Within the past couple of years, technology and interactivity have started to make a huge impact on our ability to discover and study the amazing organisms and ecosystems that inhabit this Earth. Scientists are now able to essentially bring all the resources they need with them into the field with the use of new portable electronic devices and the Internet.
Over the past few centuries scientists have identified and described 1.8 million species of plants, animals , and microorganisms found on Earth. However, it is estimated that there are well over 8.5 million species that have yet to be discovered. That’s 8.5 species of organisms that could be the source of medicinal chemicals that could cure or eradicate all human diseases.
While 1.8 million is an impressive number, realize that it did take hundreds of years to identify all the known species. That is an amount of time that we as humans can no longer afford. With that pace of discovery and the rate at which species of plants, animals, and microorganisms are disappearing from our Earth, there will be nothing left for us to find. In a few hundreds years we may no longer exist as well.
Technology however, can help keep this from happening. In fields such as botany, there are new advancements in portable devices that are changing the way and speed at which science occurs.
In the past botanists had to collect specimens by hand (which can disturb the ecosystem) and take them back to the lab, study their structure and then thumb through an endless number of books or examine cataloged specimens in herbaria or museums. They was a very time consuming process. It’s the reason why it’s taken so long to discover what we have up to now.
This is no longer the case for botanists. Currently scientists from the University of Maryland, Columbia University, and the Smithsonian Institute are developing a new database and field guide system to help identify and catalog new and existing plant species. They call it, surprisingly enough, the Electronic Field Guide.
The scientists started by creating a photographic registry of available plant specimens. They are taking detailed photos of the 85,000 plant species kept at the Smithonian Herbarium and in the future they will add specimens from other herbaria around the world. Images are taken with state of the art cameras producing HD images with a 3600 x 5000 pixel resolution. In the near future laser range scanning can be used to create 3D images.
These images can then be accessed with the Electronic Field Guide. These guides incorporate the use of the latest portable devices that allow the use of a touchable interface. The field guide will allow botanists to have access to thousands of images instantly while they are in the field. They can immediately identify if they are looking at an existing species or have discovered an entirely new species.
The scientists can then take an photograph of a specimen and send it back to the registry which may provide more information about the species it belongs to. There is not longer bagging and bringing back specimens to the lab. No more thumbing through dusty books and scouring through warehouses to identify specimens.
In the future, botanists will be able to access 3D images and with use of the touchable screens, will be able to rotate and view the images from different angles to help ensure proper identification. In addition to the use of smaller devices such as smartphones to run the application the scientists behind the development of this system are hoping to develop an augmented reality interface. Instead of a hand-held device this system would involve the use of a heads-up-display (HUD) in the form of eyeglasses which would free up a user’s hands and work more efficiently.
All this technology allows botanists to reduce the amount of time and resources spent discovering as many new species as possible. In addition to this, science no longer has to be reserved only for the experts. With the use of smaller and more available portable devices, anyone can help identify and catalog species of plants. One could be on vacation and take pictures of the local plants and send those images to the registry.
By decreasing the amount of time it takes to discovery new species, we increase our chance of discovering a plant that could be the cure to the world’s deadliest diseases such as Cancer or AIDS. We also increase our understanding of ecosystems and how their existence and ours intertwine and why it is so important that we help maintain these habitats. There is much in our world that we have yet to discover but with the use of technologies such as the Electronic Field Guide, the next discovery may change our world forever.