Are drawings evidence?

I have read through (most) of the replies in these older threads -
What is evidence?
On Flagging Drawing

Reading through these and reviewing some sightings posted by user honoralana, I have come across a problem.

How is a drawing done from memory at home any better evidence than just going home and taking a photo out of a field guide or online and saying “this looks like what I saw”?

A drawing is no better evidence than a detailed description of what I saw. Even if the drawing is excellent, the quality of the drawing is more a representation of the person artistic abilities than stronger evidence of the actual sighting.

In both cases you are removing yourself from the actual observation and relying on memory to match / recreate the observation. I don’t think it should pass the criteria of “evidence of organism”. It is evidence of memory of the organism, not evidence of the organism.

In previous disccussion, many were quick to make the comparison to the great biological illustrators through history (Audubon, Gould, etc) but those people were making illustrations to demonstrate the characteristics of a species or population. They were not submitting those drawings as evidence that they had seen that individual. Drawings as iNat vouchers are a very different thing.


What if you don’t make a drawing or digital painting from memory or guide-books, but instead base one solely on a poor (e.g., hopelessly out-of-focus) photo taken on location, or on a photo taken by someone who was with you (and which you might not want to post for copyright reasons)? I have several such digital paintings among my personal records, and I regard them as pretty much equivalent to the field sketches that many naturalists used to make before the age of digital photography. Edge-detection and color-matching image technologies, even when applied to very blurry photographic images, enable me to re-create rather accurately what I actually saw in the field, and shouldn’t this be regarded as evidence of organism? I haven’t posted any of these images on iNaturalis yet, but have often thought of doing so.


To me, this is a bit of a broader question of when do you stop trusting or accepting information from observers. A parallel example would be with birds. There are many birds, I will use flycatchers and kingbirds as an example which are not reliably able to be separated visually but can be done with ease by song.

When users submit a photo, and a written note indicating identification was done by song, but attach no recording, should those all be thrown into casual ?


I concur with @sandboa that there is inherently a lower level of provability (Is that a word?) or believability of a sketch over a photograph of a live (or dead) organism. However, while a photo does provide more tangible direct evidence, I will argue that contemporary sketchs made in the field or from a living example or recently captured specimen certainly do pass as “evidence of organism”. Drawings made from memory later (days, weeks, or months later) would not past muster in my opinion. In the realm of bird records committees, long before digital photography existed, thousands of records of rare birds were evaluated and accepted based on detailed written descriptions which are/were often accompanied by a sketch. Perhaps the watershed for acceptance of a drawing of an organism should be some included language in the “Description” which asserts that the drawing was made contemporaneously from a live (or dead) organism, along with whatever diagnostic details might be appropriate for the identification. Surely an equivalent level of evidence like those innumerable records submitted and accepted by bird records committees (e.g. in the past) should be considered “evidence of organism” for iNat purposes. I offer the following examples:


iNaturalist has always accepted field sketches if they have diagnostic features. Yes, it’s hard to verify that the sketch was made in the field or that diagnostic features are drawn properly, but this also comes up with photos and other sorts of evidence. And as others have mentioned there is a very long history of using drawings to document biodiversity. The volume of sketches on iNat is quite low, and I don’t think there’s a significant data quality issue even in the worst case scenario here. Of course, if something seems wrong (out of range or habitat, sketch looks wrong or not detailed enough, etc) feel free to bring it up in the post.

people vary in artistic talent, of course, but people vary in photography talent or ability to distinguish species too. To me this connects a little with the ‘photo policing’ issues where people would pester users about blurry or unaesthetic photos. I would say just enjoy the sketches and if there are issues, use comments, disagreeing IDs, or data quality analysis as needed.

You can see a bunch of sketches here and i encourage others to add to this project so for better or for worse they are easy to find.


Honestly I think doing sketches, scanning them, uploading them is a very labor intensive process to fake observations. If someone wanted to fake records, they will just download a photo.

Another good use case, a few weeks ago I went to see a rare bird in Ontario. It was too far out over water to photograph (I can highlight the darker pixels if you want). If I had any artistic ability, I could have sketched it, the bird was well documented, multiple respected provincial birdwatchers, including a few inatters were there with me and know I saw it. But right now it is just a casual record.


I still hold that field sketches require a lot of “benefit of the doubt” to be useful as evidence, as suggested by others above. Sure you can take other’s photos and edit them too, but I don’t think this is a fair comparison.


I go back to my statement -

A sketch of an organism is no more reliable evidence of the organism than a detailed written description of the organism.
Would we accept that written description an organism as evidence?

I see both sides of this argument, but tend to err on the side of conservatism. Sketches and descriptions are not verifiable evidence therefore not evidence.


Some original descriptions of species were based on drawings/paintings of the organism and no voucher specimen. But that would not fly today in a new species description. You’d need a vouchered specimen, in most cases, although I believe some new species have been based on photo(s) alone.

But for iNat purposes and documenting the occurrence of an organism: I agree that a drawing is no better than a detailed written description of the same, and we don’t make a record Research Grade without a photo. Where a drawing might be useful is to illustrate a characteristic that might not be clearly captured in a photo, but only if used in conjunction with photo(s) of the organism. The drawing would be supplemental info (in addition to photo) that might tip the record to Research Grade.


Then why do we make birds that are documented as ID’ed by voice with no attached recording research grade ?


Good question. I don’t.

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I’ve recently come across some drawings of woodlice. These drawings were either somehow impossible (for example 5 pereion tergites instead of 7, or pleon consists of one big segment), simplified or important characteristics weren’t shown. If I identified one of these, I had to guess. So I marked them as “no evidence of live”
It’s probably very difficult to draw an organism realistically. I think the drawings were quite nice and pretty and even with some information about behaviour written on it. That means the person spent quite some time to observe the animal and that’s good. but it’s not enough for evidence imo.


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