Name that tree: new app offers assistance to budding botanists

Tree Guide UK
Some undergraduates – and even MSc students – are unable to distinguish between different tree species when they begin their studies. The portability and speed of this tool will help users to rapidly improve their knowledge of British trees...
Dr Alan Birkett
New app will make identifying trees in the field a whole lot easier, as Tree Guide UK’s co-creator Dr Alan Birkett explains…

Last week, ScienceOmega.com interviewed Professor Jonathan Silvertown about the launch of ‘Treezilla: the monster map of trees’. By employing the assistance of citizen scientists, this Open University-led project has the grand ambition of mapping every tree in Britain.

No doubt, many people will be interested in lending a helping hand to Treezilla. After all, data collected through this project will offer fresh insights into the environmental services provided by trees and the ways in which climate change impacts Britain’s flora. Moreover, mapping trees is an excellent excuse to explore the great outdoors and get some exercise.

What might deter some people, however, is the challenging nature of tree identification. Distinguishing one tree from another is not always as simple as one might think, and the ability to do so effectively can take years to develop.

But not to worry; help is at hand in the form of Tree Guide UK: a new app to facilitate onsite tree identification. The tool, which has been developed as part of the Explorer Field Guides project, enables budding botanists to classify trees with the aid of a smartphone or tablet computer. What’s more, as all botanical information is stored on the device itself, the app can be used without an active internet connection.

To find out more about this pocket-sized tree guide, I spoke to its co-creator Dr Alan Birkett…

Could you begin by explaining a little about the history of Tree Guide UK?
I’m an independent scientist with a PhD in animal behaviour. I spent about 10 years working in Kenya studying the effects that rhinos, elephants and giraffes have on their habitats. When I came back to the United Kingdom, I decided to conduct research into the effects that deer have on woodlands. However, I soon discovered that I didn’t know enough about British trees, so I set about writing a guide in collaboration with my colleague Dr Jason Pascoe. It has taken us approximately four years to complete, but we have succeeded in developing an app that can be used to teach beginners how to recognise trees.

What are the main challenges involved in tree identification? What types of problem might a beginner encounter, for example?
The main problem is that traditional botanical guides are not easily accessible to the layperson. In fact, they can be virtually unreadable for beginners. These books tend to use lots of botanical terms and it can be quite overwhelming. The next option would be to use a published tree guide. Whilst these books are very good, most of them contain details of at least 1,500 trees. If you’re a beginner and you come across a tree that you don’t recognise, you could end up thumbing through several hundred pages before finding a match.

Auntumn trees
Tree Guide UK enables users to identify 111 trees common across Central England
We have attempted to provide a bridge for beginners; a tool to help people to recognise trees. Tree Guide UK uses what is known as a dichotomous key: a simple question and answer system. This is a very logical process which alters its questions depending on the time of year. In the summer, for example, users can use leaves to identify a tree. Our app offers a quick and simple way to determine a tree’s species.

I chose to include 111 trees that are common across Central England: 43 conifers and 68 broadleaf trees. The idea is that a user can start off knowing very little about trees, and over time, learn how to recognise the most prevalent species. Tree Guide UK can also be used to access additional information about different tree species, and it includes a glossary of 160 botanical terms to help those just starting out.

To what extent could Tree Guide UK function as a learning tool? Would it be possible for beginners to use this app to become self sufficient in tree identification?
I think so. Take lime trees, for example. Most people can identify a lime tree by its shape. However, what if you need to know whether it’s a small-leaved lime, a broad-leaved lime or a silver lime? You would have to look in more detail, and we are teaching people how to do this. We’ve programmed the app to recognise six limes that are common across Central England. Once a user is adept at recognising these, they will be able to use botanical textbooks to develop their skills. It’s all about getting past the initial barrier; if you can learn to identify 100 of the most common British trees, you’re up and running.

Essentially, Tree Guide UK operates as a ‘bridge’ for learning. Several ecology lecturers have told me that some undergraduates – and even MSc students – are unable to distinguish between different tree species when they begin their studies. The portability and speed of this tool will help users to rapidly improve their knowledge of British trees away from the lecture theatre.

Do you and your colleagues plan to add to this app in the future?
There are two main steps that we’d like to take. Firstly, we intend to develop an Android version of the app. At present, Tree Guide UK is only available on iTunes, so by branching out, we could potentially double our audience. Secondly, we would like to develop plug-in modules. Take oak trees, for instance. Approximately 70 different types of oak grow in the UK. We could produce add-ons for users who want to delve deeper into specific botanical areas. Of course, this is the beauty of the digital medium: it offers the opportunity to continually build upon existing resources.


If you’d like to find out more about Dr Birkett's digital tree guide, check out the Tree Guide UK website…

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