Does a historic species list have reference value?

My late father was a professor of Marine Biology at a Malaysian university in the late '90s. He ran several major biodiversity survey expeditions to establish baseline data for much of Borneo.

Whilst sorting through his paperwork I’ve come across some species lists for some obscure locations (E.g. Pulau Layang-Layang).

Obviously, without an image, there’s no way to verify the observation which relegates it “casual obscurity”.

Is it worth entering the 000’s of historic records? Could they be useful in anyway?



I’d be pretty sure that historic species lists for obscure locations have a lot of research value. Whether iNat is a good place to put them depends somewhat on how much energy you have and how you might want to use them.

The iNat staff do emphasize that iNat is about building community and engagement around observing nature. Obviously, your father is no longer here to be part of that community, and without photo or other documentary evidence, these historical observations won’t be listed as formal “Research Grade” data.

But there’s still substantial value that might come from adding observations like these. Firstly, researchers and other iNat users have access to query and download any records not just RG ones. So, someone researching a particular species would very likely include “Casual” observations in their starting data set and then make their own choices from there. One important effect of RG status is that only those observations are candidates for automatic inclusion in external datasets, such as GBIF.

From a different perspective, adding historical records may provide valuable context for your own present day usage, such as to decide where to search for the continued presence of particular organisms. It would allow you to use iNat features such as maps and phenology charts to combine and compare these data sets.

Because there are no images involved, you’re likely not adding a great deal to iNat’s costs, except for some extra indexing. I’d give some thought as to whether you want to add these observations under your existing @tracc account or create a specific account in your father’s name. Separate accounts would perhaps clarify who made the observation, but you would be adding complexity by having an additional account to monitor.

Also, for taxa whose location are automatically obscured due to conservation issues you would likely find that observations from a second account would have auto-obscured locations. This would make mapping difficult, although you could use a project structure to get around it. If you go with keeping the same account, I’d recommend you add something on your bio to the effect of “Observations prior to 199x were made by … and have been transcribed from species lists compiled for biodiversity surveys.”

Lastly, given that you’re looking at thousands of records, maybe start with a limited subset (one survey?) and see what comes of it.


To answer the title question, there is no doubt at all that historical species lists have massive value to researchers.

Given enough funding, scientists can travel wherever they want plotting geographical distributions, but one thing none of them can do is go back in time. And arguably understanding the change of species distributions over time is even more important than knowing their present day extent, especially when studying topics like extinction and climate change. Even casual records unsupported by proof are valuable, and could be useful in corroborating other independent casual records from a similar time and place. Researchers are, for instance, interested in when an invasive species was first recorded in a particular place; this can only be known from such historical records.

Your implicit question of course is whether iNat is the place to put this data, and the answer to that is less obvious. Casual records are certainly treated with less importance by the algorithms and thus will come to the attention of fewer researchers. There can be no harm in adding the records, but whether it is worth your effort rather depends how much of your time it would take. If you can get the data into a spreadsheet relatively easily then there are ways you can upload in bulk.

In summary, though, I would say please do make the data publicly available, even if ultimately you decide iNat isn’t a practical way to do that.


they have a lot of value. iNat isn’t well set up for historic species lists especially of a larger area (without specific location data) but you can add the list to a ‘place’ (not sure you can add any metadata though) or if you have decent location data and dates (or close) you can add the observations as casual observations without media. Either of those could be valuable.


Thank you everyone.

I know that the data has been used (and published) but mostly as (non-digital) conference proceedings and internal government reports. More pertinently, it was presented in summary form (38 species of butterflyfish) rather than as a checklist so the species specific data may only exist on this single bundle of paper.

Since I can be location specific and date to “summer '96” and similar so I’ll try with one data set and see how that looks.


I tried to find a feature request to allow observations to have date ranges (like we allow location+ accuracy range), but wasn’t successful. If you think such a thing would be helpful, you can make a Feature Request post. (I’d vote for it…)


I love historical observations and species lists.

  1. I recently spoke to an iNat member who was visiting this country from overseas and had made an observation of a plant he wasn’t able to ID completely, and I, a local, had never seen before. I googled and found that the Auckland Botanical Society Journals, with reprts and species lists from their regular field trips, are publicly available online. We found special mention in 1992 of the plant in question, with reference to a species list from 1991. Fabulous!

  2. For a different local location, an ecological restoration site, I uploaded some photo observations - mostly of plants, many without specialist confirmation of ID- from 1997-99, with varying degrees of certainty as to location (within a 2km x 100m area) and date (always within a year, most within a few weeks).

Fur unknown dates greater than a month, I used a date of 1st Jan, and an arbitrary place in the centre of the 2km site, and wrote in the description “Date approximate…” (eg “in this month”)

I haven’t had any comments on them from formal researchers, but for my own assessments they are tremendously useful, appearing in searches and projects ordered by Date Observed. If I had more time I would upload thousands more, and if I ever have queries I would do so as needed, time permitting.

(Since your subjects are presumably mobile, the location indicated on the sheet is presumably sufficient?)


Historical species lists are very valuable! iNaturalist probably isn’t the best place for them. Contact a museum, herbarium, or major university library for advice about where to send them. They will be a great resource!


Very cool @tracc! I suppose you can upload them to iNat, but they won’t really be surfaced unless one is searching for casual grade observations. I agree with @sedgequeen that other places might be a better fit for this data.

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Wow–these data would be so valuable. At the organization I work for, we collect these historical datasets via our Phoenix Project and published them (with a DOI) on Dryad, KNB, or sometimes DataBasin (when we have extensive maps to publish with the dataset). I’d encourage you to upload your data to Dryad, for a couple of reasons in your case. All three of these websites will permanently archive your father’s data and allow other researchers to easily find them by searching for specific taxonomic groups, geographic areas or sampling years. Here’s one of my datasets up there, for example. Researchers, like myself, frequently peruse these websites to find historical datasets so that we can duplicate those sampling efforts to see how things have changed (especially with respect to changes in global climate patterns). The data will be useful, period, but they’ll be most useful when you some information about the sampling effort (how, when, etc.). Dryad has some great tutorials on how to contribute your data, and you’re welcome to reach out to me with specific questions about the process. Thank you for considering giving these data a second life.


For climate change it is usefull and i thought Borneo has changed a lot in the worse sense last 20 years (Palm oil) so for Nature Conversation it might be usefull as well.

I still have some data from Bolivia (pre2004) i have to add as something was not included with an import. IS that usefull for Phoenix, Dryad and DataBasin as wel ?


I would put them on iNat, even if it is in your journal. I have come across a few examples of moths that were not found in a specific area, but a range specification helped with the identification. If someone wants to identify X, your father’s data may help with the range. Photo’s be damned - if he knew enough to ID certain species or genera, then that’s good enough for me!!


Hi Jason, Thank you for the practical suggestion of where might be a better digital archive than iNat. I will see if I can upload it to Dryad in a sensible format. Some are species lists, but some are the original raw survey sheets with helpful notations like “clownfish - the real one”.

Although I was discussing the issue of data without images with my mom and she said “well there are ALL those boxes of slides in the roof…” So I might come back to iNat with more details. once I’ve looked at those.

Thanks again.


Of course, you don’t just have to choose one destination for this data. Maybe putting it on Dryad would be an easy way to start. And then you could add specific observations to iNat, perhaps related to a particular area that you have a current project in.

Those historical slides seem like a great resource if they could be (even approximately) correlated with dates and locations!


The feedback here is really heartening to me. I have pictures and area data for hundreds of mushroom species that I have collected and drawn for the past 40 years. I was hesitant to add old sightings, even having pictures, partly because it is so difficult to get identifications of mushrooms at any time to bring them up to Research Grade. However as I spend hours going back through the pictures I find that I can identify some of them now that I couldn’t before, and as you say it may be interesting to note that a species appeared at a particular time, especially since fungi are so unpredictable in their fruiting and may fruit only one time ever and appear for only a couple of days. As more and more mushroom enthusiasts use iNat I hope that it all can be more useful. Any more feedback here is welcome.


While I enjoy fungi and make occasional obs when the opportunity arises, I don’t (yet) often study their patterns other than occasionally from my own obs. However, if someone were to upload 40 yr old obs of fungi - or anything else - in my little geographic patch, my Projects would collect them and alert me, I would be ecstatic, and I would not only learn a name or two but start looking out for them.


Well it might be easy to get a researchgate ( account in your fathers name, and publish pdfs of the species lists and manuscripts there. … As for the slides, iNat is certainly the best place to post them.


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