Native flora abounds at Oregon State University-Cascades’ campus, and now there’s an app for that.
Both a web-based app that users access with computers and an iOS app for iPhones, Ecotone was developed in collaboration between the university’s computer science and biology programs.
Ecotone is available at ecotone.osucascades.edu and will soon be a free download in the Apple App Store. Together, the web and mobile app allows users to easily identify the exclusively native tree and plant species growing across the OSU-Cascades campus.
This technology also helps users store data about the flora as it grows and changes over time.
“The vision is to transform our (10-acre campus) into a living laboratory where students can really immerse themselves in field work — right outside our academic buildings,” said Yong Bakos, a computer science instructor and Ecotone’s co-creator.
This vision of a “living laboratory” will widen in scope once OSU-Cascades expands its campus to 128 total acres, absorbing adjacent turf that was once a landfill and pumice mine. Construction begins this year.
“It’s an amazing, beautiful thing to transform that land,” Bakos said, adding that Ecotone is the ideal tool to monitor how native flora commingles with the bustle of campus life.
Ecotone, a common word in the sciences, is a fitting name for the inter-disciplinary project, said co-creator Dr. Ann Petersen, an OSU-Cascades biology instructor.
“It’s the place where two environments meet and blend,” she said.
Bakos and Petersen tasked students in varying departments — which include computer science, biology and natural resources — to help create Ecotone, which is useful in two main ways.
First, Ecotone allows students — particularly those taking biology labs — to quickly identify any of 50 native tree and plant species by scanning nearby QR codes printed on cards and stuck to wooden posts. The flora are located in numbered land plots. Once scanned, an image of the plant pops up on the user’s screen, complete with a biological description.
Ecotone’s secondary and more robust service allows users to log information about native plants, including density, height and trunk width, said Nathan Struhs, 26, a computer science junior who helped write code for the app. Users can also record factors such as any insects or fungus in a plot. Drop-down tabs make entering information easy.
Struhs was hired by OSU-Cascades to spend about 200 hours writing code for Ecotone through the spring and summer of 2017. With Petersen’s guidance, Struhs designed Ecotone so users can easily add or remove land plots from the database and adjust class size as the OSU-Cascades campus grows both spatially and in terms of its student body. Struhs made the web app using Ruby on Rails, a code-writing software. For the iOS, he used the in-house Apple code-writing software called Xcode.
Natural resources student Sarah Palmer Antoniou was brought into the Ecotone fold because she had previously developed plant labs for entry-level biology students. She directed the students’ plot surveys and their contribution to long-term ecological monitoring.
“That’s my favorite part of Ecotone — seeing how these plants grow and develop and seeing how the frequent disturbance of humans walking through affects how the plots develop,” she said.
Palmer Antoniou shares in OSU-Cascades’ enthusiasm about its strictly native landscaping. When the present campus was being built, faculty and students uprooted and preserved about 2,000 plants in a greenhouse. Then they replanted them. Beyond their educational value, native plants do not require additional water or special care, which also adds to their appeal — they’re already adapted to their surroundings and don’t require irrigation, Palmer Antoniou said.
Ecotone “helps people realize the importance of native plants in our area and how cool it is that we have this native landscaping,” she added. “A lot of students aren’t from this region so they don’t know the native plants. This is a good opportunity to educate them about the plants and what role they play.”
Palmer Antoniou said sometimes students tell her they’re surprised to learn that an innocuous plant on campus isn’t merely a weed.
“They’re actually very important to local wildlife,” she said.
Matt Shinderman is a natural resources senior instructor who directed the initial uprooting and replanting of the campus’ native plants and trees. He said Ecotone is a great tool to document changes in the landscape over time, both in terms of the desired, natural seeding and the appearance of invasive species, such at cheatgrass.
“(Ecotone) is a really cool starting point for more exploration,” Shinderman said.
Petersen said the app is a great way to engage in a relatively rare style of university landscaping.
“The University of Oregon and Oregon State (in Corvallis) have beautiful arboretum-style landscaping with plants from ecosystems all over the world. What we envisioned here at OSU-Cascades is a low-water-use assemblage that is unique to the high desert.”
The growing Ecotone data on native flora will make great fodder for analysis, she said.
“Students will learn about this place and this ecology,” Petersen added. “They’ll be able to answer questions that no one has been able to answer about how plants grow here.”
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