3 Field Guide Apps to Help Settle the Brown Recluse Argument Once and For All

If you’ve dabbled in birding, espoused your love of local wildflowers, or had to explain that “no, that isn’t a brown recluse”, and “yes I’m sure, because it’s just a regular common house spider”, “and oh my god for the last time we don’t have brown recluses around here”, and...well, if any of this sounds familiar I bet you’re a little tired of being the go-to person in your family or friend group for wildlife IDs. I mean sure, maybe at first it’s validating - all those hours spent poring over field guides or memorizing the differences between turkey vulture and red-tailed hawk silhouettes finally coming in handy! But after the tenth text with a blurry image of a barely-visible bug it starts to get a little old.


Time to empower your friends and loved ones to make their own IDs! After all, as the saying (roughly) goes: if you teach a person to fish you can feed them for a lifetime (provided they are fishing in a sustainable manner in a world unaffected by global climate change). So what’s the easiest way to do this? Use the tiny computer in your pocket! There are quite a few free apps out there you can use to easily identify plants, animals, fungi, and even things left behind like scat or bones. Here are just three of my favorites:


Best in the Biz: iNaturalist


iNaturalist is hands-down the most powerful tool out there for identification. Simply snap a photo and the app suggests an ID! And if its computer brain isn’t sure, it’ll suggest a family or genus to help narrow it down. You can also mark observations as being wild or captive, for instance if you’re on a hike or in a botanical garden. Once the picture is uploaded, members of the community can confirm or refute the ID and leave comments with more information or with questions.


iNat is a powerful community science tool and one that scientists worldwide have used in their research. With iNaturalist, we’ve learned more about impacts of climate change on species ranges, non-native and invasive species range expansions, and animal behaviors. Users can create their own projects to help track these changes or record biodiversity, like the RASCals project in Los Angeles.

© Chris DeGroof, via iNaturalist


Speaking of rascals...if you’re still not convinced, check out this project by the Natural History Museums of LA. What do they want? Your pictures of alligator lizards having sex. If that isn’t an intriguing reason to get the app, then I don’t know what is!


Next up: Seek!


If iNat is a little too much for you, check out its baby sibling, Seek! It’s like iNaturalist meets Pokémon Go. There are achievements you can strive for, such as special badges, challenges, and levels as you observe more and more species. It’s quite a bit simpler to use too.

While it isn’t as powerful as iNaturalist, Seek is a great entry point to the world of mobile field guides!


Last but certainly not least: Merlin


Are you more of an amateur birder? Just want to know which hawk is perched upon the telephone pole, or which little brown bird is at the feeder? The Merlin Bird ID app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is the best. It’s super intuitive to use - just follow a few steps! Tell Merlin when and where you saw the bird, how big it was, what the main colors were, and what the bird was doing. Merlin then generates a list of possibilities you can scroll through and choose which bird fits. Each observation helps refine Merlin’s capabilities.

For each bird, you can look through multiple photos so you can compare males vs. females, or juveniles vs. adults. There are also range maps and recorded songs and calls. Just want to see a list of what kinds of ducks are in your area? You can browse all birds in a given bird pack (e.g. “US: West Coast” or “Mexico: Yucatan Peninsula”) or narrow the search to just the most likely species in the area based on your city. My favorite aspect of this app is the ability to download bird packs offline, so when you’re traveling you can easily ID birds without worrying about using your data!


In a recent update, they added a photo ID feature. Similar to iNaturalist and Seek, you can upload or take a picture of a bird and the app will suggest an identification. In my opinion, it doesn’t seem quite as accurate as iNaturalist, but it’s still a useful feature!

Now get out there, and be as happy as this stock photo fellow who can ID all the plants, animals, and fungi his heart desires with his fun new apps!


And okay, okay, last thing I’ll mention… For that one friend who is absolutely convinced they found a brown recluse in their house, got bitten, and now their arm is definitely going to fall off, etc. etc. please gently remind them that THERE ARE NO BROWN RECLUSE SPIDERS LIVING IN THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA, ROAMING AROUND YOUR BEDROOM, LYING IN WAIT TO BITE YOU AND RUIN YOUR LIFE, PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD IN THE WORLD TRUST ME ON THIS. Or at least trust this very wise, very fed-up arachnologist from the department of Entomology at UC Riverside.