While I regularly make suggestions to observers, “for future reference, if you want a better ID on this group, you might include these things”, I wonder if there is a way, or better way, for iNaturalist to encourage people to give identifiers more of the identifying features of the plant species they post observations of, and use iNaturalist less as a forum for posting their pretty flower photos.
I was just studying the distinctions between Ceanothus velutinus, an evergreen shrub, and C. sanguineus, its deciduous cousin. There are 321 observations of C. sanguineus. The vast majority highlighted the flowers of the plants. I was looking to see what C. sanguineus looked like in twig, that is in the winter, with no leaves, or flowers. I then did a search for observations of the plant between December and March, when they would be in twig. There wasn’t a single observation of that species for that period. An excessive focus on the flowers of plant species is standard within iNaturalist plant observations. Along similar lines, I long ago, realized that far too many books on plants were “wildflower” books, and not sufficiently focused on the plant species, their identification, and their stories. It is sad to see so many people so narrowly focused on the reproductive organs of plants, rather on the plant species as a whole.
I believe that people posting observations on iNaturalist are effectively asking us identifiers to offer our identification of them, usually either as a confirmation of their ID, making it “research grade”, as a correction of their ID, potentially to refine their ID from say genus, to species, or as a first ID. As an identifier, whose forte is plants, I am constantly irritated by the overwhelming number of observations of plants that feature the flowers, and little, or nothing, else, that I am effectively being asked to identify, to species, if possible. Then far too many of the flowers only feature the face of the flower, so we can’t even see the other identifying features of the flower, such as the sepals, leafy bracts, the shape of any tube the flower might have, or the length, and character of their stalks, features that might be seen from the side or the back of the flower, or from further away. I came to call these photos, of the face of the flower, with no accompanying views that show more parts of the flower, and plant, “throat shots”, cursing that I have effectively been asked to identify another species from another “throat shot” alone. In general I’ve found that, if I’m lucky, these “throat shots” alone might allow me to get to genus, and most often no better. I came up with the theory that part of the reason people focus so much on the pretty flowers, with their beauty generally best shown from their face, is that flowers were evolved with their pretty colors, and faces, to attract pollinators to come to the faces of those flowers, and humans ended up also being drawn to those pretty flowers, and their faces. It is as if we have been tricked into giving the bulk of our attention to the face of the plant’s flowers, but without the benefits the pollinators get from being drawn to them.
I’ve tried to teach individual observers that distinguishing features of a plant may occur in the look of the whole plant, in the many parts of a plant, as well as the habitat of the plant, so that more views of a plant, featuring the whole, more different parts, and habitat, as well as notes in the “Notes” section, describing habitat, hopefully including the associated species growing with it, and possibly features we can’t see in their photos, like smells, the more likely I, and others, may be able to accurately identify it to species, or to a more specific level than we otherwise might.
Another frequent problem I have is that not enough people understand that, to varying degrees, leaves change their characters, as they go from non-flowering basal leaves, on herbaceous plants, up into flowering areas, so that the most useful, and consistent, leaf views are those of basal leaves (if they are still intact, or, if not, the lowest leaves on a stalk, that are still intact), so basal leaf views are often very important for my being able to identify which species the observation is. Leaves of woody plants also often change character as they go from non-flowering areas, into flowering areas.
That said, there maybe a limit to how many photos an identifier will want to look at, so, after some limited number, more photos aren’t always better. One way to both conserve the number of photos, and often to get more useful views, showing both perspective, and more parts per shot, is 45 degree angles away from straight down, or away from straight at, something, like 45 degrees away from straight into the face of a flower, or 45 degrees away from straight down at a whole plant, showing both front, and side, or top, and side.
I’d like to think iNaturalist could improve their job of helping observers make observations that better focus on including more identifying features.