Heading outdoors? Apps like LeafSnap and Picture Insect can help identify plants and animals.

·4 min read

Summer means spending as much time as possible outdoors. Whether you have a postage-stamp yard in the city or acreage out in the country, knowing which plants and animals share your world can be a pretty incredible discovery – and help keep you safe.

But who has the brain power to remember every leafy green and furry friend we come across? Nobody, that's who.

This is yet another case where our smartphones save us. With a handful of slick plant and animal identification apps, you'll be spotting, naming and learning about the creatures that share your space in no time.

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PlantSnap identifies over 600,000 plant species ranging from trees to flowers to mushrooms.
PlantSnap identifies over 600,000 plant species ranging from trees to flowers to mushrooms.

Identifying plants

Let's start with the easiest one... well, sort of. Once you pull out your smartphone to catalog flora and fauna around you, you realize that animals move fast, but plants stay put. The tricky thing is that there are so many plants that look similar that you need an app to help.

I use PlantSnap (iOS, Android, free with in–app purchases) because of how robust the app is. It not only identifies over 600,000 plant species ranging from trees to flowers to mushrooms and more, but it also holds your hand through the photo-snapping process. The app literally tells you if you've framed the subject well in the photo and teaches you how to get the best identification results.

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LeafSnap (iOS and Android, free with in–app purchases) is another great option. It can identify roughly 90% of known species of plants and trees, which should cover just about anything you'd run into in your back yard, park or nature trail and it includes extensive plant care features like watering and fertilizer reminders, a plant journal with photo support and a plant care calendar.

I also use the PlantIn and PictureThis apps to figure out which plants I have in my backyard or run across on the trails.

If you get a decent photo, Merlin Bird ID will tell you what bird it sees. If the bird gets close and sings you a tune, you can record the audio and identify it that way. It's like Shazam, but for birds.
If you get a decent photo, Merlin Bird ID will tell you what bird it sees. If the bird gets close and sings you a tune, you can record the audio and identify it that way. It's like Shazam, but for birds.

Feathery friends

Birds are so much fun to spot that there's an entire industry built around the hobby. They're cute, colorful and sing, so what's not to love? Unfortunately, they can be super hard to identify because they move fast and don't tend to get very close. Don't worry – I have a secret weapon.

Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Lab (iOS and Android, free) is the ultimate tool for bird identification, full stop. If you spot a bird, you can quickly answer a few questions about it, like its color, shape and size and the app will help you narrow down the possibilities, but the real magic lies in the AI–powered photo and sound identification tools. If you get a decent photo, the app will tell you what bird it sees and if the bird gets close and sings you a tune, you can record the audio and identify it that way. Yep, it's like Shazam, but for birds.

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Of course, I couldn't talk about bird identification without a nod to the granddaddy of them all, the National Audubon Society and its Audubon Bird Guide app (iOS and Android, free). It's not quite as powerful as the Merlin app, but it does have all those gorgeous high–res photos that we expect from Audubon and the ability to share your bird sightings and photos with other users is a super nice touch.

Creepy crawlies

Crawling through your garden might put you up close and personal with some plants, but it'll probably also put you face-to-face with a spider. Don't freak out! Spiders are usually very chill and would rather you just leave them alone. Some are even works of art, like the Kidney Garden Spider, which definitely bears a striking resemblance to the Pringles mascot.

Stay calm, whip out your phone and tap the Picture Insect app. Picture Insect (iOS and Android, free with in–app purchases) has become the go–to thanks to its extensive library of over 1,000 insect species and its claimed accuracy rate of over 95%. Of course, to benefit from that accuracy, you’ll need to hold the phone nice and still and get close, which can be tricky. Once you’ve identified each magnificent little creature, you can save them to your collection and browse them later.

Naturalist acts as a portal to hundreds of thousands of nature enthusiasts who can help you identify whatever you’ve spotted.
Naturalist acts as a portal to hundreds of thousands of nature enthusiasts who can help you identify whatever you’ve spotted.

The last resort

If you find yourself stuck between an animal and an app that can’t identify it, there’s only one place to turn: the iNaturalist app (iOS and Android, free). Rather than focusing on fancy artificial intelligence and advanced filtering to identify a creature from a photo, iNaturalist acts as a portal to hundreds of thousands of nature enthusiasts who can help you identify whatever you’ve spotted the old–fashioned way, with knowledge!

The app is free, thanks to a partnership between the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. The data from users provide scientists with valuable insights into the status of various plant and animal species. Everyone wins!

Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist. Email her at jj@techish.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Identify plants and animals with these apps: PlantSnap, Picture Insect