I’ve just moved to a new place in the country and want to avoid the mistake of thinking I own the natural world. It is a challenge to become a member of an ecosystem, but with many apps at our fingertips, we can now explore and understand the flora, fauna, and geological features of our surroundings with unprecedented ease. 

Digital tools offer us a window into the intricate web of life, reminding us that we belong to a place rather assuming that it belongs to us. But without insights into a place and its natural ways, we fail to exercise the choice to support biodiversity and preserve the state in which we found nature. By learning about the native and invasive species in our area, we can contribute to preserving the natural state of our environment, allowing it to evolve naturally rather than molding it to fit our needs.

In my case, many of the lessons I need to learn involve stopping habits learned over decades of lawncare and urban gardening. Preserving a largely wild places involves knowing when not to pull something that seems like a weed. However, choosing native flowers and plants has already become a thrilling experience, because the spectrum of local colors and the sequence of early, middle, and late-Summer blossoms and harvests from the garden have filled my calendar with dates I can anticipate eagerly. 

As you learn about your local ecosystem, it’s a great idea to create a calendar of upcoming events. Set dates for cleanups, judicious watering, expected blossomings, and produce harvests to encourage your continued participation in the life of the place you live.

Flora: Unveiling the Green World

PictureThis and Plantum are botanical guides, helping you identify and learn about the plants in your vicinity. 

PictureThis is my go-to app for detailed information about plant species, including their characteristics and care tips. You just point your camera lens at a tree, shrub, or ground cover to get a quick identification and complete guide to caring for or, if it is an invasive species, the need to remove it. In my case, I found two invasive species, Himalayan Blackberry and Sweet Violet, both firmly established, that will require extensive attention over the next couple of years to eradicate completely.

Plantum also offers insights into plant health and growth conditions to foster a deeper understanding of the plant life that thrives alongside us.

PictureThis identified Sweet Violet as an invasive species of ground cover in Oregon. The app provides a complete explanation of plants, trees, and other flora, along with tools to plan garden care calendars.

Fauna: Discovering Animal Neighbors

iNaturalist and Seek by iNaturalist are comprehensive tools for exploring your local wildlife. iNaturalist allows you to record and share observations about animals, submissions through these apps contribute to a global database that aids scientific research. Seek also offers a more interactive experience, enabling identification of wildlife in real time so you can learn about the species you encounter. 

Merlin Bird IDPicture Bird, and Picture Insect specialize in the avian and insect worlds. Merlin Bird ID uses technology similar to music identification apps to help bird enthusiasts identify bird song so they can learn about different bird species. Picture Bird provides a similar service with an image-based approach. Picture Insect, meanwhile, dives into the realm of bugs, spiders, ants, and grubs, offering identification and information about these often overlooked but crucial creatures.

Picture Fish opens a window to the underwater world, helping users identify and understand various fish species, their habitats, and behaviors. Since I live on a river, this app will help me build my knowledge of aquatic ecosystems and the life they harbor. There’s a lot just under the surface of the water, more than the fish folks are used to pulling out of rivers and streams. 

Aquatic Life and Geological Features

SoilWeb goes beneath the surface, offering a glimpse into the world under our feet. This app provides detailed soil data, including type, composition, and suitability for different plant species, enriching your understanding of an ecosystem’s foundation. In my case, because I live in the Southern Cascades, volcanic rock, gravel, and soils dominate — Crater Lake’s predecessor, Mount Mazama, buried the region in ash 7,700 years ago. SoilWeb provides a layer-by layer look into what’s below my feet, along with annual rainfall and insights into how the soil drains.

Rock Identifier is a geology enthusiast’s companion, enabling identification and learning about different types of rock and geological formations. This app not only aids in understanding the natural history of a place but also fosters an appreciation for the slow, powerful forces that shape our planet.

SoilWeb is like an X-Ray for your soil, providing a layer-by-layer analysis of soils types, hydration, and other features of the land.


Taking Steps Based On Your New Knowledge

Once you have an inventory of animals, birds, bugs, fish, flowers, plants, and trees in your yard, you have the basis for making better choices when decorating or just keeping the place looking beautiful. Consider taking these steps:

Eliminate harmful insecticides and herbicides that contribute to collapsing pollinator populations. If you still have Roundup in the garage, dispose of its responsibly to avoid losing local bees and insects critical to the lifecycles of plants, animals, and people.

Focus on removing invasive plants to give local varieties the room to grow and propigate naturally. It’s okay to have exotics that do not spread uncontrollably, but take the time to pull and destroy invasives, whose seeds can spread on the wind, in animal fur, and through bird populations.

Participate in wildlife, bird, and fish counting efforts to help science more completely understand our world. The U.S. Forest ServiceCitizenScience.gov, and National Geographic are good places to find projects that welcome citizen scientists.

And be sure to vote in local and national elections with an attentive eye to environmental and social policy designed to encourage sustainable practices.

Through the lens of these apps and by refining our naturalist knowledge, we learn not just to see but to understand and appreciate the tapestry of life to which we belong. Try these apps to quench your curiosity about the natural world and develop respect for the ecosystems we inhabit. 

Recognizing that we are part of a larger web of life encourages us to live more sustainably and responsibly, ensuring that our world’s natural diversity can be preserved for future generations. Sometimes, technology can be harnessed to reinforce the idea that we are custodians of our planet, not conquerors.

By Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch is the publisher at Earth911.com and Director of Digital Strategy and Innovation at Intentional Futures, an insight-to-impact consultancy in Seattle. A veteran tech journalist, Mitch is passionate about helping people understand sustainability and the impact of their decisions on the planet.