Plant biodiversity cell phones captures change

What is growing there? With smartphone apps for automatic plant recognition, nature lovers can easily find their way around and not only that: They also contribute to environmental research, according to a study. Thus, the site data transmitted provides valid information on large-scale patterns of biodiversity. In the long term, the scientists report, the use of identification applications can also reveal environmental changes.

For many people, feeling connected to nature also includes knowledge – they want to know what’s green, blossom, sneaky, and floating around them. These inquisitive people are now able to use smart phone applications that allow easy identification of animal and plant species. Since 2017Flora IncognitaMore than a million nature lovers use this application, developed by the Technical University of Ilmenau, to automatically recognize wild plants. The program’s near-magical ability to recognize artificial intelligence depends: the system has been “trained” with thousands of plant images identified by experts. Successful application, the application continues to learn and improve its recognition accuracy Flora Incognita can now automatically recognize more than 4,800 plant species using cell phone records.

To what extent do usable data arise?

In addition to the benefits for ordinary people and the enhancement of closeness to nature, developers were also hoping for benefits for science: Against the background of climate change, habitat loss and land use change, apps like Flora Incognita could provide important information. But is its value comparable to long-term data sets? Researchers led by Jana Wäldchen of the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Jena investigated this question. To do this, they analyzed the data generated between 2018 and 2019 with the help of Flora Incognita in Germany and compared it to the “FlorKart” database of the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation. This is a long-range mapping created with the support of over 5,000 plant experts over a period of more than 70 years.

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The researchers were able to show that the data, obtained with the help of the application in just two years, can be used to derive ecological patterns in Germany that can be compared to long-term mapping of plants using the conventional system. Among other things, the data reflected the influence of various environmental factors on the distribution of plant species. However, there were also strange characteristics in the app’s datasets: “The amount of data collected in a given area using an app depends, of course, on the number of smartphone users,” says Walden. So rural areas were less covered by the app – unless they were popular tourist destinations. So it would be nice if the number of users continues to rise.

Biodiversity research potential

In the reviews, it is clear that users’ preferences for apparent botanicals have to be taken into account: “The plant notes collected with the app reflect what users see in nature and what they care about,” says Walden. But despite these distinct characteristics, the vast amount of botanical observations collected help reconstruct known biogeographical patterns, which emerge from assessments of nearly 900,000 observational data. It is becoming evident that this type of data acquisition can ideally be integrated into long-term mapping of biodiversity and environmental research, the scientists summarize.

“We are convinced that automatic identification of species has much greater potential than previously assumed and can enable rapid recording of changes in biodiversity,” says first author Miguel Mehcha of the University of Leipzig. With the increasing number of users of applications like Flora Incognita, changes to ecosystems around the world can be recorded and analyzed in real time. Co-author Patrick Meder of the Technical University of Ilmenau also expressed his happiness with the success: “For us as computer scientists, the technologies we have developed can make an important contribution to biodiversity research,” the scientist said.

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Source: The German Integrative Biodiversity Research Center (iDiv)
Halle Jena Leipzig, article: Ecology, doi: 10.1111 / ecog.0549

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