Nature—There’s an App for That

Seven tools to help ID plants, animals, and insects while sheltering in place

By Stacey McKenna

August 5, 2020


Photo by mycteria/iStock

For months, people around the world have locked down to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the now-too-familiar coronavirus that causes COVID-19. And, even as some states begin to lift restrictions, public health experts continue urging people to stay close to home. Fortunately for nature lovers, the great outdoors provides the ideal space to find solace while maintaining distance. And you don’t even have to venture beyond your backyard or favorite local hike to feel like you’re exploring—download these nature apps to identify the flora and fauna on your neighborhood walks, connect with wildlife and ecological experts, or simply learn how other outdoor enthusiasts are weathering the pandemic. 


With iTrack Wildlife, you can find out what animals were tromping around, even long after they’ve left the area. Though available at three payment levels (Lite is free; Basic is $4.99; Pro is $14.99), Pro is definitely the way to go, with tracks and detailed information on 71 common North American mammals. To ID your animal after spotting its tracks, simply scroll the reference list or search by descriptors such as the size of the track, the number and shape of toes, and whether claws were visible. To enhance accuracy, each entry includes drawings of the animal’s right front and hind feet, photos of how the tracks might appear on various types of ground, and information about and images of similar species’ tracks. In addition, the app provides detailed information about the animals themselves and their habitat. The best part might be that it’s all searchable offline—meaning no matter how far off the beaten path you get, the useful information is at your fingertips.


A product of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Merlin Bird ID (free) provides access to a searchable database of more than 6,000 birds found in North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Simply download your region’s database, select your location and date, and enter details including size, color, and where you spotted a bird (flying or on a fence, for example) and the app spits out several options. Narrow the list by scrolling through photos of male, female, and juvenile birds as well as listening to a variety of calls. The database search takes into account your location, time of year, and migration patterns. Alternatively, if you’ve got a quality camera and a quick hand, try the photo ID download. And if you think your bird isn’t showing up, scroll the reference lists or download nearby maps.  


PlantSnap (free; or $4.99/month, $8.49/year, $16.99 outright) is like Shazam for the wilderness. The app uses image-recognition software and machine learning to compare your photo to others in a database of more than 600,000 flowers, cacti, succulents, and mushrooms from all over the world with what it claims is 96 percent accuracy “when used properly.” Proper use, however, is the big catch with this and other plant photo-ID apps—you’ve got to take a good picture to begin with, meaning it should be clear, well-focused on a flower or leaf, and free of background noise. Otherwise, you might find yourself wondering indefinitely whether that gauzy flower you saw was a crested prickly poppy or a bluestem prickly poppy. However, if you shell out for the paid version, a team of expert botanists might be able to help unravel the riddle. If you’ll mostly be trying to identify familiar or cultivated plants, consider competitor PictureThis (free or $29.99 per year). The app has a far smaller database but a friendlier user interface and a cool diagnostic tool for ailing plants.


If bugs are your thing, PictureInsect (in-app purchases from $1.99 to $19.99) and Insect Identification ($39.99 for one year) use similar technology to identify those multilegged arthropods. Both apps are pretty simple—snap a photo and the technology takes care of the identification. And both have great in-app cameras to help you focus on the insect before zooming in. The best part? The image-recognition software seems to work well even if your photo is grainy. Thanks to its barebones approach, Insect Identification is exceptionally straightforward to use, and its accuracy estimates take the intimidation out of scrolling through potential answers. The app claims to use a “high quality database maintained by scientists and collaborators around the world” but doesn’t provide specifics. PictureInsect, on the other hand, has a database of more than 1,000 insect species and wins when it comes to extra features. In addition to an “explore” function that lets you see what your neighbors have posted, it allows users to import images from their camera roll—rather than having to mess with the app while the subject flies, hops, or scurries away.

Citizen Science

While several of these identification apps have built-in networking tools, community connection is at the core of iNaturalist. The joint initiative of National Geographic and the California Academy of Sciences, iNaturalist bills itself as a citizen science project. Simply snap a photo of a plant, animal, or fungus, and post it (with notes) as an observation. The app will offer to make the post public, and poof, you’ve contributed to science. Public observations get shared with scientific data repositories like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, where scientists can learn from user data. But this networking function goes beyond a share, directly connecting amateur users with experts—not only can you follow their observations as you might on social media, but you can also enlist them to help identify yours. Those same scientists and agencies have often uploaded guides for their region or area of expertise. And it’s all free. The only downside is that, since the app is designed for networking, it isn’t as slick as the alternatives when it comes to getting a quick ID.