But you can also use technology to learn more about the natural world. In fact, it’s right at your fingertips. Jacob Barney, an associate professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has a plan to help you familiarize yourself with which plant species grow in your neighborhood.
As a biologist, Barney studies invasive plant species and how they affect the ecosystem. Invasive species are plants or animals that do not naturally belong in an ecosystem. For example, Himalaya blackberry is a shrub native to Armenia, a country in western Asia. Because of its delicious fruits, people planted Himalaya blackberry all across the United States. It’s a tough plant and spreads very quickly, so it can overpower native species, changing the composition of the ecosystem.
Native plants, however, occur naturally. They’re a crucial part of the food web, and wildlife species rely on them to create a healthy habitat. Insects like bees and beetles love native plants, and when you have a healthy population of insects, wildlife like birds and small mammals tend to follow. So native plants support a greater abundance of wildlife and maintain a balanced ecosystem.
Barney suggests using iNaturalist, a free app designed to help you ID plant or animal species and learn about its biology. When you see a species that you’re interested in, just log into the app, snap a photo, and identify it. That entry becomes a datapoint so that people know where you found that species.
“It allows users to add datapoints to its distribution, which helps researchers like myself learn about where species are, and how they are changing their distributions in response to climate change,” said Barney. This is called citizen science — a field of science that relies on public participation to collect data.
If you’re unsure about what plant or animal you’re looking at, switch to an app called Seek. It uses your phone’s camera to identify a species for you.
“I tried Seek in my yard, and it’s pretty cool to move the camera around and watch the app narrow down the ID. So, for those who don’t know the species yet, they can use this app to ID it for them, and then they can learn about it!” Barney said.
To learn more about native and invasive plants, Barney challenges you to locate and identify ten native species.