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Identifying species in the field? There’s an app for that.

Map of Life

http://mol.org
2015
iOS/Android compatible
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The field guide as we know it has not changed much since it was invented more than 100 years ago. It is a list of species and a description of their respective attributes, accompanied by some illustrations. More recent field guides also include maps of expected species distributions. However, publishing on paper imposes some limits on the information that can be included. A paper field guide can either be comprehensive in its consideration of every species in a taxon or consider multiple taxa without including every single species. This information can only be organized in one way and with one or two indices.

Map of Life joins a small but growing number of mobile applications seeking to reimagine the field guide by combining big data and mobile technology. The project, first launched in 2012 as a web-based platform for compiling range maps of all living plant and animal species, is directed by Walter Jetz at Yale University in collaboration with Rob Guralnick at the University of Florida. The application, released earlier this year, is available free on both iOS and Android platforms in six different languages.

The application is ambitious in its scope, seeking to provide a guide to all local species, no matter where the user is located on the planet. In contrast to the long tradition of field guides authored by expert natural historians, Map of Life draws on collective wisdom, amalgamating global data sets of species observations from published sources and using a series of modeling techniques to convert them into species range maps. By combining these data with information from the mobile device’s location services (e.g., GPS), the application creates a list of species the user can expect to encounter. This information can be sorted, searched, and filtered to make a field guide relevant to the user’s particular interests.

Species from the list can be explored with pictures, descriptions, and range maps. Distinguishing among birds in a nearby lake, for example, was simple and intuitive. However, the list of taxa provided by the application is only as comprehensive and accurate as the data sets from which it draws. While walking around an alpine meadow in full bloom, I discovered that the application does not currently include any flowering plant species for that location.

I was also unable to identify the species I observed when I turned into a forested valley, because data access depends on a wireless Internet connection. Luckily, the application’s mapping interface makes it easy to access lists of species for any location, so it is possible to identify a species before or after a day in the field.

The current problems with connectivity intrinsic to all mobile applications will inevitably fade. Map of Life comes with a crowdsourcing twist to address these issues of data availability. Following in the footsteps of iNaturalist (www.inaturalist.org), a standard-bearer for natural history mobile applications, it allows users to instantly contribute their own geolocated, time-stamped species observations, although the process by which they are vetted and used to revise the species range maps has not yet been completed. (The observations I added can be viewed on a dashboard on the Map of Life website.) The ability to add an observation is currently limited to only those species that already exist in the database, but it is nevertheless the foundation for the application’s self-sustaining development.

In addition to being able to add observations about species encountered, the user is also able to note which expected species were not encountered. I was struck by all of the species that were expected to occur but were not present as I walked around the city where I live, a compelling reminder of our impact on the planet’s biodiversity.

The long-term utility and sustainability of natural history mobile applications remain to be seen. The use of data generated from public funding makes it imperative that such applications are provided free, yet their development remains resource intensive. Traditionally, the sales of the field guide helped recoup the cost of its production. An alternative revenue model is not yet obvious. Moreover, the efficacy of mobile applications with regard to improving knowledge and attitudes about biodiversity, relative to paper field guides, remains largely unexplored. However, Jetz already reports an average of more than 500 unique daily users, a very promising sign that the application is garnering considerable attention.

With the advent of Map of Life, one can’t help but imagine a future of locally relevant, on-demand field guides. One can imagine, for example, a user in the Brazilian Pantanal looking at a list of local bird species at the same time that a user in an Australian rainforest shares an observation of a butterfly—and with that comes the possibility of imagining a whole new generation exploring the planet’s biodiversity.

About the author

The reviewer is in the Ecosystem Fluxes Group, Laboratory for Atmospheric Chemistry, Paul Scherrer Institute, Villigen 5232, Switzerland.