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From mobile phone to alien plant hunter

17 December 2012 British Ecological Society (BES)

Mobile phone users are being urged to help fight the spread of invasive plants across the UK – by downloading PlantTracker. The new app has already attracted 7,000 downloads and alerted ecologists to 2,500 sites where key invasive species have been spotted. An updated version, due for launch in the spring, will be previewed at this week's British Ecological Society Annual Meeting at the University of Birmingham.

The spread of Himalayan Balsam, Japanese Knotweed and other non-native invasive plants is becoming a major threat to native species in the UK, damaging the ecology of many vulnerable habitats. Some like Giant Hogweed are also harmful to human health and together, invasive species cost the UK economy £2 billion a year.

The first stage of tackling the spread of invasive species is identifying where they occur. PlantTracker, which is available free from the iTunes App Store and Android Market, lets users report sightings of 14 high-priority invasive plants and log their location.

According to ecologist Dave Kilbey of Nature Locator, the project which developed the app: “PlantTracker is easy to use. If you can't tell your balsam from your hogweed you can use the app's inbuilt photographic guide, which also features likely 'confusion' species and handy notes pointing out the major diagnostic features. When you spot one of the featured invasive plants you'll first need to take a photo of the plant using your phone's camera. The app will then obtain a GPS fix on your location. Next, simply record how much of the plant is present using a basic scale and send the record to our database.”

Since August, Kilbey has received 2,500 correctly identified invasive plants, and several of these have allowed rapid remedial action to be taken. “PlantTracker sightings have already allowed removal of isolated outbreaks of Himalayan Balsam and Giant Hogweed on a tributary of the Thames and many interventions relating to Floating Pennywort from the Midlands and Greater London areas. And because it means invasive plants can be removed earlier, the app is helping reduce the cost of treatment and the amount of herbicide required,” he explains.

A new version of PlantTracker, with details of more invasive species, is being launched in spring 2013 and Nature Locator is also working on apps for recording the UK’s ladybirds, butterflies and invasive marine and freshwater organisms. BatMobile, a high-tech new bat identification app will allow people to identify bats from their ultrasonic calls.

As well as helping control invasive plant species and monitor bats, whose numbers are declining significantly, apps like PlantTracker and BatMobile are helping turn nature lovers into citizen scientists, says Kilbey: “Engaging the public with citizen science like this has multiple benefits: it cuts the cost of collecting data; increases awareness of, and educates people about, conservation issues; and empowers people to make a contribution at the same time as boosting both the amount and, more significantly, the quality of the data collected.”

Data collected through PlantTracker is available to anyone from the Biological Records Centre online iRecord site at and further information on Nature Locator projects is available at

Dave Kilbey will present a poster on PlantTracker on Tuesday 18 December 2012 to the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting at the University of Birmingham.

Attached files

  • Himalayan balsam, copyright Dave Kilbey

  • Himalayan balsam, copyright Dave Kilbey

  • Himalayan balsam, copyright Dave Kilbey

  • PlantTracker, copyright Nature Locator

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