Fresh from the digital fields and humming with plant life, LeafSnap is a new mobile app that can identify a tree's species by looking at a photograph of the leaf. It's the first of app of its kind, and a field guide for the twenty-first century. Using facial recognition algorithms to analyze the leaf's contour, LeafSnap then selects a match from its index of species. If it's not entirely sure (let's be fair—leaves of different species can look rather similar), it will bring up a list of possible identifications. You can then browse through the collection to determine which tree's leaf you're holding. To make this easy, LeafSnap has a botanic dossier on all of its trees, including all sorts of information about the tree's habitat, growth, and critical specs (are the fruits poisonous or sweet?), as well as a collection of photographs that show the tree's seeds, bark, flowers, and fruits. The tree's entire life cycle is captured in a pocket-sized album, at very high resolution. Truly modern, the photographs can be magnified to examine the veins on a petal or the pollen on an anther. A wealth of information and a gorgeous gallery of botanic photography, the guide is also wonderful bedtime reading, when you're not in the field.
The app also invites contributions from all citizen scientists; having identified a leaf, users can tag their tree. The data is geotagged and added to a collective map of the different species. While the guide is currently limited to species in the northeast United States, the team has plans to expand its range. LeafSnap is a collaboration between the facial recognition experts at Columbia University and the University of Maryland, a research staff at the Smithsonian Institution, and the non-profit organization Finding Nature, who photographed the specimens. LeafSnap's website includes information on each tree, and a charming portrait gallery of the team—all photographed with a leaf.
Anna Laurent is a writer and producer of educational botanical media. Photographs from her forthcoming field guide to Los Angeles are available for exhibition and purchase at the author's shop.