Effective ways to get ID help

Say you have an observation of a moss, but you don’t know any more than that it is a moss. Now, you can look at the leaderboard, “Top identifiers of mosses”; but all that tells you is who has made the most identifications to that level. If you’re trying to get it to species, it is no use pinging someone who has an impressive track record of saying, “Yep, it’s a moss.” If you had an idea as to the genus or species, you could look at those leaderboards, but you don’t.

So, how would you find help in a case like this?


Tag the observer in that general geographic location (state/country/etc) who has observed the most research grade species (of mosses).


post a good collection of good moss observations, and a moss expert will eventually stumble upon at least a few in the collection. then you can ask that person for help on specific observations that you need help with.

i think the relationship between an observer and identifier needs to be considered sometimes. we know what an observer gets if a good identifier makes an identification. but what does the identifier get for the effort?


When it comes to observation IDs patience is the key thing. Especially if you’re in a part of the world with few observers, or working with taxa that don’t have a lot of observers.

It’s not at all uncommon for it to take years before you get an ID on something. I have some observations that are nearly a decade old that still don’t have IDs other than mine.

Don’t be in a hurry. The purpose of iNat is mainly to get people engaged with nature, not to be overly focused on IDs and getting to research grade (although the latter is nice).

If I really want a faster ID, or something to get me in the ballpark I’ll often post onto one of the many Facebook ID groups (there are ones for mosses, liverworts, birds, insects, spiders, fish, etc, etc). Those often come back with an ID suggestion pretty quickly. If it seems like it’s an appropriate ID I’ll often then add that ID to my observation on iNat. That, in turn, will often mean that someone who is looking for observation of that genus or family will be more likely to see it and offer their own ID.

The main thing though, is patience. Don’t be in a hurry to get all of your observations ID’d.


It is best to invest some time in learning about the organisms that you are trying to identify. You can use the iNaturalist features like “Visually similar” and narrow down your list of possible IDs with location and taxonomic information. You can also “google lens” and find additional clues or literature and include that in the notes. Rather than just @someone for ID, you may consider sending a direct message to the person with the additional information of what you think it is. Once you establish this kind of personal interaction with the person they may be able to guide you better or provide resources you can learn to ID on your own. For species-level ID, you have to be sure that the Identifier has a certain level of expertise and not casually “aggreing” to what you think.


I work thru Unknowns for Cape Peninsula, Western Cape, and the Rest of Africa. Often my best attempted ID is … it’s a moss. But moss identifiers need me to say - here you go - some moss for you. I can also help to tease apart that ‘moss’ is actually lichen. I follow my notifications and slowly learn a little bit more.

With patience you get to follow some fascinating discussions. And to learn who to ask. Who will respond.


If the Computer Vision Model makes some promising-looking genus/species suggestions, you could always tag some leaderboard identifiers of those. Even if yours turns out not to be the computer-suggested species, the members with the knowledge to identify that species will likely also be familiar with any similar-looking species with which it is frequently confused.


I rarely tag unless there is reason for confusion or excitement… identifiers come to them or not.
With most taxa in UK/Iceland( including mosses ), there tend to be identifiers who will refine/correct autosuggested IDs providing the photos are good enough. The response might not be immediate though. That varies.

If I have a specific moss or other specimen I want to ID I might tag people in the once… and/or I would dig into external resources and post off-site on a Facebook group or other place with more expertise active. Taxonomic expertise on iNaturalist in Europe tends to be down to one or two people, so tagging them in just because I am feeling impatient usually feels a bit rude. If something interesting sits idle for a very long time though, then I consider tagging in case it was missed.

The autosuggest is also useful as starting point for common mosses and liverworts.


I would still check the leader boards, but I would click on the names and read the profiles looking for someone who outright claims some expertise in the taxon you’re interested in. If you have an idea of which Genus it is, then tag someone on that leader board, even if you’re wrong on the Genus, it is possible that the person you tag will have enough experience with visually similar taxon to point you in the right direction. I do Bombus, but I can usually spot a Laphria that someone thought was a Bombus and can tag someone else.


When it comes to learning more about a taxon as some people suggested (and being a layman in Biology in general), I often do this:

Go to Moss taxon page (the Bryophyta Phylum).

On the tabs with the classification right under the header you have Life > Plants > Mosses and a down arrow. Click that to see a breakdown of the next level

So we see now 6 Classes of mosses. When I’m learning more about a taxon I study why the name for each Class. This already gives us a clue about that group there.

Open each on a separate tab/window and take your time to study and spot that characteristic that put all those mosses in that group. Use some external references (wikis etc) to get more info about them.

After doing that to all the classes, try opening a higher level random moss from somewhere and see if you can classify it in a Class of moss using what you just learned.

This might not yet be enough intel to give you confidence to ID your own mosses (or even other people’s mosses) into Class level, but that’s the path I usually do to try narrowing things down enough so I know which expert to call.

Be careful, though, as you might find groups that are not yet complete. For example: I have no idea if mosses have only those 6 Classes or if there’s more that were not installed yet.


I can relate to this question, since I don’t know mosses at all but want to learn!

What I do is buy some actual, physical, on-paper field guides to whatever taxa I’m interested in learning and read through them. If I’m lucky, I can find a class or field trip to learn in person. That way I have an idea what characters are needed to ID a moss or lichen or moth or mushroom. Then I go make observations, ask iNat what it suggests for a taxon, and check in the books to see if that seems a reasonable choice. Most of the time the computer vision suggestion seems reasonable (probably because I live in a heavily iNatted area) and I go with that. I keep an eye on my notifications in case someone who actually knows something makes a correction or agrees with the ID.

This question points out a basic gap in how iNat tries to connect people with the natural world by facilitating observations and identifications of species: if a person knows absolutely nothing - they don’t know how to tell if something is wild or cultivated, they don’t know how to look at and photograph an organism to help with ID, they barely know a plant from an animal, much less a fungus from a slime mold - iNat and even the extraordinary community of participating naturalists are not really that helpful. I still think there’s a big part to be played by teachers and naturalists spending time in the field with a person who’s new to the natural world, just saying things like the number of needles in a cluster helps ID pines (I can hear the student asking what’s a needle? what do you mean by a cluster? are all the trees with needles pines?).

Or maybe I’m just old-fashioned that way, since that’s how I learned, back in the Dark Ages before the internet.


Yep, I agree. Waiting for someone else to suggest a species can mean having to wait for a good long while if there is no expert in your area. I bought two field guides on mosses, started a project so I can compare my observations to others in my area, and I’ve even done microscopy on a few to work through keys from scientific publications. Despite all those efforts and writing some detailed explanations for how I keyed out some of my observations, many of my moss species IDs are still sitting at Needs ID waiting for just the right expert to come along to either correct or confirm. On the other hand, many of my moss observations from a trip overseas got IDs pretty quickly from experts in that area even though I only ID’d them to moss in general. So your experience may vary depending on location.


Novel approach, and nice suggestions! Most of us are in iNaturalist to learn, not just to get a quick ID of something we saw. Your scheme is time-intensive, but it’s a great portal to a group we’re interested in but know little about.

First, top moss iders are actual experts, but if they weren’t, iders of broad groups always know who is an expert in the field.

This is a great point, that there’s a bit of an iNaturalist gap that needs help bridging. The person who knows very little about the natural world but hopes to learn isn’t going to be pulled in further just by having observations identified. It’s too piecemeal and too overwhelming. A key factor can be having a real person say “This is a beautiful group if you look closely” or “You’ll be amazed at how many different plants are growing in your lawn” or “Let’s figure out how to tell fox squirrels from gray squirrels, and then we can notice if they behave differently.” As an identifier, I try to notice when an observer is a newbie and give them some motivation to continue.


Exactly. I try to be encouraging to new iNatters, but spending time doing that conflicts with the pressure I feel to get lots of IDs done, particularly in spring and around the City Nature Challenge. I could write a journal post that talks about IDing dragonfly exuvia, for example, but how does someone who’s new find that? Even a project journal post can’t reach anyone who hasn’t joined or at least searched for projects.

But think about where iNat will be in ten years or so. The computer vision will be very competent. There will be an improved on-boarding process. There could be tutorials that walk a new person through the basics of mosses, for example, with links to external sources of information and an explanation of how to use iNat to find out the most common mosses in an area, and so on. There could be forums targeted just at people new to iNat, or people who want to learn mosses, or people who want to understand how the species present in an area change as disturbances come and go or as the underlying geology changes. There could be visual summaries of how an invasive species has spread, or the ratio of non-native to native species in well-iNatted areas, or how the number of native species within, say, a family changes with average temperature or rainfall or whatever. Etc., etc.

So much to do, so little time…


Others here have already mentioned short-term solutions.

My preferred long-term solution is to find a group that you are able to make a real contribution by adding IDs, or learn how to ID a group that you’re not yet familiar with, whether it involves fixing misidentifications of common species like Musca domestica (the house fly) or identifying rare flowers found in your area that you are comfortable IDing. Make a lot of IDs.

If you become a major identifier, then what comes around goes around. The overall number of unidentified observations goes down. The probability that your observations will be quickly identified goes up. Also, individual identifiers are often more patient and willing to give ID help to observers who they know are also giving back to the community.

This solution doesn’t work for everyone, but it seems very important for the overall functioning of the community.


I have nothing against field guides, and would like to start using them more myself, but I’m not sure if they’re the best approach for large, difficult groups like mosses or (even worse) fungi. The issue is that few field guides include every look-alike for a particular species, and some don’t include them at all. This leads to a false confidence of “This is the only species in the book that looks like what I have, so it must be right” when there might actually be several look-alikes that can only be differentiated by particular morphological characteristics or genetic analysis. I’m not saying you in particular have this problem, but it is something to watch out for when using print field guides.


The example you give of a moss brings up this point - for many observations, particularly things like mosses, “moss” is literally the best you can get with a basic photo. You’d need decent-quality microscope shots, sometimes even of the leaf cross-sections which are very tough to do.

So I think the first step is to look through a key for the group of organisms you want to observe and figure out which parts you need to be showing. If it talks a lot about abaxial leaf surfaces, you don’t need to know what all the terminology means, but you should at least figure out what an “abaxial leaf surface” is and be sure to take a picture that shows ut.

But as far as searching for appropriate identifiers, I recommend using “explore” and setting up filters. For example, I know nothing about Salix species, but I ID things to that genus a lot. If you look for just identifiers of salix in California, I’m #2 on the list. However, if you filter for “highest level = species” within genus Salix, I’m a really long way down the list, and the people who have IDd salix observations to species level are up near the top.


Target practice. :wink: