At what point do the microbes I bring home to photograph become "Captive/Cultivated"?

I often collect water and soil samples and bring them back home to be examined and photographed under my microscope. When I find protists in the sample I’ll set the observation’s time and location data to wherever/whenever it was sampled.

Since I may not be able to observe every protist in the sample right away (they may be encysted, low in number, hidden among debris, etc), it often helps to maintain the sample in a glass vessel and view it repeatedly over a span of time.

Is there a certain time at which the sample is no longer “wild”? If the sample is simply a microcosm of the collection site then any protists present should have also been present in at the time and location of collection. But their phenology could be quite different as they’re now out of sync with the changing conditions at the original site of collection. Would it be best if I made a note in the observation to say when I took the photo, and that the phenology of the organism might be different due to it being stored indoors?

I feel like the wild/captive binary was not created with creatures that can’t be directly observed in the field in mind.


Personally, in a case like that I’d leave the status as “wild”, unless you were maintaining a permanent intentionally captive population and drawing exclusively from that.

I’d add a note that they’re wild collected samples that were brought back to a “lab” to view and record.


You raise some excellent questions/points. I agree that applying the current rules for wild/cultivated to your situation isn’t really possible - there’s just no way to know if those specific individuals were present or in the same life stage at the time of collection, even if your observation is made a couple of days later.

I think that there’s probably some point at which it would become cultivated - several weeks? If you were to change out water, add food, etc? But I think your suggestion that you should just describe your process in the observation’s description so that user’s can evaluate for themselves is a good one.

On a side note, since observations of protists and other microscopic life like this are comparatively rare on iNat, it’s more likely that observations would be treated individually by someone using the data, making the issue of less concern. I think it’s great that you’re observing these little critters that don’t get much love otherwise and adding them to iNat - really broadens the type of lifeforms on the site!


Oof badoof, this is tough. My first inclination was to say that as long as the location listed is the collection location, marking it as “wild” would be appropriate. However, as you say, phenology could change in a way that isn’t natural. Depending on seasonality at the collection site, it’s possible that the organism you’re posting wouldn’t exist in that form in the wild at that time. As time progresses, the chances of this being the case increases. This actually makes me re-think my stance on how to post research-grade observations of organisms being held in a wildlife rehabilitation facility.

So, my opinion on the matter would be that any sample held for a “significant” (another grey area) length of time in a captive setting should be marked as “captive.” The exception would be for samples held for an “insignificant” length of time; samples that are photographed shortly after collection, such that the photographs represent the conditions of a sampling from the wild.


This is probably one of those edge cases. I think as long as whatever you are observing is still in the original water or soil sample, it could count as wild. However, if you were to add some nutrients to keep things alive or change phenology, that might start to be viewed as captive/cultivated.


You make a great point, @cthawley , I didn’t consider that the observations of microbes are more likely to be treated case-by-case. That makes me feel like there’s less risk of messing things up by having my observations not match the wild phenology. I’ll just be clear in the observation notes.

I do have some samples where I’ve added a boiled grain or two to keep the nutrient cycle going; I haven’t uploaded any of the photos from these though. I think some protist species can show morphological variation based on how / what they’re eating so I agree these would count as cultivated.

A follow up question - would the microbes in my compost be considered wild or captive? I’ve heard that if say a flower volunteers itself in your garden, it’s still considered wild because you didn’t intend for it to be there, even though you provided conditions that allow it to grow. Would compost follow the same logic? With my compost pile I’m not consciously inoculating it with microbes, but I do fully intend on them being there because I’m creating conditions to attract them. And I’m continuously adding nutrition for them in the form of my food waste. And is there a difference between indoor and outdoor compost? I have both a worm bin and an outdoor bin that I collect microbe samples from sometimes (I haven’t uploaded any observations of them though).


I’d say 2 days at maximum, there will be new specimens and new life stages by the time you look at it if you don’t do it right away.

Great that you’re doing this - no doubt you will understand how quickly these things develop better than I, but I agree that explaining your process puts you on fairly safe ground.

I think the compost thing is simpler - If you didn’t deliberately put the organism itself where it is, it is wild. It’s no different to photographing a bird at your bird feeder.


Some microbes may have to be cultured on plates and run through tests or even DNA sequencing to ID. I think I would treat those like e.g. herbarium specimens or caterpillars raised for ID: Take a picture of what it looks like on site in the compost pile and post that with the date of collection, then maybe follow up with a picture of what the microbe looks like in culture (if needed for ID) and link them together e.g. with the “similar observation” field. Difficult to do if the microbe in question is not really macroscopically visible in the pile (e.g. bacteria or fungal hyphae) when you collect. Not sure how something like bacterial cultures should be handled or if iNat is even the right place for that sort of observation.

Lots of people fully intend on birds being near their houses, because they put out bird feeders. Observations of those birds often make it to Research Grade. I think your compost pile microbes should count as wild. (And now I want to go poke through my compost piles and bins, once they melt.)


When someone decides to vote it as such. Just like every other taxon.