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The Best Apps for Identifying Unknown Plants and Critters

Many of us have discovered new hobbies and passions in the last six months. Some found an unexpected desire to learn the secrets of sourdough breadmaking. Others have taken to Zoom happy hours to get their daily social fix. Still others spent weeks riveted to the bizarre exploits of an exotic cat owner from Oklahoma. But, many more of us are getting back to nature — the healthiest, most social-distancing-friendly pastime of all. If you count yourself among the group and want to learn more about the natural world, these four apps will help you identify almost any unknown plant or critter.



Without the proper schooling (i.e., a doctorate in ornithology), it’s difficult to identify many birds on sight alone. Their sounds, however, are quite unique. Backed by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Birdnet app promises to be “the easiest way to identify birds by sound.” Think of it as the Shazam for bird noises. Launch the app, and it immediately begins recording your surroundings using your phone’s microphone. You then highlight the snippet of audio — a bird call, chirp, or song — to identify. Using your phone’s GPS, Birdnet zeros in on your location and determines the bird that most likely made that sound. The app has cataloged about 1,000 of the most common bird species found in North America and Europe.

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Plants can be even harder to identify than bird calls. Plantsnap makes deciphering leaves, bark, and buds a whole lot easier. It claims to be the most accurate and comprehensive plant identification tool ever with more than 600,000 species on file. That’s 90% of the plants, trees, mushrooms, and cacti species on Earth, covering almost every one most humans are likely to encounter. Just snap a photo of the plant in question, and the app identifies it in 37 languages in seconds. A free version is available for iOS and Android, while the Premium version eliminates ads.



iNaturalist is a collaboration between the National Geographic Society and the California Academy of Sciences that wants to help you identify everything. The comprehensive app includes nearly 300,000 animal and plant species. Every user is also doing a bit of good for the scientific community. By submitting their photos and field notes to the project, users provided valuable crowdsourced information to help scientists track species around the world. iNaturalist is a non-profit organization, and the app is available free for both Android and iOS. Plus. It works with or without Wi-Fi or cell reception.

iTrack Wildlife

Of course, it’s hardest to identify wildlife you can’t actually see. In some cases, animal tracks may be the only evidence you have to identify them. iTrack Wildlife is a library of more than 800 high-res track photos, 138 track drawings, and 120 skull photos. By comparing track and gait information and other specific descriptions, the app helps users identify more than 70 common North American mammals. The free versions offer limited track info, while the paid versions for iOS and Android provide access to the app’s full library.

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