Online Programs Help Find Wild Plant Species, Experts Say

A growing interest in online nature sites and apps has to lead to the identification and discovery of rare plant species in Saskatchewan.

In the past few years, Regina-based botanist Sarah Vinge-Mazer has helped identify a few new plant species from photos that hikers posted online or through nature apps.

The connection between scientists and hobbyists, she said, has been positive in conservationist communities, leading to quicker species identification, better location tracking, and more connectivity between interested groups.

“That’s really an interesting way for me to get information on some of these species just from folks walking around and noticing things and getting excited about them and wanting to post observations of them,” she said in an interview Tuesday.

Since 2016, Vinge-Mazer has been using iNaturalist, a website with a companion app that allows people to post pictures of their wildlife discoveries, from weeds to bird eggs and butterflies.

Vinge-Mazer uses the site to connect with other professionals in her industry and compare photos of different plants. She said it has even made her process easier. She often reaches out to photo posters, asking them to return to the site to get close-ups or to observe certain plants more carefully. She also makes use of information from other experts, which she records before visiting an area to get samples.

Chet Neufeld, executive director of the Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan (NPSS), has used a variety of programs to identify species, primarily iNaturalist and iMapInvasives, a site that monitors invasive species. He said NPSS, along with Saskatchewan Conservation Data Centre, Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), and Meewasin Valley Authority all run identification projects through online sites.

“It’s helpful in a bunch of different ways,” he explained. “If I’m on vacation somewhere in the province, and I see a rare species, instead of getting my GPS out and writing this down, I can just open my app up, snap a photo of it, say this is what it is and then I can tag it to a project.”

Neufeld conducts bioblitzes, which are events that encourage locals to take pictures of wildlife in their area and upload them to sites and apps that are dedicated to wildlife researchers. He ran one at Meewasin Valley and is planning to organize a tour to Buffalo Pound after the pandemic.

Bioblitzes have been steadily growing in popularity. Last weekend, the NCC hosted its second annual Canada-wide bioblitz. Although the latest data is not yet available, the 2020 event lead to 20,000 wildlife observations, with 1,100 being from Sask.

Neufeld said one of the reasons online programs work so well is because you don’t have to go far to find wildlife. Since he seeded his yard with native grass, his property has attracted a variety of animals, insects, and plants. He’s spotted six species of bumblebee, had groups of songbirds migrate through, and discovered a rare kind of native Iris, about four to six inches tall with white flowers.

Last year, Vinge-Mazer was able to make an important discovery with the help of iNaturalist. Orocanche ludoviciana and Orobanche corymbosa, both species of broomrape, were believed to be the same plant but, upon closer inspection from photos on the app, they were identified as separate, the latter being new to Saskatchewan.

Although not exceedingly rare, broomrape has special characteristics that make it unique to the plant world, including the fact that it’s parasitic and relies on host plants for nutrients, and doesn’t produce any chlorophyll.

Vinge-Mazer said the content on the programs and the details that are posted will improve as more people join.

“The more people that get on there and the better they get at using it and putting data up there, that really helps the experts,” she said.

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Source: Leader Post

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