Nature Apps – An Introduction

Smartphones and nature – Two things that seem to be complete opposites, but are becoming more and more intertwined as the benefits of technology in conservation become more realized.

Smartphones are incredible devices, but let’s be honest – what do we actually accomplish scrolling through page after page of various social media sites or playing games? The purpose of this post, and the posts that will follow on this topic, is not lecture on how smartphones are getting in the way of experiencing nature (though in many cases, they are). Instead, I am going to focus on how these pocket-sized computers are being used for conservation research, and how you can join in.

Whether you realize it or not, your smartphone is packed with sensors and abilities that make them perfect for data collection for conservation efforts. GPS, microphones, accelerometers, cameras, access to the internet are all abilities built into the phone that can be harnessed for data collection (Teacher et al., 2013). Coupled with applications specifically designed to make use of these abilities and you have the makings of a data collection powerhouse. Depending on the application itself, using smartphones for data collection has the potential to be more accurate and efficient than traditional means (i.e. a scientist in the field). Smartphones also allow researchers to increase their geographic reach, and provide automatic backup of data (Teacher et al., 2013).

I have come up with four main categories of conservation apps, though some apps would fall into more than one category, and each category could be subdivided as well.

  1. Data collection/logging – apps that allow scientists to collect and log their data. Examples include Google Maps, EpiCollect, INaturalist, and Project Noah.
  2. Citizen Science – apps that invite the non-scientist community to assist scientists with data collection or processing (Silvertown, 2009). Examples include INaturalist, Project Noah, Instant Wild, and Zooniverse.
  3. Nature reference – apps that provide field guides for nature identification. Examples include Sibley Birds, Leafsnap, and Map of Life.
  4. Games – while not really used in conservation research do have the potential to encourage pro-conservation behaviors in players (Jepson & Ladle, 2015). Examples include Larkwire, My Green World, and Tree Planet.

A lot of the app examples I used were from a fantastic list created by the Bruna Lab at the University of Florida. Check the link for more examples. I am bookmarking this for my own future projects. They have far more categories than I came up with, but I am trying to keep things fairly simple.

Over the next few posts I will be going through each of the categories in more detail to provide more detailed explanations of they are used in conservation research and dive into more specific examples. I am also taking a quick trip to Washington this weekend where I plan to test out a few apps while hiking in the Hoh Rainforest. Hopefully I can snap some great pictures to share and add a ton more birds to my life list!

Stay tuned for more posts in this series!

Yours in nature,


Works cited for this post
Jepson, P. and Ladle, R.J. (2015). Nature apps: waiting for the revolution. Ambio, 44(8), 827-832.
Silvertown, J. (2009). A new dawn for citizen science. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 24 (9), 467-471.
Teacher, A.G.F., Griffiths, D.J., Hodgson, D.J., Inger, R. (2013). Smartphones in ecology and evolution: a guide for the app-rehensive. Ecology and Evolution, 3(16), 5268-5278.

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