Common unidentifiable species: chipmunks, and bats oh my!

One issue I seem to encounter are observations identified to species of common species groups within which individual species are difficult or impossible to identify at the species level without detailed examination of morphological features beyond what is available in a photograph or visual observation. Perhaps the most common example I see of this in Montana are chipmunk observations where the individual could be one of three species and ID would require detailed habitat information and in-hand examination and perhaps examination of a cleaned skeleton. I try to elevate these to genus and provide a blurb about ID, but given that these species are highly visible and commonly observed, this can be a lot of work. Myotis bats are another group where overconfidence in species identity seems to be a frequent occurrence.

Not sure how best to handle this besides the brute force method. Being able to flag species groups within a geographic area that are unidentifiable or an automated system to give the observer a heads up that they may be over confident would be helpful. Similarly, giving the observer a heads-up that additional information such as habitat may help identify the species could help ameliorate the this problem for some species. I’m guessing that given the nuances of identification that a system to identify and flag these groups would be difficult to implement. I’m curious if anyone has a solution or thoughts on this?


Speaking from the amateur side, I think this is a great idea. If I labelled one of my chipmunk observations to species, I would love some kind of interactive feature that told me it’s hard to identify to species in my area and ask if my photos had the features necessary, at which time I could decide whether to go forward on the species or stick to genus. That would be a great learning experience!


i think there have been various other discussions of how this might be handled. here’s another recently created discussion where the original person talks about adding a pre-ID warning that there are commonly confused species, and where i suggest that a taxon ID checklist might be both a way to educate and lay the groundwork for a systematic process for a achieving a higher level of identification beyond the current community consensus:


Agree with the general sentiment, but care needs to be taken since it is not always correct to assume that the identifier knows more than the observer. In some cases, a blurry photo may have been taken that is outwardly unidentifiable but the observer is still certain of the identification from field examination. Bumping species-level identifications down to genus without comment or interaction with the observer beforehand seems like the wrong approach unless the identification can be proven to be incorrect. If it can neither be proven incorrect nor correct, communication is essential.


i agree. i have encountered people too eager to do that. If it’s a fled user who no longer uses the site, it’s one thing, but if they are still an active user, and you think they might just have not mentioned something, please do ask! i get irritated when people bump my stuff down without asking, because i’m an active user to say the least! If you’re right and there’s a cryptic/difficult species I didn’t consider, i’ll usually lower it myself


Thanks, didn’t see that one. Seems like language stating that certain groups are indistinguishable based on observable field characteristics would be a good place to start.

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@ psyllidhipster and charlie

For casual observations this seems ok. It seems like one of the core features of iNat is the ability of others to assess the validity of your observation, and it is incumbent upon the observer to provide enough information to justify how they came to their species ID.

For my question, I was mainly thinking about species that require a cleaned skeleton to be 100% certain of the identification or require a very detailed examination of morphology, or for which identification is not possible from photos or other media.

As an example for small mammals in Montana I would flag:

  • All Sorex shrews state-wide
  • All Myotis bats state-wide
  • All Chipmunks in Western and Central regions of the state
  • Jumping Mice in the Southeast Region
  • Peromyscus mice in deciduous forest along rivers in eastern MT

in the case of indistinguishable species… in the case of plants we have had a lot of luck when it works (when they are monophylletic) with adding plant groups and lumping up to those. Like, if you have two nearly identical sedges, you can lump up to a small group of 8 sedges, rather than to Carex which means it could be one of hundreds of species, which kind of destroys the value of the observation for a lot of things. I don’t know much about the taxonomy but that may be an option for these. I do still think if it’s an active user you should leave a note why you do it if you knock it to genus or higher, even if you are confident the other person couldn’t get a species level ID. But i don’t think there’s a hard rule requiring it.


This is a challenge that exists across the entire site for many species groups. The big issue is how do you define circumstances where the species ID shouldn’t be given? There are circumstances where the correct ID is ensured, but that evidence might not show in the 1 photo posted to iNat. There are usually regions where only 1 species occurs (habitat type etc.). I think if we are not careful any suggestions may cause more harm than good. You have to consider a lot of different situations.


@silversea_starsong Well said!

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And just as we should be respectful of active observers (asking first or leaving a comment trail), we should only be bumping or challenging IDs if we ourselves are going to be around for the discussion! I have had bumps or strange IDs put and then they don’t respond to my “Why?”'s


make sure to send an @ if you have a question though because some people unsubscribe after IDing. When you do lots of ID you get tons of notifications.


Another problematic group are for example cultivated plants like roses and Bougainvilleas. Some people tend to ID them to species which is often impossible. A warning would be something very good.


Agreed. Range can be useful, but for many species we have not yet established the entire range and some animals disperse or end up in odd places. However, I think that providing a warning and resources justifying the warning could only improve the quality of species identification in the vast majority of cases

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And from the other side, sounds like it would be helpful to talk about how I arrived at my ID when I post an observation. I just put basic data (habitat, size, etc.) in the description box - thought people wouldn’t want to read any more.

But I can see where explaining, for example, why I ID’d my rabbits to genus instead of species (can’t rule out the less common New England cottontail, even though it’s almost certainly the eastern cottontail), would improve ID responses.

I’m just glad I don’t have to figure out how to encourage people to do that without cluttering up the observation page!

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If you are an active user who understands that you are posting an observation of a potentially difficult to identify species and the photo does not contain sufficient information for the ID to be made, I don’t think it is at all unreasonable to expect some additional information in the description or comments.

As an active identifier, it’s quite the burden to request for me to add an @ comment and try to carry out a dialogue in every one of these instances, especially when >90% of them are cases where the user will never respond or is unaware of the identification issues. I try to at least do that when I recognize an active or knowledgeable user before downgrading an ID to genus or species.

A lot of the situations I come across are observations that are incorrectly at Research Grade when they cannot be identified to species (similar to @dbachen’s examples). If I don’t bump them down to genus and instead just leave a comment, there is no easy or efficient way to follow up later on all of those observations if the observer does not respond. The result is that a lot of bad data stays in the database.

As I see it, it’s not a big deal if I downgrade something to genus and later reverse that - I’m an active user and will respond if the observer initiates dialog and provides sufficient additional information to confirm the species-level ID.


as a person who is very much both active as an identifier and an observer, i’m gonna get seriously annoyed if you bump stuff back up to genus without asking about it first. Maybe that’s wrong, but it’s definitely what is going to happen and would make me more likely to turn off community ID for that observation rather than engage further.

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As others have mentioned, I think a pre-post warning would be a great idea. If I upload a picture and call it ‘Bat A’, but it is known that Bat A shares range with and is almost visually indistinguishable from ‘Bat B’ a pop up with this information and the option to ‘Choose Bat A, I know what I’m talking about’ (maybe put less bluntly) or ‘choose genus’ could cut down on people choosing a species level based on the AI, or a potentially limited/outdated ID book. I often flick though ID books to identify what i find, but I know that the ID book doesn’t have everything in my area so i am basically pattern matching against an incomplete set.

Of course, I think these notices would need to be set up by knowledgeable curators on a case-by-case basis.

Another point I want to mention is the infamous pull of research grade. Perhaps for some taxa where is is unreasonable to expect a species-level ID from just photographs, Genus level identifications could be considered research grade.


Bumping observations back to genus when the photos don’t support the observation but don’t contradict it doesn’t make sense with plants. The observer may know additional information so they can be treated like an observation without a photo.

With insects this is necessary though, otherwise the data quickly degenerates into garbage. I am always bumping black Aphis or Uroleucon to genus because there are a half dozen species consistent with the photos. If I don’t do this than there will be hundreds of incorrect observations which someone will eventually agree with. Yes, there is always a chance someone pulled out a microscope and keyed it out, but I have yet to find a case of this.

This has become worse since the vision algorithm only knows a few dozen of the thousands of aphids. Any small green bug immediately becomes a potato aphid. Hopefully once a few dozen more are known people will face a block of identical looking suggestions and realize how hard this is.


@glmory, @charlie: What would you do in this situation: A population of a difficult to identify plant has been properly documented (with detailed imagery) in the past and reached Research Grade with appropriate concurrence by other expertise. Then a continuing (e.g. floristic) survey adds additional images of individuals in the same exact local population on subsequent dates but offers only moderate quality (i.e. non-diagnostic) images. Based on all circumstances and local knowledge, the additional observations are assuredly the same species (and sometimes even the same individual) but they cannot be idenfitied with certainty from the subsequent imagery. Should an observer feel obligated to obtain diagnostic (e.g. dissected) imagery for every observation of that species/population? Should an identifier downgrade every subsequent observation because of the lack of definitive detail in each one? or should the identifier take previous documentation into account and concur to (properly) get the subsequent observations to Research Grade?

This can occasionally happen when a 3rd party reviewer in good faith downgrades a single observation, not realizing that it may represent continuing documentation of a single population/individual.