By Adam Hart, Hayley Bosley, Chloe Hooper, Jess Perry, Joel Sellors-Moore, Oliver Moore, and Anne Goodenough.
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Knowing what plant species are present is very important for management and conservation. Identifying plants usually involves floral guides and keys, and sometimes considerable specialist knowledge; it can be a real challenge even for professionals.
Recently, a number of free-to-use mobile phone apps that automatically identify plants from images have become available. If such apps are accurate, then they could be very useful for those professionally involved with ecological monitoring and conservation, or for those just starting out on their botanical journey.
To find out how accurate such apps are, we tested three that are widely available and free-to-use (PlantNet, LeafSnap and PlantSnap) and two general image identification apps (Google Lens and iNaturalist Seek).
We put together a set of 857 photographs of 277 species of wild plant species found in the UK. A professional botanist provided a confirmed identification for each photo. We put each image into the five apps and recorded the identification suggestions provided. The correct identification appeared as the first suggestion for 68% of images on average across all apps. The three best-performing apps (PlantNet, LeafSnap and iNaturalist Seek) had the right species in their top five suggestions for more than 90% of images (the best, PlantNet, scored 95%). When the top suggestion was wrong, it was often a very closely-related species, which makes finding the right species much easier. We conclude that these apps are very useful tools for professionals and beginners alike.