Are there any plant species described from a photograph?

When reading the literature on the description of species from photographs, it’s clear the practice is highly controversial and polarising, with many papers and rebuttals arguing for both sides. However, all of the papers I can find only ever refer to/give examples of animals described from photos.

I can only assume the issue here is my poor use of search terms, and that there has been at least one case of a plant described from a photo/photo series; is anyone aware of any examples?


I assume you mean the practice of IDing a plant based only on a photo. The view that IDing from a photo is undesirable or unreliable seems to be a widespread misconception in some (but not all) scientific and other circles. As most people who use iNat long enough know, p photos can allow reliable IDs including to species rank for some taxa, or we can determine to what rank an accurate ID is possible (e.g. sometimes only IDing to genus where species ID is impossible using photos alone). It’s also true that the more external sources someone uses, including examining a species in person, can further improve ID reliability or verification. That said, many IDs can be made just from “photos alone.” Also, many iNat users have in-person experience with at least some wildlife, and may consult external written sources like ID keys when IDing. So, it seems misleading when sources describe this form of ID as “only” involving photos. For example, every photo was observed by someone in person who can also provide additional notes on what they witnessed on iNat. It’s also somewhat ironic that academic publications (since some are skeptical of photo-ID) themselves use and refer to photographs, whether of plants or insects.

I do not. I mean plants that were described from photos, whereby the photo/series is the type (i.e., there is no physical type).


I know what you mean now, but it may help to elaborate slightly more in the topic text. I gave a response above which still seems applicable to the question to some extent. To now reply to your reference to a type specimen, how widely is this practiced, and for what reasons? Because I assume the typical standard is to collect/retain types if possible, unless there was some reason preventing collection. It seems reasonable for people to ideally prefer collection in most cases. But if there was a good reason not to, e.g. if the only record was a photo by someone who didn’t realize they photographed a new species at the time, that should also be fairly evaluated as potentially reliable. It may depend in part on the quality of the photo and ID and on how difficult the group is to ID.

The reasons are many and varied across different examples, e.g., lack of collecting licenses at the time, and then inability to relocate the specimens later, extreme environmental conditions that may result in destruction of a specimen (e.g., bringing specimens to the surface from the deep sea), desire not to collect individuals from what may be a exceedingly small population (e.g., mammals or birds).

However, in this thread I’m not interested in the reasons for/against, the scientific merit of the practice, etc.; I merely am interested in whether there have been such cases for plant species, as I can only find animal examples.

Also note I’m not referring to merely the recognition of something as a new species from a photo (which is prevalent across all taxa), I’m referring to the actual formal description of a species from a photo.


The second can follow the first in some cases too though, at least for mentioning a new species (unsure if calling it a type). I’m most familiar with reading brief references to/descriptions of new species in this manner, and for insects instead of plants. Some articles may use the term “presumptive new species.” In the examples which you are familiar with, did they actually use the word type? That might be part of what seems confusing about the concept to some, because type is typically understood to refer to a physical specimen housed in a museum, and I think the understanding is also that it’s best to collect type specimens (if possible, desired, etc.). Retaining a specimen allows additional people to have additional ways to verify it is a new species. My responses above also pertain to the issues the question brings up, in that it can (still) be reliable even when using a photo alone. Although I assume that in so doing, a person must explain their case that it’s a new species (and why they didn’t collect it) persuasively, and maybe have some expectation that at least some others may consider it more like a “presumptive” new species in need of further confirmation/evidence. If you want to discuss those issues further I would, but otherwise will leave it as is to see if anyone else is familiar with specific plant examples.

See ICNafp, articles 8.1, 40.4, and 40.5. With the exception of some wiggle room for microalgae, from 2007 to present you can’t validly publish a new plant name at the rank of species or below without a physical specimen as the type. So, for the last 15 years, the number of plants (excluding microalgae) with new scientific names based on photographs only is precisely 0. :-)

If you go back to something like 1850s or earlier, when people were alarmingly lax about including unambiguous references to types or even providing descriptions that go beyond a half-dozen words, illustrations as types were uncommon but not especially rare. I run into this every now and then when I’m tracking down older plant names. My best guess is that between 0.1 and 1% of new plant names back then had illustrations as types.

Within the last century or so, up to 2007, I think using illustrations or photographs as types was very rare and strongly discouraged. Off the top of my head, I don’t think I’ve run into any examples. ICNafp mentions an orchid example (with the name invalidly published in that case), and I would expect the few recent examples to involve plants like this with very large communities of horticultural enthusiasts.


Unfortunately, I’m not recalling specific examples from the older literature. I know I ran into one only a couple weeks ago, but am not recalling the name. There’s not an easy way to track them down that I know of. I’ve mostly encountered them when trying to sort out anomalies in my taxonomic database, which often means checking old primary literature to verify that so-and-so really did (or did not) publish a name.


Excellent, thanks for this. I was unaware the ICNafp (excepting the microalgae) lacked the wiggle room that the ICZN has re a physical type being mandatory. So I can largely conclude that apart from perhaps a tiny handful of cases as you refer to, there are essentially zero validly published species from photos in the contemporary era.

If the last 15 years is the contemporary era, yup, zero. :-) In the decade or two prior to that, few but not zero.

For what it’s worth, it occurs to me that Curtis’s Botanical Magazine would be one of the likely places to find old examples, since this is one of the more prominent journals of the early 19th century that included large numbers of illustrations.


One example from the 20th century would be Curt Backeberg (1894–1966), a German cactus specialist who was a notorious splitter. He added more than 100 genera to the family Cactaceae and apparently described many species without preserving a physical type. He is said to have described one species after seeing it from his train window.


There is an International Code of Nomenclature for plants, which is basically the legal rules you have to follow in order to name a new species. Last I checked, the basic rules were along the lines of must describe species and publish description in a journal where fellow scientists can read it (and usually the journal requires an illustration, and in recent years they’ve allowed this to be photos rather than line drawings). You also must designate a physical type specimen and leave it in a public collection (museum, university) where other researchers could potentially handle it. In ye olden days, types weren’t required, or got destroyed, and so in some of those cases, I think photos have been allowed to stand in for what was lost. These days, though, if you can’t physically produce the organism, you’re unlikely to get fellow botanists to take you seriously about a new species. For many plants, nearly microscopic features (like hairs) are needed to really be sure about the species ID, and you may not be able to get that from a photo. Plus, these days, DNA data is also used to justify claims of a new species, and you can’t get that from a photo either.


This idiosyncrasy of Backeberg and subsequent updates to the IUCN code produced many headaches for cactus taxonomists. After one particular update all his descriptions based on illustrations became invalid leading to a host of lectotype and neotype designations. A further update to the code reversed the earlier change and now all the original descriptions are once again valid and the designations superfluous! At least it bulked out some CVs :smile:


How does one press a cactus?

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With great difficulty :smile: but it is possible and I’ve done it several times. Generally, first take a few thin transverse sections then slice the remaining stem longitudinally and scoop out the pith and cortex before drying. Since cuttings will remain viable for quite some time after collection it’s best to do this preparation back at the herbarium to prevent fungal growth whilst in the field.


If you have a student or intern handy, you make them do it. :-)

I’m sure it’s a valuable learning experience, or something.


Somewhat paradoxically, I find it a whole lot easier to identify plants that were originally described in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine than those described around the same time in other journals. While the ones in CBM may lack a designated type specimen, they almost always have a lavish color illustration showing many aspects of the living plant.

In contrast, other 19th-century descriptions may have a type specimen that is now hard to locate, probably not available as an image, and hardly ever shows enough detail of flower morphology to make a reliable ID. The description is probably three lines of Latin, with no measurements and little info on the characters that would now be used to key out that species. For example, the three characters most useful to identify the correct Echeandia among the roughly 90 species in the genus are flower color, whether the stamen filaments are smooth or have scales, and whether the anthers are fused (connate) or free. But the original descriptions for many species lack info on at least one of these characters, and sometimes all three!


@aspidoscelis Was I correct to state that type always refers to a physical specimen? In other words, that a distinction should be made between a new species description (a broader definition that in some contexts or the past may not require a specimen) and type (which only is a specimen).

The other thing that occurs to me is as thebeachcomber mentioned, a rare/endangered new species would seem to potentially be the one valid reason not to collect a specimen when describing a species, and a reason audiences may more readily accept. That said, it may also be possible to take a section of the plant, or an even smaller sample if doing genetic barcoding, allowing the plant to stay alive undamaged. Finally just as a general observation, it does continue to seem true regardless of the year or a given organization’s standards that descriptions, drawings, visual observations, or (partial) samples alone could constitute evidence, if the report’s audience feels they provide sufficient evidence or otherwise trust the source. Because publications/authors themselves sometimes state things that aren’t necessarily bound by an organization’s standards. Of course, a physical specimen, and better collecting multiple, helps others further validate the new species (a matter of degrees of evidence). And I’ve also read publications describe “presumptive new species” based on photos or even visual observation alone. To me, the potential of photos alone to indicate new species still has some value and is interesting, with the caveat that collecting remains ideal.

See here: (or ) regarding the case of plant type specimens photographed, where the type was subsequently destroyed (during WW2) and the photograph stands as a neotype. This seems to be a controversial solution and it’s not clear whether a physical neotype should be named in such cases. (BTW… here’s a good glossary of “type” words in botanical nomenclature: ). [Edited to provide a public access link to the citation.]

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For names published prior to 2007, the type could be an image and not a specimen.