Tree identification, global warming, and the democratization of science

When I recently visited Maine a few weeks ago, we went hiking on one of the hotter days so far this year.  In the direct sunlight it was hard to remember that this is an area known for long winters and moose sightings.  It could just be chance, or it could be another sign that the globe is warming, that the climate is destabilizing, or that seasonal change is less gentle.  It seems that even the trees are starting to feel the changes.  Seeing Boston in the fall has never really been as beautiful as I’ve supposed it to be – it feels like the leaf-peepers have to trek further every year to really see the good stuff.  But what really struck me was the tree we couldn’t identify on our hike.

I’m not an expert at tree identification.  I can generally tell a few main species apart.  I know what an oak leaf is like, or a maple.  I know a sycamore or a birch by the bark.  The distinctive leaf-shapes of ginko, tulip, and sassafras are markers to me for certain trees.  But there are many, many trees I would not be able to identify easily.  But others on my hike were more expert, and also stumped.  The tree – ostensibly a type of pine – had a very red, very smooth bark.  It flaked from the tree in oblongs and ovals, giving the impression of  so much water-worn rock.  In short, it was beautiful.  More frustrating for the purposes of identification, the tree was very tall.  We could not make out any specifics of the needles or the pine cones, other than establishing both were present, somewhere far above.  Samples from the ground were hopelessly mixed with surrounding pines.

After much internet browsing, and with the added notation that the branches seemed to end in round ‘puffs’ of long needles, we tentatively identified the plant as a longleaf pine.  Of course, this plant is supposed to be mostly contained in the southeastern U.S., so if our identification is correct, it begs the question of climate change in the area.  Is this particular tree just an outlier of its species, or has the climate changed enough that a tree native to the Carolinas and Florida now flourishes better in Maine?  Food for thought.

Perhaps with new common technologies and increases in citizen science, tree identification will be something we all do in our spare time.  Perhaps we’ll have instant identification, or all be a part of tracking the spread or decline of a species.  Perhaps one day we’ll know the exact number of toads in a mile radius, and be eager about monitoring that status daily.  Perhaps we’ll all be eager about the birth of sea turtles or robins, and watch them live, as they happen.  Or perhaps the more we expand the possibilities, the less interested we’ll become in our local world.  For now, it remains a choice.