Avoid adding new taxa with no observations?

I was under the impression that taxa for which there is no pressing need should not be added, to avoid cluttering the database with unused taxon entries. However, in going through the full list of deviations, I see quite a lot of taxon entries (mostly species, mostly of plants) newly added based upon very recent (past-year or so) publications of new names. The jumping-off page with the most convenient link to all deviations definitely suggests avoiding adding things until they’ve trickled into POWO – or at the very least are discussed in some sort of reflective secondary source.
Is there some further way to signal to people to not add “idle” taxon entries from the primary literature, even for shiny new species in charismatic clades? Or is this another case where we can only shrug and say “the rules are there, people should read them”? While we can see that it’s recommended to not add brand-new species, I don’t know if there’s explicit guidance to not add unobserved species.


I’ve fulfilled multiple requests from people to add all species listed in POWO for a genus, and sometimes those were genuses that had very few observations. I don’t know how often the other ones were observed, if at all, but people do request that specifically sometimes.


Yes – I’ve also fulfilled requests from non-curator users to add taxa. I would maybe add to my original question: should requests for taxa for which there is no pressing need be denied? Just because a name exists doesn’t mean it has a genuine current use case on iNaturalist. But because there doesn’t seem to be guidance to that effect, not everyone will be aware that it’s not actually useful to get everything in the system; iNaturalist surely isn’t meant as a global checklist of every taxon.


I understand. I just wanted to explain a possible situation where a lot of unused taxa would be added. If it’s on POWO, I will fill in any of the absent species from there when requested.


I work mostly with ants, where there is a taxonomic authority followed by iNat (just like POWO for plants) in this case the authority is AntCat. Things that are not in AntCat are not, and should not be, added, unless there is a good reason to deviate for that specific species, which I’ve only seen once, for a species that already had obs on iNat. Species that are in AntCat will be added even without any obs, since you never know when someone will observe it who doesn’t know how to flag a taxon, leaving an iNat first species stuck at genus level forever. I’ve seen these stuck at genus, sometimes even RG at genus, for a long time until a curator happens to stumble upon it and add the species.

I think the curator guide is clear that if there is a taxonomic authority listed for that taxon, it should not be added based on primary literature without extenuating circumstances. However, a taxon listed in the authority can and should be added even if there are currently no obs of it, in fact, it is likely impossible to know if there are obs of a taxon not yet added to iNat stuck at genus level somewhere


I would disagree with “should”, at least with what I work with:

I have done this (rarely), even when the names are in the framework reference. This is because the group I work with (mollusks) is relatively unstable taxonomically, and the more names there are the more likely I’ll have to do taxon changes down the line. Most of the changes I do are for names without observations, so if there is a request for a lot of names for no observations I’ll probably say no, unless it is a group that has been recently overhauled. Almost all flags I see are for observations needing names, so this isn’t usually an issue. But the thousands of taxon changes I’ve done for names with no observations could’ve been avoided if people had never added them in the first place…

I don’t mind having names without observations in terms of clutter, but if deviations are needed I’ll just inactivate them. There are a few curators I’ve come across who just add lots of names without checking our reference, which makes a lot of unnecessary work for me.

Some people don’t seem to understand this, even when I explain it several times.


I think this is one of these things where standards have shifted around a bit. Features like “Complete taxa” and the ability to lock certain taxa suggest that having all taxa in a clade in our taxonomy is at least sometimes desirable. That said, I think the locking feature is something of a legacy from a time when import of external taxa was more common and taxon frameworks didn’t exist.

I find the friction described by insectobserver123 to be a pretty compelling case for wanting to preload taxa before they are requested for an observation. The observers with local knowledge and expertise aren’t always iNat power users; they may leave a placeholder and never identify to species once the taxonomy is updated, the likelihood of that presumably increasing with the length of time it takes a curator to find and add the species. Against that is the problem thomaseverest mentions, which is that dumping names into a taxonomically unstable group creates a lot of extra curatorial work. I think some consideration should also be given to the size of the group and the likelihood that observations will be identifiable to species. i.e., the current list of complete taxa is all animal taxa that are, for the most part, identifiable by macromorphology. If someone wants to upload a bunch of thrips or protists with extensive microscope detail, I would expect them to be savvy enough to work through flagging.

Vascular plants tend to meet the criterion of “could be identified with some uploaded photos if the observer knows what to look for”, so I feel comfortable adding “unused” species where I think the taxonomy is likely to be stable. I think the note frankly overstates the degree to which novelties get synonymized, at least in the area I’m familiar with (ferns–maybe angiosperms are different).


I come down on the side (still) that I don’t think species “should” be added just because they exist in a taxonomic framework – very much agreeing with Thomas. My original point is that unused taxon entries represent essentially database dust bunnies – if there is no current need, such as for observations “waiting to be identified” to a given taxonomic rank, the extra taxon entries aren’t hugely harmful but are wholly unnecessary. Once again, iNaturalist isn’t a taxonomic source – and no one should be basing their IDs solely on what names/taxa ar already available and identified on this platform. (I’m not saying that this isn’t done in practice, just that it isn’t in fact a good practice.)

At least personally, if not also in my capacity as a curator, I believe that this is what the flagging system is for – to request taxa. Users who aren’t aware that that’s the practice should be pointed to read the guidelines, which do explicitly state:

If a species or other taxon is missing from the iNaturalist database[… and if the “Search external name providers” feature doesn’t help to import it…] navigate to the taxon page where the name should appear, such as the genus of the missing species, and click “Curation,” then “Flag for curation” on the right side of the page. Leave a short message explaining what needs to be done as well as some information establishing the legitimacy of the name, like links to websites or books that use it.

Clearly a lot of users aren’t reading the guidelines in one way or another (either don’t know about these instructions at all, or sometimes flag for a taxon to be added but provide zero supporting information), as Chris points out as a typical non-power-user gap. I nevertheless think that that suggests that the part of the guidelines about adding species should be made clearer to new users – not that every taxon ever listed in a taxonomic framework reference database should be therefore added to iNaturalist. Perhaps this could come in the form of a pop-up (or appended note if there already is one – I don’t know) pointing to the instructions if a user identifies their observation with a placeholder rather than an existing taxon.

The “clutter” problem is much bigger in bigger groups, of course. Ants (to use the first above example) are diverse enough that I personally think the same thing should apply there, but in a broader context, Formicidae is a single family. For something like seed plants (where POWO is the main taxonomic reference) there are an enormous number of species not observed, and a good chunk perhaps not even likely to be observed, on iNaturalist. This was part of my original point as well: I see a lot of new deviations added for brand-new, never-secondarily-reviewed orchid and bromeliad species… but most of even these are discoveries or splits of very obscure species from under-botanised regions. More firmly applying a criterion of usage (are there observations for these to be used as IDs for?) would eliminate most of these “empty entries” for taxa.

The problem is frankly worst in fungi, as @cooperj can attest. Most of the huge reams of fungal names (or, at least putative, taxa) don’t rise to the level that Chris mentions of “could be identified with some uploaded photos” at the usual unaided-eye scale – and to make matters worse, there is no current taxonomic framework across fungi on iNaturalist, making it (de facto) totally a discretionary matter for curators and a setting where names may be added for no specific purpose and potentially without being accepted by any contemporary source.


Sometimes, an observer suggests a species which is not yet available in the iNat database (and thus the species is mentioned as a “placeholder” or in the notes). In such cases, I search for an authoritative source (POWO), flag the species for curation (I am not a curator), mentioning both the observation and the link to POWO.
But sometimes it turns out that the suggestion of the observer was wrong, and thus the newly added taxon gets its first and only observation removed…


Does “cluttering” the database actually hurt something? The data volume of it is laughable compared to the actual images and if it’s implemented in at least a slightly sane manner, it should not bother it in performance. So the problem is that it is more work for the curators to maintain it, because the “empty” taxa add to the workload of what should be kept up to date, right? That is surely a valid concern.

But I’d like to say that I personally find it really nice to have 0-observation taxa on iNat. I am not an expert on … anything, looking up things in an endless of information sources is a complex task. On iNat, if I am curious about “what exists”, I can simply click through the taxonomic tree and have a look.


As to how much space the taxon entries themselves really take up, you would have to ask someone like @loarie or @kueda who actually tune the engine, figuratively speaking. But yes, as Thomas also said, there is the problem of the serious load on curators that maintaining taxonomy for completely empty taxon entries constitutes – all a lot of work for very little or no reward to anyone.

While it might be “nice” to browse all the taxa on iNaturalist: know that this platform is not meant as a global checklist, and there are reams and reams of missing names/taxa in the iNat backbone taxonomy. There is no concrete use for all these observation-less names that have to be maintained, that would really be overruled by aesthetic concerns. I would invite you to join me in perusing a centralised, easily browsed version of the world taxonomic tree over at Catalogue of Life. In fact, CoL in contrast is actually meant as a sort of global checklist. It doesn’t have the pretty pictures… but given that the current thread here is about unused, observation-less taxon entries, neither does iNaturalist for these swaths of the tree of life.


As an observer, asking you to add a missing sp for an obs (not mine) would it help if we were asked to link to the active obs, when flagging.
It would help me, because I have to hunt back to find that obs, once I am told - sp added.
Much appreciated that curators respond so promptly - and I don’t have to hunt back far. A day at most ?

There have been a couple of occasions where there has been a discussion about which taxonomic groupings we should follow (i.e. is this one genus or three), when there are disagreements out there and no authority. In that case once a consensus has been reached I have tried to add every taxon (complete with synonyms) because otherwise I know people will add them later according to a different system and recreate the chaos we were trying to resolve. So sometimes it can be a way of future proofing.


Yes, absolutely – I think it would be great if everyone did this. Conversely, if it turned out that the taxon weren’t at least thought to be needed for any observation, then it would be worth asking why the taxon should be added…

What do you mean by “authority”? It doesn’t sound like you’re talking about the kind of tertiary aggregator source used as a “taxonomic framework reference” on iNaturalist – is this example a primary-literature source? Without more specific details I can’t be really certain, but I wonder if that “authority” will last – if it’s a publication produced at a certain point in time, then it will eventually go out of date and be replaced. For all their enormous flaws, iNaturalist benefits greatly from continually updated online sources such as POWO or WoRMS. A specific example for me would be a major source I’ve referred to, Braun & Cook’s 2012 Taxonomic Manual of the Erysiphales – while a huge help for adding new species that are barely discussed elsewhere, its taxonomy is steadily going out of date, such that some of the taxa you could potentially add from it are now themselves considered synonyms. Most strikingly in that example, there is no “Erysiphales” itself anymore, being lumped with the Helotiales in the classification used by iNaturalist. If any of the examples you’re picturing are anything like this, then I would strongly advise against adding “every taxon just because”.

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For what it’s worth, here’s @loarie’s instructions for how to respond to flags asking for new taxa to be added: https://help.inaturalist.org/en/support/solutions/articles/151000014391-section-a-how-to-respond-to-a-flag-requesting-to-add-a-new-taxon

Step 1 says:

Generally, we try to add taxa as they are observed or individually requested to avoid having the complexity of maintaining empty branches. If a flag is requesting many species at once, comment and clarify whether there are already observations of all those species.


Thanks very much Tony for digging up that response – guess I should’ve done more looking in the forum!
It seems that this strongly supports not adding every taxon, contra some of the above. While it doesn’t answer whether the empty branches are a database load unto themselves, it seems like there’s more or less a consensus that having to maintain those branches taxonomically for the benefit of no observations is not worthwhile. (This is especially true as taxonomic frameworks referenced by iNaturalist are not themselves static; taxa added to the system are not going to be fixed forever.)

Basically yes, there is nothing that could serve as a ‘taxonomic framework reference’. The result is that one person comes along and says ‘Oh, I’ve seen Genus speciesus’ and adds it, the next person says ‘Oh, I’ve seen Henus speciesus’ and adds it, then the next person says ‘Oh I’ve seen Ienus speciesus’, and some else adds ‘Jenus speciesus’, and before you know it the same species is being recorded in four different genera and the same thing happens with numerous species because everyone’s using a different taxonomy. Sometimes the only way to sort it out with stability is to get the interested parties together to debate which taxonomy will work best for everyone on iNat and implement it quite thoroughly. Not often, but sometimes. Then at least if science comes to a different consensus one day, you can more easily change the taxonomy from a state of order rather than one of chaos.


It sounds to me like there are too many untrained curators, if all of these are actually being added (not just requested) without summary review of the taxonomy… but that’s probably for a separate topic.
I would still opine that the best thing to do is – per site staff, as above – add taxa only as they are actually observed, and then compare any subsequent requested taxa against the taxonomy that already exists on iNaturalist. I hope that that’s not seriously too much to ask of a curator; I don’t know if it’s really more work (on net) than maintaining the classification of all those empty branches, though without yet studying it closely it’s my guess that it’s not.

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Your confusion seems to arise from a mistaken belief that only curators can add species… Anyone can add a species using the ‘Search external name providers’ tool.

Curators can organise the taxonomy in such a way that users are less likely to add species in the wrong place in taxa for which it is a demonstrated risk. Sometimes I think that is worthwhile if the alternative is perpetual vigilence and frequent correction.

Generally, I agree though. There is little use in adding species for which there is no demand in an ad hoc manner, and that is clearly the spirit of the guidance. I am not advocating a different general rule, just that there are sometimes reasonable exceptions.


I’m fully aware that names can be added using that tool, specifically from the 2012 edition of Catalogue of Life, so it is somewhat a concern. I have myself accidentally added and then had to deal with outdated names, mostly in Lepidoptera (search flagged content created by me for a few examples). However, I’ve encountered far more people who knew how to flag taxa (but not use the CoL name search tool) than those that defaulted to using the name search tool at all — maybe another point where users don’t read the help pages, though at this point it may well be worse to search the 2012 CoL listings (staff have suggested that that tool may be removed in the future).

I think your example makes sense, but there’s probably not very much of the tree of life for which this is the case.

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