Colorado Alpine Ecoflora Project

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A small blue flower with a yellow center.

Community Science

What is the Colorado Alpine EcoFlora Project?

The Colorado Alpine EcoFlora Project is a community-science botany project powered by iNaturalist, the free, easy-to-use nature identification app. Everyone is welcome to join! 

The two goals of this project are to:

  1. Increase awareness of and appreciation for alpine plants in Colorado, engage the public, and empower the next generation of botanists.
  2. Obtain research-grade observational data from around the state that will help us understand distributions of alpine plants, their phenologies, and even help us identify some areas where we should focus our conservation efforts.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Yellow flowers on a hillside in the alpine.

Getting Involved

There are two main ways to participate in the Colorado Alpine EcoFlora Project: Observers and Identifiers.

The first role is Observers. Observers upload pictures of alpine plants taken when they are out in nature. You don’t even need to have cell coverage–the metadata automatically included with the photo usually has location (from satellite) and a timestamp. These photos can be uploaded at a later time to the iNaturalist app or website, where they will be used for identification, generally starting with the original observer. Therefore, it is important to include in the photos any characteristics needed to make an accurate identification, usually the whole plant, and then close-ups of the flower, leaves, and any other important characteristics. Check out this resource about how to best photograph plants for identification. There is also an option to include phenological data in your observations. This is incredibly useful information because it helps us track how plants are responding to our changing climate.

The second role is Identifiers. In order to become research-grade, each observation needs to be verified by two other people. We are looking for people who love identifying plants to look at the uploaded photos of observations and verify that the species ID is correct. You can do this anytime and from anywhere you have an internet connection!

What is iNaturalist?

iNaturalist is a social network of naturalists, community scientists, and biologists built on the concept of mapping and sharing observations of biodiversity across the globe. It is a joint initiative between the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, and is accessible via its website or through its mobile app. People use iNaturalist to observe plants, fungi, lichens, and animals. All it takes to participate is the ability to upload geolocation-enabled photos to the website! Most smartphones are perfect for this use. When an observation is uploaded, the metadata stored with the photo is used to pinpoint the location and date where the photo was taken. Using the map of alpine areas already created for the Alpine Strategy, we uploaded a polygon of just the Colorado alpine areas to iNaturalist to create this new project. Now, any iNaturalist observation made within that polygon gets automatically funneled into the CO Alpine EcoFlora Project.

Pink flowers against an alpine backdrop.

What is Community Science?

Community science or citizen science refers to the concept of research conducted by members of the public. There are several well-known community science projects currently underway, including the Christmas Bird Count from Audubon, where people all over America contribute sightings of wildlife, and Project Budburst, a phenology project now housed under the Chicago Botanic Gardens, where people submit observations of the timing of plant phases (check out Betty Ford Alpine Gardens' Project Budburst page here). Two of the most powerful benefits of community science are that it gets the public interested and involved in research, and it makes a lot of otherwise-unrealistic data collection possible. The EcoFlora Project concept was developed by the New York Botanic Garden in 2017 with a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and has since been adopted by other gardens including Chicago Botanic Garden, Denver Botanic Garden, Desert Botanical Garden, and Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. These Gardens use the EcoFlora Project to engage the citizens of their cities in nature, document diversity of these metropolitan areas, and keep an eye out for invasive species. Here in the mountains, we have a slightly different motivation, since generally have access to much more nature, but the framework is still applicable and will help document alpine plant diversity.

A small, cushion-forming alpine plant with white petals and a yellow center.

History of the Colorado Alpine Ecoflora Project

Here at Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, the North American Botanic Garden Strategy for Alpine Plant Conservation (the Alpine Strategy, for short) guides our conservation efforts. The Alpine Strategy is a blueprint for the conservation and protection of alpine plants and their habitats in the US, Canada, and Mexico, with a focus on the role of botanic gardens in this effort. It was developed by Executive Director, Nicola Ripley, and published in 2020 in conjunction with Denver Botanic Gardens. There are four main objectives: understanding and documenting alpine plant diversity, conserving alpine plants and their habitats, promoting awareness of the alpine ecosystem through education and outreach, and building capacity for alpine plant conservation. 

As part of the first objective, we have developed a map of the alpine areas in North America using Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a suite of powerful tools to understand and visually render detailed geographic data. We have also recently completed a years-long effort to compile a list of all North American alpine plant taxa, their distributions, and conservation statuses using field guides, online resources, and personal observations. We want to know what we are conserving, as well as where to find it! Traditionally, scientists use surveys and specimen collection to create what is referred to as a Flora, or a document of all the plants in an area (such Dr. Jennifer Ackerfield’s Flora of Colorado, the gold standard our team uses for plant identification). However, this is generally not a dynamic understanding of where these plants are or their phenology throughout the season, and is limited by when and where scientists go. When members of our team go out into alpine environments, they make a floristic inventory, essentially a list of all the plants they see and their phenology. But we are only a few individuals and the alpine plant season is very short, so we wanted to find a way to see what alpine plants are where, beyond what we could observe ourselves. This led to the creation of the Colorado Alpine EcoFlora Project.

As of October 2022, there are almost fifteen thousand(!!!) observations of more than seven hundred species in the Colorado Alpine EcoFlora Project. Many of these are already research-grade, having been verified by other users! Over the next several years, we plan to expand participation in the Colorado Alpine EcoFlora Project by reaching out to other interested organizations; planning BioBlitzes as training events where we can educate people on how to use iNaturalist, how to identify alpine plants, and canvas an area as group to document plant diversity; and EcoQuests, essentially scavenger hunts for plants, a program that has been successful at other gardens for getting information about a particular species or area.

Alpine Avens (Geum rossii var. turbinatum), the most-observed alpine plant on iNaturalist.

Alpine Spring Beauty (Claytonia megarhiza), a rock-dwelling alpine species which can have a root grow up to six feet long!

Moss Campion (Silene acaulis), one of the quintessential cushion plants of CO's alpine.

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