deer” came from all corners of the assembled audience. But, not a single person mentioned the plants, one of which happened to be a hard-to-find endangered species.

Point taken. As top dog in the animal kingdom, we animal-oriented humans tend to not just miss the forest for the trees but to miss the forest and the trees.

Trees Are Stand-Up Guys

Notice them or not, trees are busy doing the planet’s work and making our lives better in the process. They provide us with delicious fruit, they provide shade, they take up carbon, they provide us many a timber type for our building, and through transpiration — a process by which they “exhale” (really evaporate) the water they take in through their roots — they help drive the water cycle and “provide almost two-thirds of the atmospheric moisture that falls as precipitation on land surfaces.” (Watch a video by TheGreenGrok on trees and urban parks.)

Get to Know Your Trees

And yet how much does the average Joe know about trees? Which ones have edible fruit? Which have those beautiful flowers? Which are best for climbing? Which one is that apple suckling tree of which the song’s narrator sings? All too often the answer is … not so much.

All that is about to change, The Smithsonian Institution, Columbia University and the University of Maryland are hoping to fill the gap in the general public’s knowledge base of these giant, beneficial plants and give them a little exposure. To lift the shade, if you will, and shed a little light on these plants, scientists have teamed up to develop a mobile app called Leafsnap that allows you to use your mobile device, be it an iPhone or an iPad, to snap a pic of a tree’s leaves and instantly get information about the species — its flowers, fruit, seeds and bark along with high-res photos (so you can make sure you’re looking at the right species).

Seeing the Forest and the Trees

And here’s the other cool thing — the app isn’t just a way to broaden your knowledge of the tree. It’s one of the latest examples of citizen science — a kind of scientific crowdsourcing in which ordinary citizens, by collecting and providing thousands and thousands of data points, will help scientists further their study. That help via Leafspan comes in the form of sharing species ID’s and tree locations with a community of scientists — data that will help them be able to chart and monitor population growth and tree decline around the country. And while the software’s database focuses on trees in the Northeast right now, word is that soon all tree species in the continental United States will be covered.

CSI: Copse Scene Investigation

The technology bears a striking resemblance to those scenes in TV crime shows where the technician runs a fingerprint through a database hoping for a match in the system and thus getting one step closer to finding the culprit.

In Leafsnap, says the Smithsonian Institution’s press release, photos sent in are similarly “matched against a leaf-image library using numerous shape measurements computed at points along the leaf’s outline. The best matches are then ranked and returned to the user for final verification.”

The technology at work here is essentially face-recognition software — virtually the same tech now being used on Facebook to offer up names of your friends so that you can tag your uploaded photos supposedly more easily (in case you’re having trouble spotting your own friends’ faces?). Officially announced in recent days, the Facebook app is already coming under attack for privacy concerns. The European Union is investigating the practice and, according to the New York Times, the DC-based Electronic Privacy Information Center is planning to lodge a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

Hopefully Leafsnap won’t come under similar attack by tree-interest groups.

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