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New app makes identifying plants easier

New app makes identifying plants easier

Identifying plants is complex when there are dozens, hundreds and in some cases even thousands of species, many with similar features. But Landcare Research is making this easier.

The Crown research institute, which focuses on environmental science, recently developed a free app for smart phones and tablets to identify native coprosma plants. Native coprosmas are a common and diverse genus of trees, shrubs and ground-hugging plants.

The app, called the NZ Coprosma Key, allows users to identify their plant specimen by selecting from a series of features to narrow down the range of 53 possible species. These features include leaf size, branch colour, leaf hairs and many others.

The app was adapted from a computer-based coprosma identification tool and is the first of more to come.

Landcare Research scientist David Glenny, the lead author of the app, said it was created to help identify plants during ecological survey work and would be of particular benefit to Department of Conservation staff. However, it would also be useful to students, researchers, and others in the New Zealand botanical community, he said.

“Although the app is easy to use, I don’t regard it as a key for beginners as you actually have to know already that you’ve got a coprosma. New Zealand has a lot of plants that look quite similar to coprosma. So I created the key mainly for people doing survey work who already know the flora reasonably well but who need help with what’s quite a difficult group,” he said.

One benefit of the app is that unlike traditional methods of identifying plants it is fully portable. It eliminates the need for those in a remote area to cut a sample of an unknown plant to later identify with a book or computer, Glenny said.

Another benefit is that the app is “self-contained” and does not require internet access or cellphone reception in the field.

“It’s better than I imagined,” Glenny said.

Many coprosmas are most easily identified when in fruit, which only occurs at certain times of the year. However, the app overcomes this challenge, he said.

“Every pre-existing key used fruit colour, which is quite diagnostic. If you have ripe fruit that’s fantastic but fruit is typically only available in autumn. Ecologists tell me that in places like the West Coast forest’s they never see ripe fruit no matter what month they visit. So part of the point of that original computer key was to provide an ID tool that didn’t just rely on fruit colour.”

Landcare Research scientist Murray Dawson led the development of the LucidMobile coprosma app.

Dawson is also developing apps to identify New Zealand grasses, native orchids, flowering plants and weeds. The development of the grasses and native orchid apps are nearly completed, Dawson said. The flowering plants and weed apps are due out later this year.

“These apps are very easy to use and self-explanatory. They are powerful and able to accommodate hundreds of images,” he said.

The development of the apps has been funded by the Terrestrial and Freshwater Biodiversity Information System (TFBIS) Programme. TFBIS supports the conservation of New Zealand's indigenous biodiversity by increasing awareness of and access to fundamental data and information about terrestrial and freshwater biota and biodiversity.

The NZ Coprosma Key can be downloaded via the Landcare Research website, Apple App Store or Android Google Play Store.

Photo caption: Landcare Research scientists Murray Dawson, left, and David Glenny using the app to identify a coprosma.


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