The legendary naturalist John Muir once wrote: “Whenever I met a new plant, I would sit down beside it for a minute or a day, to make its acquaintance, hear what it had to tell.” The first step to making an acquaintance is to get a name—and naming nature is not easy. This weekend, while walking through Great Falls Park, a butterfly landed on my friend’s leg. It was large, with yellow and black wings—clearly a swallowtail, but what species? That same day, a large black insect landed on a flower in front of me, and I snapped a portrait of it before it flew off. It was a dragonfly, but what kind of dragonfly?
Many of our experiences of nature take this form. You see something, but you don’t know what it is. You are surrounded by life, but much of it is anonymous. “People don’t identify as a naturalist but if you ask them if they’ve ever been outside, seen something, and wondered what it is, they’ll say: Oh yeah, sure,” says Scott Loarie from the California Academy of Sciences.
Loarie and his team have developed an app that can help. Known as iNaturalist, it began as a crowdsourced community, where people can upload photos of animals and plants for other users to identify. But a month ago, the team updated the app so that an artificial intelligence now identifies what you’re looking at. In some cases, it’ll nail a particular species—it correctly pegged the dragonfly I spotted as a slaty skimmer (Libellula incesta). For the butterfly, it was less certain. “We’re pretty sure this is in the genus Papilio,” it offered, before listing ten possible species.