Do you have a favorite field guide?
Do you use the electronic guides available on the Web?
In Electronic Field Guides and User Communities in the Ecoinformatics Revolution, researchers R.D. Stevenson, William A. Haber and Robert A. Morris review the role of field guides and electronic field guides. They also discuss the history of field guides, who uses field guides and how citizen scientists can contribute to preservation efforts.
If you’ve used a dichotomous key, you have experienced what it is like to read a description of a plant that has nothing to do with the one you are holding in your hand. Identifying species using dichotomous keys can be a slow process for professionals and students alike. This is because keys are loaded with botanical terminology and it is very easy to make a wrong turn working through the couplets. Fortunately, there is an easier way.
Field guides are easier to use and are a reliable alternative to dichotomous keys. Called “browsable picture guides” by Stevenson, et al. (2003), field guides, unlike keys, are more likely to be written by naturalists than scientists and were created in a user-friendly format primarily for public consumption (Stevenson et al., 2003). Field guides work because they call upon the user to make comparisons between what is known about a specimen to images and written descriptions contained within the guide (Stevenson et al., 2003).
According to Stevenson et al. (2003), the first field guide was a guide to birds created by Florence Merriam Bailey in 1889. Last week we learned the first field guide was actually created 86 years earlier in post-Revolutionary France. Today, field guides about birds far out-number field guides about other subjects such as “nonbird vertebrates, plants and mushrooms, invertebrates, habitats and fossils weather and stars” (Stevenson et al., 2003).
In their paper, the authors spend a lot of time discussing electronic field guides (EFG) and the types of electronic guides available on the Web. They focus on EFGs because electronic guides are their specialty. They created the Electronic Field Guide Project to enable researchers to create their own fields guides and to bypass the limitations of published paper field guides — namely their focus on popular taxa, the poor quality of illustrations in regional field guides and the hard-to-find nature of guides produced by small publishers (Stevenson, et al., 2003). Many links to field guides are included in Stevenson et al. (2003). The electronic keys and databases linked to by the authors are worth exploring. Be advised that since this paper was published eight years ago, some of the links are no longer valid.
At the time this paper was written, Stevenson et al. (2003) were looking forward to the day when Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) containing images for field use would replace paper field guides. Of course, today there is an app for everything and PDAs have been replaced by smartphones and tablets. What a short eight years it has been!
Do you have a favorite Web-based plant identification tool?
Share your favorite tools in the comment section below.
Stevenson, R.D., William A. Haber and Robert A. Morris. 2003. Electronic field guides and user communities in the ecoinformatics revolution. Conservation Ecology. 7(1):3. Web. <http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol7/iss1/art3/>. [accessed 11 August 2011]