Add interactions to species pages

#1

There are lots of interesting interactions being captured in the Observation fields, which would be interesting to see summarised somewhere. For example, what insects visit what flowers, what herbivores eat certain plants, what prey are eaten by what predators, etc.

My request is to add a panel to the Taxon (About) pages, perhaps after Taxonomy and Status. This would summarise, in the same format as the Similar Species tab does, what other taxa have been recorded in interactions with the species, and a count of how many times. Perhaps initially, this could be added only at the species level, but it would be interesting to have it for higher-level taxa too.

Clicking on a species here would display either the type of interaction recorded, or a grid of the relevant observations.

Some relevant threads on this from the Google Group:
https://groups.google.com/forum/#!searchin/inaturalist/interactions|sort:date/inaturalist/mX-746U9vQg/NcSNVf-PAAAJ
https://groups.google.com/forum/#!searchin/inaturalist/interactions|sort:date/inaturalist/kZMnOfT0hgc/1JAzwjUmAQAJ

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Link observations of different, but associated, organisms
#2

We investigated this when we redesigned the taxon page in 2016 (yikes, that was a while ago). I just made it so you can see what we did by appending test=interactions to any taxon page URL, and I’ll use examples to explain why we didn’t develop this any further.

The big problem looming over this whole feature is that observation fields are a bad way to model interactions. Since they represent a totally uncontrolled vocabulary, they’re rife with synonymous fields, so it’s hard interpret situations where, for example, there are both eats and preys on interactions, e.g. https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/117520-Enhydra-lutris-nereis?test=interactions. What’s the difference? Why are both supported?

Another problem is that using observation fields to model interactions means that one of the two taxa in the interaction is not subject to crowdsourced identification, so anyone can say that oaks eat humans and there’s nothing the community can do to correct that. As an example, here’s a butterfly that supposedly eats itself: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/51097-Papilio-zelicaon?test=interactions. It doesn’t, this is just due to an erroneously added observation field. Site curators could just delete this field, but that’s generally not how we like to perform quality control at iNat.

On top of that, we really wanted to incorporate data from GLoBI, since we like them and we think it’s cool that they incorporate iNat interaction data, but mapping taxonomies and field semantics proved a hassle, and again it presents the problem of data that the iNat community can’t correct if they find errors.

What we’d like to do is to make a new feature for interactions where an interaction is a relationship between two observations with clear and controlled semantics (to the extent that that’s possible). So instead adding an obs field that says an obs of an oak represents that oak eating a human, you would create an interaction and have to choose two observations, one of an oak and another of a human, and choose “eating” from a menu of interaction types where “eating” means “taxon A is putting all or part of taxon B inside its body for the purpose of personal metabolism” or something. Other users could then vote on whether that was the correct interaction type, and the two observations could be independently identified. We could try and pre-populate this new kind of data with observation fields, or at least make a tool that helps people review their own interaction obs fields to make new-style interactions out of them. That’s a lot more work, though, and it hasn’t really been a priority, so we haven’t gotten around to it.

Anyway, that’s a long way of saying that I agree this would be cool, but doing it right will take considerable effort.

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Observation Field Standardization Wiki
#3

Many thanks for the detailed explanation, Ken-ichi. Perhaps it’s best to put this feature request on ice and add another which would be to make a new feature for interactions like you describe? I would love to see this developed. For me, the ability to add interactions (even in the imperfect ways currently available) is one of iNaturalist’s best features.

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#4

I’m actually enjoying the feature that you developed, although I can see the problems with it (e.g., the plant Lantana camara apparently “visits flowers of” 46 species of insects, rather than the other way around https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/50333-Lantana-camara?test=interactions). Is it a functionality you can leave available, or are there reasons not to do so?

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#5

I’m happy to leave the test=interactions thing available, I’m just not going to make it visible by default or integrate it into the UI. I don’t think we need to ice this topic, as I think the title sums up what we want pretty well. Personally, I think the Feature Requests category is a way to gauge what kinds of things people are interested in, and not necessarily specific implementation plans, so it’s valuable to me to know how many people chose to upvote this. In fact, I will spend one of my votes on it right now.

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#6

wow, very neat. i am out of votes but that test page is awesome. It inspires me to add these as i haven’t always remembered to do it. since i mostly observe plants i don’t know how much the ‘associated species’ thing is useful for plant species associations, but i find that kind of thing interesting too

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#7

Plant species interaction is very useful in identifying lepidoptera larvae, and there are many situations where host association (herbivory) is useful, such as finding biocontrols on invasive plants. The Plantsynz (https://plant-synz.landcareresearch.co.nz/) site was built around the usefulness of these interactions!

Actually, I think once you get to a level of familiarity with a number of species, the “next level” is discovering what they interact with… I recall my first obs of a katipo, and now it is all about what is eating them and where (in what plants) are they making their snares (webs).

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#8

Oh sorry, i didn’t clarify, i meant plants interacting with each other. If i see an insect on a plant i’ll generally note the plant interaction. But i guess the question more is how do i draw the line in terms of which adjacent plants are ‘interacting’. (because they all are, but some are just kind of excessive to note). Mostly i just add associated species plants with each other when both are visible in the photo (so like ken-ichi said there’s at least some ID verification, if i had a wrong ID someone could tell me and i would change it)

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#9

I am not sure that documenting competition between neighbouring plants is a good use of interaction fields, because it takes us into a grey area. I think it’s fine to document parasites, hemiparasites, or epiphytes, because the interaction is very direct. A bromeliad growing on a branch is clearly depending directly on the tree it’s on for support. A strangler fig growing around another tree – fine. But a plant growing next to another and (probably) competing with it for light and water? While there is probably an interaction of some sort going on (everything in ecology is connected) I would draw the line at documenting that as an interaction.

The issue this does raise is whether we can come up with a standardised way of categorising interactions. Clearly one species feeding on another is an interaction, whether it’s predator-prey, parasite-host, herbivore-plant or pathogen-host. We could also document antagonistic interactions, such as songbirds mobbing a raptor; mutualistic interactions, such as ants living in Acacia thorns; and commensal relationships, such as remoras on a shark. In many cases it’s not obvious without detailed study whether an interaction is mutualistic or commensal, so we could have categories that relate more to what was observed, e.g., using another species as support or substrate – whether an epiphyte on a tree, an epiphyll on a leaf, a bat roosting in a palm or an anemone on the back of a crab. In some cases we might not know what the species is doing, but can still document an interaction, as with flower visitors (they could be visiting for pollen, for nectar, or to eat other flower visitors).

Charlie’s case of plants associating with others is more of a fuzzy area I think: are they in the same place because they like the same conditions, or is there actually any direct competition or mutualism happening? It’s often not clear, and I would suggest not to categorise these as interactions unless there is clear evidence of this.

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#10

My understanding of the ecology is the relationships often aren’t straight competition and there is a lot of symbiosis going on as well. That being said, I agree that it’s hard to say what should go into the fields and what should not - which is part of why i stopped recording those sorts of things in the fields (though it seemed like GloBI does it). I personally am interested in tracking which plants associate with each other in different ecosystems, but it turns out using the Natural Communities field is often a better way for me to track that.

So in short i am not sure if i agree on the first part (though i don’t feel strongly) but the second part i strongly agree with. The interactions fields need to be standardized (i don’t even always know which transfer data to GloBI and which don’t) and there needs to be guidance as to what should or shouldn’t be added. As you say everything interacts with everything and it’s hard to say what is worth documenting as notable. But… for instance a yellow birch growing in a hemlock forest, there is evidence saying those species are at least somewhat symbiotic in the mycorrhizal web under the forest. So i don’t think it’s unimportant… but it may be unknowable, you can’t see if the trees are linked underground by fungi or not. Anyhow I won’t add any more for now, unless there’s guidance otherwise.

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#11

FWIW, yes, semantics (what things mean) and ontology (what things exist and how they’re related) are important, and there has been a lot of work done on this, e.g. http://www.ontobee.org/ontology/RO?iri=http://purl.obolibrary.org/obo/RO_0002574, sometimes including/inspired by iNat discussions. GLoBI does try to stick to established ontologies, but one problem with the obs field approach is that iNat users aren’t necessarily aware of the implied semantics, e.g. we all need constant reminders of what the difference between “eating” and “preys on” might be. Something we will need to keep in mind if we ever get to this feature.

Also, my personal opinion is that iNat should only focus on interactions that can be verified in a photo, so a photo of a birch in a hemlock forest doesn’t prove an interaction. The co-occurrence is interesting, but that could be derived from existence of an observation of a birch and an obs of a hemlock at the same time and place. Same thing with pollination: a bee covered with pollen on a flower doesn’t demonstrate that pollination is happening, though it is highly suggestive.

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#12

Makes sense. I won’t add any more of those. However, if you can see the birch tree and a bunch of hemlock growing all around it in the photo, would you include that, or no? (Nowadays i’d just do the same thing by mapping both in Hemlock Forest natural community anyway, so i don’t mind not doing it! Sorry if it caused any confusion)

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#13

If you’re asking would I enter that as an interaction, I don’t know. Gut reaction is “no” b/c the photo only demonstrates co-occurrence and not interaction, but it depends on the biology. If biologists have found that that kind of growth pattern always implies a symbiotic interaction, then sure, a photo like that demonstrates the interaction.

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#14

sounsd like broadly, since it doesn’t provide any concrete value to others and it isn’t necessary for me to get the info I want out of observations, it just doesn’t make sense for me to do it. Which is good because i haven’t been lately anyhow. I’ll continue to use the fields in the more traditionally obvious interactions like an insect visibly eating a plant, etc

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#15

Hey, this is super coo!! I hadn’t been aware of that test=interactions thing. It’s certainly quicker than mucking about with URL strings in searches. I’m pleased to hear that you’ll keep it around.

I’ve been waiting for a long time for a proper way to connect together two observations with an interaction. :grinning:

I’m less keen on the suggestion that an interaction needs to be verified in a photo every time a user sees it and wants to record it. I can imagine casual and research grade interactions just like we do with taxon identifications. If someone sees a falcon take a pigeon but doesn’t manage to photograph it, I’d still like them to be able to add a pigeon and a falcon observation and connect them with an interaction (if they want to).

That’s a different issue from people jumping to the conclusion that it must have been pollination if a bee was on a flower, or that two plants must have been competing if they were growing next to each other. That will be trickier to manage.

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#16

How can we get this higher up the “desired” list of features?
Both the New Zealanders and southern Africans have projects dealing with this.
Ours is visible at https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/interactions-s-afr

Basically, we record only the active interaction (i.e. “a eats b”, not “b is eaten by a” - the latter just being the reciprocal of the first), although user pressure has resulted in us adding a passive field for the reciprocal observation, given that observations fields link only one way, so that these observations do not display their hosts) as:

Visiting flowers: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?field:Visiting%20a%20flower%20of:%20(Interaction)
Eating: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?field:Eating:%20(Interaction)
Parasitizing: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?field:Parasitizing:%20(Interaction)
Attached to: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?field:attached%20to:%20(Interaction)
Carrying: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?field:Carrying:%20(Interaction)
Associated with: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?field:Associated%20with:%20(Interaction)
& the passive
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?field:Passive%20Partner%20to:%20(Interaction)

Note that in each case the field value is the url of the interacting observation. Unfortunately we cannot use this is a query to summarize the interactions.
We can ask
“What flowers does the Cape Sugarbird Visit?” - https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?place_id=113055&subview=grid&taxon_id=13442&field:Visiting%20a%20flower%20of:%20(Interaction)=
but we will only see the bird, and not the flowers, even though all the urls to the flowers are in the field - see: https://www.inaturalist.org/observation_fields/7459.

In over 5 years of using this “set” of interactions, we have never had a request to add additional interactions (e.g. Eating = preys on = killing to eat - i.e. “killing for fun” has not cropped up), although it would be nice to have a hierarchical dictionary of interactions (e.g. visiting a flower > pollinating a flower (> for nectar, pollen, oil, gum)/robbing a flower/, etc.

Just a request for https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/50333-Lantana-camara?test=interactions - is that it is searchable/filterable and displayed in explore/observations - species view in descending order (and perhaps also taxonomic order?).

Oh: these may tickle you? https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?place_id=113055&subview=grid&taxon_id=122213&field:eating:%20(Interaction)=
(Note that one chilli bush has over 500 interactions! - https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/10949804)

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#17

@tonyrebelo Impressive stuff. I like the way you’re doing this with observation URLs rather than taxon lookup fields (I wish I’d done it this way when setting up the NZ interactions). I’d bet Ken-ichi and team could build an elegant interface onto something like this.

This gets one of my votes.

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#18

linking to individual observations is great. It might mean you sometimes would need to create a casual observation to link to but that would tell you that one of the organizations in question couldn’t be verified with media - which is fine!

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#19

Wow, that is an impressive series of observations from the chilli bush! And what a terrifying beetle larva!

I thought I’d mention how I’m currently recording interactions as there seem to be different ways of doing it. I use the observation field “Associated observation” to add the URL of the other species - I try to make observations of both species when I can. Then I use one of the following observation fields to add the taxon, which has to be manually updated as and when the other taxon gets more finely identified:

Interaction->Herbivore of:
Interaction->Visited flower of:
Interaction->Preyed on:
Interaction->Ate seed of:
etc.

For example: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/20288388

There seems like a definite need to standardise how this is done, and it would be fantastic if the interaction updated itself via the link whenever either taxon got more finely identified.

As to the question of how to get this higher up the list of desired features - it’s all based on how many votes it gets!

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#20

I think adding a way for users to link different observations is important. This would facilitate documentation of predator-prey interactions, mutualisms, habitat associations, pollination events, etc. Unless there’s a way to associate multiple iNat entries, it may be difficult to properly document these interesting natural history observations. One simple method to achieve this would be to allow multiple taxa to be identified in a single observation.

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