As summer turns into autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, our attention often drifts to trees and their changing colors. From what we hear via social media today, the leaves are just beginning to change in parts of the U.S. and elsewhere in this hemisphere. No matter what the season, you can now take advantage of an electronic field guide that makes it easier than ever to identify the trees you’re looking at with your smartphone. The free mobile application application is called Leafsnap, and it uses visual recognition software to identify tree species from photographs of leaves that users upload to their phones.
Leafsnap was developed in 2011 by scientists from Columbia University, the University of Maryland and the Smithsonian Institution. The idea for the application came from Peter Belhumeur of Columbia University and David Jacobs of the University of Maryland, who work in the field of Computer Science. They realized that facial recognition software might also be useful for identifying non-human species, and they collaborated with John Kress, Chief Botanist at the Smithsonian Institution, to design one of the first electronic field guide for trees.
With Leafsnap, users can take a photograph of a leaf placed on a white background and upload the image to a database that uses visual recognition software to identify potential matches for the tree species. After browsing through high-resolution images of leaves, flowers, fruit, petioles (the stalk that joins a leaf to the stem), seeds and bark, users can select the correct species match and start to build their own electronic collection of trees that they’ve observed.
According to the Leafsnap website:
Leafsnap turns users into citizen scientists, automatically sharing images, species identifications, and geo-coded stamps of species locations with a community of scientists who will use the stream of data to map and monitor the ebb and flow of flora nationwide.
Currently, Leafsnap can only identify trees that occur in the northeastern United States. However, the Leafsnap program eventually plans to expand the application to include all trees that grow in other regions of the United States as well. If you don’t live in the northeastern United States, you can still start using the application today by browsing through Leafsnap’s encyclopedia of species to identify trees such as quaking aspen and weeping willows that have a large habitat range. Leafsnap also contains two games aimed at improving environmental education.
Funding for the development of Leafsnap was provided by in part by a National Science Foundation Grant titled “An electronic field guide: plant exploration and discovery in the 21st century” and the Washington Biologists’ Field Club.
The Leafsnap application is currently available for the iphone and ipad. A version of the application for Android phones is under development.
The Smithsonian Institution has created an excellent video showing Leafsnap in action that you can view here.
Bottom line: Scientists have developed an electronic field guide that makes it easier than ever to identify what trees you’re looking at with a free mobile application for your smartphone. The application, called Leafsnap, uses visual recognition software to identify tree species from photographs of leaves that users upload to their phones. Leafsnap was developed in 2011 by scientists from Columbia University, the University of Maryland and the Smithsonian Institution.
Deanna Conners is an Environmental Scientist who holds a Ph.D. in Toxicology and an M.S. in Environmental Studies. Her interest in toxicology stems from having grown up near the Love Canal Superfund Site in New York. Her current work is to provide high-quality scientific information to the public and decision-makers and to help build cross-disciplinary partnerships that help solve environmental problems. She writes about Earth science and nature conservation for EarthSky.