Adding undescribed taxa to the iNat taxonomy

What are the guidelines for dealing with undescribed taxa? What I think most people do is ID the organism to lowest possible rank, and mark as “ID cannot be improved.” However, there is no technical reason why these taxa cannot receive some kind of placeholder name, perhaps with some sort of flag marking them as undescribed. I imagine there are some benefits to separating taxa we know to be undescribed from other genuinely unidentified material. However, this could potentially add some messiness on the database side of things. Thoughts?

Guidelines, are, in will check to see if they are documented, but it has been discussed multiple times on the various boards, that undescribed or provisional names should not be added to the database. Any records requiring them should be added at the genus or appropriate level, and then the presumed ID documented in the comments or an observation field such as one of the holding bin ones.

As far as I can tell it is not in the curator guide, beyond a note that the site explicitly does not follow primary literature for sourcing, which I guess could cover it.

My reply is not meant as a value judgement one way or the other on the policy, just to confirm what it is.

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The issue is that the provisional name is just that: provisional. They can change the proposed name or that later someone decided that at the end there is no difference between that and the existing species. Therefore confusion.

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We have hundreds of cases of this in southern Africa. Our conspecti are full of them. Some are just numbers with a description, but others have provisional names.
And yes, they are ephemeral and temporary, but more “professional” taxonomists are now recording them in their revisions.
The use of provisional names (and their subsequent synonymization) is especially useful where the species were the focus of CS action to discover, determine abundance and distribution and variation, and find new populations.

What we have done is created a project to manage an Observation field to this purpose. The project is
https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/undescribed-species-and-taxa
and the field is:
https://www.inaturalist.org/observation_fields/8546
And the ID is just to the appropriate Genus (or subgenus or section or series).

This works 90% of the time.
However, when the new species starts getting more than 5-10 observations on iNaturalist, then I seriously consider adding the provisional name as a “species” in the genus, especially for larger genera (or subgenera, etc.), or genera with many new species waiting to be described and documented with provisional names in a recent checklist or conspectus. But this is a rare occurrence: some taxonomists are petrified that the provisional name might accidentally become legitimate under the code (e.g. a description and specimen is mentioned on the observation), so most are against this practice.
When the species are described these names and observations are swapped into the new species.

There is a problem though. One cannot enter numbers or punctuation in the “species” field in the dictionary. So one cannot have “Protea sp. 1” - so it is better to have “Protea gamkaensis”. Personally I prefer using Protea sp. 1 as the scientific name and then the provisional name as the “common” name. (one can only have one “Protea sp”, so one does need to number or letter them in the troublesome genera).

This is in the absence of an obvious curatorial policy in this regard. I am not saying if it is appropriate or not: just what we are doing at present.

I’m making no argument one way or the other as to the appropriateness of the policy, I’m simply answering to the question as to what it is.

If you’re willing to be a bit wordy, this shouldn’t be a problem. Protea sp one should work (or perhaps Protea undesc one?) and is unambiguous.

From my taxonomist bias, I’m definitely on the side of not adding taxa to the iNaturalist taxonomy that have not yet been validated. Besides the potential (though unlikely) nomenclatural issues, they have not yet been peer-reviewed (including for conformance with codes of nomenclature), and as @robertarcher397 pointed out, could still change or disappear.

In most cases these will be relatively rare and local taxa that can easily be rounded up with an iNat search and updated when a valid name becomes available. For more widespread and heavily observed taxa (observose as @bouteloua coined), these problems scale up accordingly.

Even if we come up with a place-holder format (Protea species-one, etc.), how long do we let them sit like that? Who monitors them for publication or other changes? What if, long after Protea species-one has been swapped out for its published name, another undescribed Protea turns up? And someone re-uses Protea species-one as a place-holder? (What could possibly go wrong there…?)

I will say that once a new species has been validly published, we should relax a bit on the “no sourcing from primary literature” policy – subject of course to the same discussion that should happen around any proposed deviation from our standard taxonomic frameworks. Otherwise who knows how long before the new species gets picked up in a secondary source, however well-accepted it may be?

I don’t think we should add undescribed taxa. However, I wish iNaturalist were quicker to deal with species that have been described! I have a lot of photos of Sedum, Lomatium, Calamagrostis, and Poa that I can’t post because iNaturalist doesn’t yet accept the names (and I don’t want to post them nameless).

Staff can correct me if I am overstepping here, but these can be added by any site curator (or taxon curators for locked groups), and this is being done all the time. Just go to the taxon page for the Genus, then under Curation, pick Flag for Curation and in the reason, say something like “Please add Carex novonomina” and hit “Flag it.” Then click on the link to the new flag, and add a comment that includes publication information on the new species, and other relevant background. It might get created right away, or there might need to be a period of discussion on the flag first. Sometimes new flags get buried fast though, so if it doesn’t get any attention after a few weeks, feel free to ping a site curator in the flag comments (I am one for plants). (Note: for plants, I generally won’t add anything that has not yet appeared in IPNI at least.)

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You don’t even have to be a curator to try and add a name, all users can try (assuming it is not locked) to do it via the external providers. If that fails then you can or should flag asking for the species be added.

You will have much more success with flags if you ask for specific species rather than saying add all missing members of genus x.

Some of the sample genera have multiple hundred members. Synchronizing the list in a reference to the iNat database is very time consuming. Speaking as a taxa curator, it is not adding new ones that takes too much time, it is reviewing all existing records and researching, cleaning up deviations etc that is very time consuming.

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I am among those who would prefer not to add undescribed taxa. Anyway, adding just few of them can be useful, especially for alien plants. For example there are horticultural hybrids that are lacking a binomial name. Notwithstanding, some of them are often found in the wild and few are even invasive. So what to do? One possibility is to create a new class of taxa for the site taxonomy, and it could be named just “provisional name”.

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I don’t have an opinion re the entire iNat world. However, for marine invertebrates (I curate California nudibranchs), we already went around this block a few times, and decided for better or for worse to follow peer-reviewed WoRMS, e.g., no putative/undescribed taxa. The current ‘Rule:’ If it is Accepted on WoRMS, it is Active on iNat. Certainly easy to curate, since no peer-review adjudication required. Of course, that means that some Observations are left at genus or above until such time as they are accepted. For example, there is a common but so-far-undescribed Doto species with dozens of observations, which I’ve mostly just listed as Genus Doto with “Doto Form A of Goddard (1996)” written in the description, like: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/17636120 When it gets formally described, it’ll be easy to search and rename.
That said, my personal opinion is that it might be interesting to build some sort of Casual Grade-like functionality for Sp. # and provisional names (as long as they are well documented when created, with full citations etc) along the lines that @tonyrebelo suggests, that could be upgraded once they are fully accepted. I don’t think they should be part of iNat’s Research Grade taxonomy though…

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I don’t think there will ever be consistency with how these types of issues are treated because our external taxonomic authorities follow different rules. While WoRMs does not recognize species that have not been formally described, FishBase does, for example.

As a taxon curator for Cephalopoda (which follows WoRMs), I have thus far left undescribed species out of the database and see no harm in keeping those observations at the genus level until the species is formally described in literature. However, if there is some sort of push for a certain undescribed species (e.g. “Hairy Octopus” Octopus ‘hairy’) by the iNat community, I would not find personal issue at including it.

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This is a bit of an issue in SE Asia as well. There are many, many species that have been described and give names that are frequently used in the literature, but they’re listed as ‘unresolved’, despite their use, and not accepted in iNat.

I understand why, but it’s a bit frustrating when I’m updating the species check-list for my work area and a significant portion of species (especially plants) fall into this category.

Do you mean “unresolved” in The Plant List?