New approaches in plant identification and citizen science |26 August 2019
The Seychelles National Herbarium team and the Plant Conservation Action (PCA) group recently held a series of training sessions for anyone interested in learning how to identify native and non-native plants, taking useful photos for identification, and learning how to use and finally how to contribute photos and information to the Seychelles iNaturalist online platform.
This recent series of training, held between July-August 2019, exemplifies the important role that the general public plays by providing professional scientists with valuable data on biodiversity.
This initiative was implemented through funding from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). The CEPF-funded project ‘National network on biodiversity data exchange for improved KBA management’, aims at making the so-called ‘Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) database’ (developed in 2013 by the same organisations and currently containing about 26000 georeferenced species records from Seychelles) accessible to professional biodiversity actors and conservationists in Seychelles.
The participants, who hail from different organisations such as the PCA, Seychelles Island Foundation (SIF), to Praslin-based Terrestrial Restoration Society of Seychelles (Trass), were already directly or indirectly involved with plants in their day to day activities.
These inter-agency workshops not only provide valuable training, but are an opportunity for building relationships and establishing networks among the environmental community.
“Although most of these organisations are very actively protecting, propagating and creating awareness about plants, they needed to go a step further; that is moving from common names or local names to scientific names, families, genus, etc.,” says Charles Morel, the curator of the Seychelles Herbarium and also one of the facilitators of the training.
In the first session, a group of plant enthusiasts and conservationists gathered at the University of Seychelles (UniSey) to enhance their knowledge in plant identification.
The four-day course started off in the classroom with information on plant groups; available flora, field guides and other ID literature on the Seychelles plants. Trainers then covered a short introduction to using the Seychelles Plant Gallery to identify plants to species level.
The other three days of training involved participants and trainers travelling to different locations (Mont Sebert, La Reserve and Copolia trail) for some hands-on experience in plant identification.
Throughout the training, participants learned common terminology for describing leaves and flowers and gained an introduction to the major invasive species, common native plants, and largest plant families in our area.
One of the trainers, Dr Bruno Senterre, a botanical consultant and scientific collaborator to the herbarium, led the intrepid participants in the identification of plant families common to the Seychelles such as the Rubiaceae family, which includes species such as ‘bwa dir’, ‘mangliye-d-gran-bwa’, ‘Bois doux’, etc.
Other common families identified in the field included the often weedy and invasive families of Melatomataceae which include several well-known species such as ‘fo watouk’, ‘bwa demon’, ‘bwa kalou’, etc.
“This training really helped us to look at plants from a different perspective,” stated Julien Leon, a member of Trass. “They are not just single plant species, but can be observed as groups with similar characteristics that can be used for identification in the field.”
Flowers, leaves or both? What are suitable images for plant identification? The next module (Biological photography) tackled this head on!
This took place the following Monday, August 21, also at the UniSey. During the introduction to this module, the Herbarium Curator, Mr Morel and his assistant, Tarah Padayachy, instructed participants on the importance of taking diagnostic photos: capturing images of the most useful parts of a plant for identification.
Participants learned how different plants or plant groups can be identified based on useful pictures of their leaf shape, leaf arrangement on the branch, flower colour, size, fruit, presence or absence of exudate (sap), presence or absence of stipules, etc.
The practical session was facilitated by Marsha Dine, who focused on the three key elements that participants needed to master in order to obtain good quality pictures: aperture setting, shutter speed and ISO (sensitivity). Though simple for seasoned photographers, these aspects can be very daunting for amateur photographers!
The last training session focused on using the online platform ‘iNaturalist’ as a tool for citizen science.
The platform aims to link people to the nature around them, encourage data sharing and assessment, and provide crowd-sourced data to scientists that would otherwise be difficult to generate.
It also assists with species identification – it is common to upload a photo and wait for the iNaturalist community to identify it. The iNaturalist system also uses artificial intelligence to provide a preliminary identification of species in photos. There are also many specific projects hosted through this site.
The participants were encouraged to join our local online project (Seychelles Bio Gallery) hosted on iNaturalist.org.