Wild Side: Tech support for nature lovers

Computers (and now smart phones), the Internet, and digital documents and photographs have, for better or worse, become second nature to most 21st-century Americans. Naturalists of all kinds have been among the most enthusiastic in embracing new technologies.

It boggles my mind that, just a couple of decades ago, telephone hotlines were how information about rare birds was conveyed (I still remember the seven digits that got me to the recorded list of eastern Massachusetts bird sightings on “Voice of Audubon” more than 40 years ago!). Photographs were still concrete things, prints or slides that had to be physically conveyed from point to point for publication or consultation. And the main sources of information for naturalists were books (the kind made out of paper) and direct interaction with other students of the natural world.

In less than a human generation, digital photography has all but replaced the use of film, and the Internet, with its web pages, social media sites, and instant messaging, has largely taken the place of printed information or the old-fashioned phone call. No less than in other areas of human activity, this has been a revolutionary change for natural history; the amount of information that’s out there, and the ease with it can be found, passed on, or responded to, is astounding.

Take a web site like BugGuide (www.bugguide.net), for example. This was an early entry in what is now a common type of project: a sort of “knowledge node” on which amateurs and experts can interact, sharing photographs of insects, posing and responding to questions, and contributing to a vast catalog of distribution information for insects of all kinds.

Once you’re registered and logged in to BugGuide, it’s possible to post photographs of unknown bugs, requesting identification. Or you can identify your photos yourself through comparison to shots already in the archive. Experts regularly peruse new postings to verify the IDs, making the information on BugGuide almost as reliable as that in old-fashioned, fully edited, paper-based field guides.

“Citizen science” sites like this are the proverbial candy story to people like me. While there have been workable regional field guides to some groups of insects, like butterflies and dragonflies, for many years, information on less obvious groups was always lacking. To identify, say, a ground-beetle, you virtually had to be (or know personally) an academic specialist in the group, or to have and be able to use a scientific identification key.

To be sure, a measure of knowledge is still required to use BugGuide effectively. Given how many kinds of insects there are, it’s helpful to be able to narrow your unknown bug down to a particular family before you start browsing the photo archives for a match. But with practice, the process of identification gets faster and easier. I’d say that for about half of the “mystery bugs” that I try to ID on BugGuide, I can figure out the species or at least the genus. Twenty years ago, using the field guides available, one was lucky to make any headway at all.

If the Internet has become the modern library, the digital camera is what makes it work. It isn’t just that a digital file is easier and faster to send than a physical slide or print: the cameras themselves work better for natural history photography than film equipment. Sensors with high resolution and great sensitivity, computer-designed optical systems, and processors that automatically correct for optical imperfections mean that even a beginning nature photographer with a smartphone readily takes photos that rival the work of professionals from 20 years ago.

Instead of relying on verbal description or blurry snapshots, beginners can now circulate sharp photos when asking for ID help. And in trying to ID an unknown plant or insects, one is no longer confined to a few drawings in a field guide: you can compare your own photos to dozens or scores on the web, searching until you find the perfect angle to tell you what you need to know.

But there are down sides to all this. For one thing, incorrect information proliferates just as fast as sound advice. A fair percentage of wildlife photos on personal websites are misidentified. Easy access to experts breeds laziness in some observers, who simply post a photo with an ID request, rather than attempting the process of answering their own questions. And, I’d argue, digital technology has produced qualitative changes in how we interact with the natural world — and these changes have not been all for the better.

Aspiring naturalists should, by all means, get on board with technology. Buy and use a camera to capture what you see; use the Internet to put a name to what you’ve photographed, or to pose questions to experts. But don’t confuse the knowledge of facts with true understanding of a subject. The natural world is too complex to be reduced to a list of names or an array of photos, and identifying something should be the beginning, not the end, of the process of learning about it. Technology complements but can’t replace time in the field and careful observation.