Add an interactive system to glean diagnostic features from identifiers and show them to observers

As a means of helping others learn the characteristics to distinguish between various species and a way to speed up identifications, I was wondering if a system that could be implemented that gave identifiers who have corrected many identifications over some period of time to be given a prompt to describe what features distinguish certain species from one another and be added to the species page or be suggested to observers that have been corrected as a potential reason why someone disagrees with their ID. I’m not entirely sure how the system would work, but I think it would be an amazing opportunity to capitalize on the expertise at iNaturalist and potentially help identifiers more smoothly through observations without potentially having to explain so much. This would also tell the observers directly what the key characteristics are that they need to photograph and/or pay attention to in order to get a proper ID. Just had a thought and I’d be really interested in working through the ideas of under what conditions the prompt would show up if others are interested.

If such a feature were implemented, you could even have this as a forum-like discussion among top identifiers in order to hone the characteristics and conditions.

Edited the title to make it an action.

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Great idea. Would a photographic “key” fit with what you have in mind?

As you said, I wish there was a way to communicate to observers what things they should be photographing for specific taxa in the field. Too often I’m out in the field and I don’t know what part of a plant precisely I need to photograph to get an ID. In theory an interactive key could prompt users to take a photo of this part, then this part then this part… etc. I was hoping guides would provide something like this but it sounds like they are not being developed further by the iNaturalist team.

Great idea though. I’d love to help out if I can.


I like that idea too. It would be especially useful if there was an easy way to pick photos that portray the characteristics being described (maybe even the option to draw an arrow or something). It sounds like it ultimately would have to be a separate thing or a mostly separate thing, but it might be able to be connected if keys could be automatically be constructed by the key characteristics the identifiers mention.

@tiwane Thanks! Hope it isn’t too close to the topic: “Investigate ways to capture comments and ID remarks that are useful for making identifications and including them on the taxon page and in identification tools” as written here:
I noticed the similarities after the fact.


I’m currently building a lucidkey-style key for North American psyllids using iNat’s “Guides” interface. All 300+ species are tagged based on their distribution, host plant data, and anatomical characters such that users can select multiple criteria in the form of labeled tags to effectively narrow down the potential options. While iNat’s Guides are not perfect for this and definitely not as functional as traditional lucidkey software (ie, categories that are no longer necessary are not discarded after a user selects several other categories, no option to sort tags any way other than alphabetically, etc), I think there is something beneficial about having such a system in place on-site utilizing iNat’s wealth of images and observation data to help observers understand identification of taxa. A more dedicated system to support this kind of thing would be a very welcome addition to the site, in my opinion


The comments box is a great place to “ask what differentiates two species” and to “share diagnostic characters to look for”. Builds community too… having the system do the asking and the sharing is kinda taking that interaction away?


I don’t think it necessarily has to if done correctly. At the bottom of the reason suggestion, it could encourage the user to ask for clarification if they don’t understand (maybe say, “don’t understand what this means or how it helps you tell the taxa apart? Leave a comment to ask for clarification.” or something similar). The main problem is, during the times of intense iNat uploads (particularly during city nature challenges) I simply don’t have time to add ID comments to every observation if I want to get to them all. I find myself moving away from doing so in general unless asked. It just takes so much more time. I know this probably comes off as a bit cold to users, especially new ones, but most of the time, there’s really not much I can do about it unless I ID far fewer observations. This ultimately goes against why I interact with the site in the first place (to see new things and keep all the observations in my group of interest as well curated as I can). The interaction is really great, but it’s not why I use the site.

Actually, I think it would be great to do more to encourage users to ask when they don’t understand in general. Too often the IDs of observations from new users just stand in disagreement without any questions. I want higher quality identifications, and if this facilitates that and increases the community interactions in a positive way, there doesn’t appear to be a downside here. This would theoretically lead to more notifications, but hopefully, the new notification system the iNat team is working on will be able to handle the problems this would cause.


Also, it may sound counter-intuitive, but if I knew my comments were going to be preserved and shared, I would write more to break down the characteristics and clarify. Anyway, that’s my perspective on this.


I look forward to checking it out! I think your guide could really inspire a lot of experts to do the same with their favorite taxa. Just need a few people to lead the way!

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I look forward to its release! I did something similar with the sandmats of the Llano Estacado, the weedy sandmats of Texas , and have started a sandmats of Texas one but have recently opted for the more visually appealing, easier to construct, and hopefully easier to use (when there aren’t many species and they are easy to distinguish) field guide style journal posts like this. The iNat guides are probably technically better, especially for large groups of species, but take a lot of time and effort to create.

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I’d have to thoroughly disagree that an interactive system would negatively impact a feeling of community interaction. For wasps, parasitoid groups in particular, details that are necessary to use are often very convoluted to communicate without at least some form of diagram (especially regarding particular wing venation that may be necessary at subfamily, genus, or species level - or words to describe a particular region of the thorax). At present, this often means that corrections either require a broad nod to wing venation of a highly technical correction, neither of which tends to be of much help in training identifiers. So some form of easily-linkable reference with comparative imagery might actually increase that sense of interaction.

A number of us have been using different areas of the site (guides, journals, project blogs, etc.) to try to piece together different sorts of keys or species guides*, but it’s definitely very clunky at present (and a little difficult to find unless you already have the link). A secondary point about having something in this vein is that there would be an easily-linkable reference

I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that an interactive key be a part of the identification tool, though, as some taxa have a fair amount of misinformation out there that wouldn’t be good to accidentally incorporate in a rather official segment of the site (examples: the false wisdom that there’s a single red paper wasp in the US; or the perpetually mistaken identity of the Australian Polistes humilis synoecus for Polistes variabilis on almost every online resource). For the same reason, a sort of wiki system might not be the best either.

* I’ve been working on a couple of these journal guides for paper wasps in the genus Polistes. I eventually intend to update them with some embedded local photos in addition to the existing links to the likes of BugGuide, Dr. Buck’s pictorial key, and PaDIL.


I see the value of having this system but I have concerns about its implementation. As @jonathan142 rightly pointed out, the chances of misinformation making its way to the site are quite high if it is a wiki-style system. On the other hand it’s also unfair to expect members with expertise (Curators) to create these keys. For taxa like molluscs, it would mean writing/creating them for tens of thousands of species.

I’m not a curator or big-time identifier, but I kind of agree. It might be good to encourage asking questions rather than hard-wiring this diagnostic features system into the site.

And to just throw ideas in, maybe this ‘encouraging questions’ thing could be aided by –

  1. Making it clear that a new user doesn’t have to agree with an ID without knowing why (yes, some new users do think that’s how it is). This could be done via pop-up reminders on their first few uploads.
    [There are users like me, who like to know more about certain taxa but will upload other taxa as well. I would choose not to know more about the latter, dismiss the pop-up in that case, and just agree if there’s a top identifier’s ID suggestion or a consensus.]
  2. Notifying an uploader to try and ask questions if they haven’t agreed to a leading ID on their post for a long time

Just my thoughts.


In reference the objections, here are my thoughts:

  1. I’m not really thinking of a wiki-style system as something more like a forum-style page generated where comments can be made to allow people to argue about the characteristics once they’ve added enough IDs to be able to see the page.
  2. It is true that we will get less informed voices commenting on these, but I find that it becomes quite clear when someone is out-referenced or reasoned and among the more experienced users, they usually know it and are willing to concede.

The important question here is: what is the alternative? If we have a reputation system, the solution becomes easier, but without, the only alternatives I can see are:

  1. Keep things as they are now or slight variations on how things are now (i.e., no integrated place to add identification information).
  2. A forum style system of discussion characteristics.
  3. A wiki-style system. Or,
  4. A hybrid where discussions are made and someone (probably a curator) has the ability to change the text of the main page.

If anyone else can think of other options, I’d be interested in hearing them.

Also, I need to add that after the first prompt, the text would change to something like: “does this look correct?” with the option of answering “yes” or “no”. They might also be asked, “is there anything that can be added?” It wouldn’t have to be exactly that, but something along those lines.

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ok, so how about we have this fully automated, like this:

  • add a new button to the ID box (each comment or ID+comment on the obs would have this) that says:
    “was this comment helpful in determining the correct taxon?” (this would be a thumb up or down button)
  • then on the ID box drop down menu (flag, view, ID, trust, etc) add “Top Helpful ID notes for this taxon”
  • that link takes you to the … wait for it … the top 10 or 20 voted Helpful ID notes for this taxon
    so, the iNat system tallies votes, and very soon we have automatically populated tabs for each taxon with the best ID tips. I would happily go back through all the ID comments I’ve gotten from @janetwright, @jonathan142, @nathantaylor @tsn, etc that always leave helpful ID tips… This would help with many taxa, and of course at all levels, even order- and family-level ID comments would get votes, and so populate the higher taxa ID notes. “Please note that these are needles, and not leaves” applied to a was-dicot-corrected-to-pinales observation … Of course if you cut and paste a common ID tip often, it would get (hopefully) many helpful votes (but appear once on the “ID tips” tab for the taxon). Once there are 20+ tips there, a curator could up and down vote as needed to sort the truly best to the top.

Having the ability to mark comments as helpful would be a great feature.

It would be a big step forward even to be able to filter on observations that included any comments at all. I’d love to be able to find commented observations more easily.


The comments on this obs for example
about 3 species of Metalasia


Keys are key and then one should take the keys and make graphics themselves to reflect those keys and put into iNaturalist. "ID Cards

" have been used for decades on a small scale to help workers ID species. Here one simply takes dichotomous key and uses Photoshop, etc. to annotate traits. If iNaturalist folks would put in one of these per species that would keep it simple. I added one for Lythrum curtissii if anyone wants to see it.


Having dichotomous key traits annotated into the graphic helps immensely. You may know these as “ID Cards” and the ones I make have permission from those who created the key.