University Of Wyoming Team Creates Database Of Worldwide Vegetation

Oct 28, 2020

A photo of a Congolian lowland tropical rainforest in Gabon that has been submitted to the project.
Credit Brandon Hays

When University of Wyoming Department of Botany Associate Professor Daniel Laughlin realized he would have to teach ecology online for the fall semester, he started searching for a resource to show his students landscapes from afar.

When he didn't find what he was looking for, Laughlin and his graduate students designed the Global Vegetation Project.

The project focuses on creating the world's largest online database of high-quality photos of vegetation.

This team isn't looking for just any old plant photograph though. They're looking for photos of naturally occurring plant communities throughout the world.

According to Laughlin, the project is similar to iNaturalist, but for community ecology. Photos can be submitted by anyone, as long as they know some basic information about it.

"We want the user to tell us the vegetation type that they think it is, and we need geographical coordinates for that photo. We require that because the geographical coordinates allow us to associate it with a whole new set of climate data, and anything associated with that spatial location," said Laughlin. "So they submit a photo with coordinates and some information about the plants, and then we run it through a program that we've developed that allows us to create and summarize all sorts of other things about that photo that the user might not even know."

Most photos taken on phones automatically have the GPS coordinates of where they were taken.

A photo of the Patagonian steppe in Argentina submitted to the project.
Credit Alejandra Maza

The Global Vegetation Project database is accessible to anyone with an internet connection and the team is in the process of creating teaching materials to go along with it.

"Our big goal is for ecology classes around the world to use it for certain assignments to teach them about global biomes, and how vegetation types relate to climate," said Laughlin "And we want to develop modules or assignments for a variety of different class age levels, so from middle school, to high school to university, to teach students about the diversity of vegetation on our planet, and its importance, and also how it might change in response to climate change."

The database contains photos from across the world and most of the submissions are driven by ecologists in the field.

"We're starting to see that from different places in the world where vegetation ecologists hear about the project, and I'm just starting to get a whole bunch of photos rolling in from India, and all these wonderful places, it's really fun," Laughlin said.

He hopes the database continues to grow indefinitely.

"The more we get the word out, the more photos we'll get and I think we can contain several thousand photos, no problem on this database," said Laughlin "And if we grew to such an extent where we ran out of data storage space, well, that would be a wonderful problem to have."

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Ivy Engel, at iengel@uwyo.edu.