Want to know which tree that leaf is from? Let Leafsnap come to your rescue!

By September 13th, 2013 at 11:30 am | Comment

This post is part of this week’s featured projects about other tree projects. Branch out into citizen science and take a look!

A couple of weekends ago, I was up in the impressive Adirondacks in upstate New York for a getaway with friends. One of the interesting things I noticed while driving through the winding mountainous roads was that the foliage in that part of the country was quite different from the mountains of southwest Pennsylvania and West Virginia that I’m used to seeing on my day trips from Pittsburgh. I mentioned this to a friend and she asked me, “Do you know what trees these leaves are from?” Not being quite up to snuff on my botany, my answer was “No, I don’t really know but I wish we had someone with us who did!” We proceeded to guess what tree it could be and needless to say we couldn’t get very far.

A screenshot of Leafsnap in Action

A screenshot of Leafsnap for the iPhone

This week, I found out about Leafsnap and it reminded me of that conversation. I realized that’s exactly what I had been wishing for. Leafsnap, a nifty iPhone or iPad app acts as an ‘electronic field guide’ that allows anyone identify a tree simply by taking a picture of its leaf. Once the picture is taken using the ‘Snap it!’ feature, the app uses an algorithm similar to the ones that enable facial recognition technology to sift through a large database and identify a match. It then displays all the details about the tree including identifying information, origins, habitat and where the tree grows in the US. Stunning high-resolution images of not only the leaf but also flowers, fruit, petiole, seeds, and bark make the process that much more fascinating. The identification works best if the leaf is placed on a white background (think paper towel or even a white handkerchief). Currently the database contains trees from the northeast US but it will soon be expanded to other parts of the country. The app also includes ‘Nearby Species’, a feature that displays other labeled trees near the user’s location and ‘Leaflet’, a leaf identifying game that is sure to be a hit with young citizen scientists.

So what’s the citizen science part of this project? Leafsnap shares the pictures users take, along with where it was taken (‘geo-coded stamps of species locations’ as they call it) with a community of scientists who can then use the data to observe and understand changes in flora around the country. With a large enough group of regular users, it could for example be used to find out how a forest fire affects the species distribution of trees in an area. Importantly, by blending a scientific endeavor with a fun, easy-to-use smartphone app, Leafsnap can be used to get children and young adults interested in going outdoors, exploring nature and becoming citizen scientists.

Leafsnap was developed by Professor Peter Belhumeur and Professor David Jacobs, computer scientists who specialize in facial recognition research at Columbia University and the University of Maryland respectively in collaboration with Dr John Kress, chief botanist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC and Finding Species, a nonprofit organization. The project is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation and volunteers from all the above institutions contribute extensively to build the software, the database and the mobile app. The app is available only for the iPhone and iPad now but an Android version is in the works and is expected soon.

Be sure to register or login on SciStarter before you go leaf snapping and check out the video below from the Smithsonian Institution showing Leafsnap in action!

Love the great outdoors? Check out these other great citizen science projects on SciStarter!


Photos/Videos:Leafsnap, iTunes App Store

Arvind Suresh is a graduate student in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology at the University of Pittsburgh. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology from PSG College of Technology, India. For his thesis, he has been studying the molecular mechanisms behind uterine contraction during pregnancy. He is also an information addict, gobbling up everything he can find on and off the internet. He enjoys reading, teaching, talking and writing science, and following that interest led him to SciStarter. Outside the lab and the classroom, he can be found behind the viewfinder of his camera. www.suresharvind.com