Ethical behaviour when observing and photographing animals

Hi everyone,

I’d like to raise a question about iNaturalist’s stance on encouraging members of the public to photograph/video and take audio recordings of animals in an ethical manner. I’ve searched the forum for topics about ethics and have just read the thread about biodiversity & ecology ethics which is very important. However, this is a slightly different topic related to disruption of normal behaviour caused by humans being considered a biodiversity conservation issue.

Is there any advice on the site advising members how to avoid disturbing wildlife and when not to photograph/record (e.g. during sensitive times such as feeding young, mating or migration etc)? If not, should there be?

Some new studies have been published recently about how the growing popularity of bird watching and bird photography may disturb birds. According to these studies, the behaviour of people observing birds or taking photographs (e.g. crouching, holding up a camera or binoculars, using a flash) are linked to longer flight initiation distance (FID) than for people conducting other kinds of activities like walking. That is, a bird will make the decision to flee when it sees a photographer sooner than when it sees a walker suggesting that birds typically judge photographer behaviour as especially threatening. A similar study with butterflies determined that the starting distance (the distance at which a person’s approach towards an animal commences) can influence FID in butterflies, and this can vary between species (ie some species or individuals are more sensitive than others due to various factors such as their condition, distance at which they can detect incoming stimuli, traits such as defences like eye spots or unpalatability).

I contacted one of the main authors of these papers and they suggest that we are just starting to understand the way humans are perceived by animals and that a lot of interactions have the potential for negative outcomes for animals, or they might be trivial – it’s too early to say. Probably the net benefit realised by animals of platforms like iNaturalist outweigh any problems caused.

Having worked in conservation for 20 years, I believe that positive human-wildlife interactions encourage pro-environmental behaviour, so wholeheartedly support people taking photos and engaging with wildlife in other positive ways.

But, given that platforms like iNaturalist rely on members of the public taking photos and audio recordings but rarely operate with ethical permissions, my question is whether iNaturalist should consider posting some guidelines/recommendations to raise awareness about appropriate behaviour?

Codes of conduct exist to reduce the impact of human behaviour on human-wildlife interactions which could be adapted (eg BirdLife Photography, a special interest group of BirdLife Australia has produced a set).

These are the references and dois of some relevant papers. Unfortunately, they aren’t publicly available, so if you’d like a copy please message me directly and I can email them to you.

Slater, C., Cam, G., Qi, Y., Liu, Y., Guay, P.-J., Weston, M.A., 2019. Camera shy? Motivations, attitudes and beliefs of bird photographers and species-specific avian responses to their activities. Biological Conservation 237, 327-337.

Anna Z. Radkovic, Wouter F. D. Van Dongen, Lennox Kirao, Patrick-Jean Guay & Michael A. Weston (2017): Birdwatchers evoke longer escape distances than pedestrians in some African birds, Journal of Ecotourism, DOI: 10.1080/14724049.2017.1372765

Harbour, D., Henson, E., Boers, C., Truman, D., Fernando, C., Guay, P.J., Weston, M.A., 2019. Flight initiation distance in Lepidopterans is species-specific and positively related to starting distance. Journal of Asia-Pacific Entomology 22 (1), 41-43.




Interesting topic/question; I appreciate you posting it with such a thorough explanation and with some references. I’ll be interested to see what others post in terms of your specific question/concern about guidelines in iNat, but I can absolutely confirm (anecdotally!) what is being described here–as can, I’m sure, many other “nature observers” here on iNat.

I spend a fair amount of time hiking/biking in a variety of relatively “natural” areas in my neck of the woods, usually with camera. In many instances, I can keep hiking/biking right past many birds, insects, mammals without triggering any kind of “flight”/escape response. However, if I stop, and bring up my DSLR for a picture, I usually get only a few seconds before the “subject” takes off one way or another. And I’m usually not that close…I have decent zoom on my lens so I try to keep a fair distance so as to not unnecessarily disturb my “subject.” Not surprisingly this behavior is pretty species-specific…some butterflies, birds and beetles seem to care less…others exhibit this behavior frequently.

In any case thanks for raising this issue for discussion. I’ve talked to/read about some of the long-range “digiscopers” who justify their approach to photography based at least in part on specific concerns about disturbing/interfering with the ‘natural’ behavior of the species they are observing…


I agree, as far as I know there isn’t anything like that but a set of guidelines would be helpful, especially to people who are totally new to this area of interest.

iNat seems very focused on getting people engaged with nature as it prioritizes people interacting with nature over the database quality of the site [although both are obviously important to the organization], which means a decent number of people here are ‘amateurs’ who may not be informed enough to consider whether the way they observe animals is stressful to the wildlife. A guideline might help some people be more aware of that, and could change their behavior.

Plus, there are plenty of common-but-controversial habits-- using bird calls to lure birds out for a photo is an example that easily comes to mind-- that a guideline might steer people away from using. On the whole it seems that the majority are generally against that sort of thing for fear of the stress impact, but it’s not uncommon to see. However, it’s hard to see why some behaviors are harmful without being told, and since you frequently see so other many people doing it… a nice little guideline might help sort that out by trying to discourage similar things. :)


Thank you for bringing this up. Recently on our walk, a deer was trying to go somewhere, and we didn’t want it to go towards the busy highway adjacent to the trail and natural area where the deer was. We turned our backs and stayed still so as not to scare it. Two bicyclists came rushing down the trail, filming the deer with their cell phones. We were so mad! I’ve gotten plenty of deer sightings, so even though it would have been awesome to get a close photo I was more worried about the deer’s safety than a photo. Then here come these cyclists, filming probably just to put on social media and not iNaturalist…could have scared the deer to its death! Very upsetting. I think there should be guidelines as well.

There’s times where I know I’m just going to upset the organism and scare it away and not be able to take a picture. I just accept that and store it in my memory banks. Some birds REALLY hate being photographed! I have seen Belted Kingfishers many times on my walks and never been able to get a decent photo of one. That’s okay, one day when I do get one, it will be all the more satisfying! :+1:t4:


And the photos of people handling, holding for a photo - lizards or shrews? Those small animals must be hugely stressed by the experience.


Of note is the fact that some animals are hard to ID. For insects, identification of some species require examination in your hand and sometimes in extreme cases looking at genitalia of specimens under a microscope. Many small rodents require examination of teeth – that involves using live traps.

So the question is when it is more important to get good information about a taxa or leave it alone?


I tend to think of it in terms of “footprints”. We don’t exist in the world in a bubble… we all have an impact on it whether we realise/admit it or not. So I tend to think along the lines of “what is it that I am trying to achieve here, what footprints am I leaving in the process, are there ways to minimise/avoid the footprints”. In other words, how can I achieve what it is I am trying to achieve, and leave the location as much as it was before I started…

Often the “damage” is incidental to the conscious action we are taking… while stopping to take that photograph of the bird that flies away because we stopped, how many insects did we trample in the grass by the track while we were moving into position to get that photo, over and above the bugs that were squished along the track itself. I watch the fantails that follow me around the local arboretum, they are not following me because they want to say hi, they are after the springtails that leap up from the ground as my steps create vibration and the flies disturbed from the grasses nearby. The air compressed out of the soil I walk on causes small worms to surface briefly to be picked up by other birds some time after I have gone by, the fungal spores I pick up brushing against plants are spread to other plants as I move around in the environment. Insects will land on my clothes and then be squished when my satchel slides around on my hip. And then there is that mosquito I instinctively squished when I felt the sharp bite on the back of my knee (knee-pit?).


Thank you all for joining in this discussion! @kiwifergus, I often think about the same things and try to tread lightly - even so I accidentally stood on a glow worm recently and still haven’t got over it (neither did the glow worm unfortunately)!

I guess the point is that humans will inevitably impact on the natural environment no matter how careful we are, just as other species impact on their prey or surroundings - but to a much lesser and more sustainable degree than humans do at the moment. It’s a bit off topic, but something I really struggled with when I first joined the conservation movement was the culling of vast numbers of animals for the benefit of others (ie prioritising native species over feral). The biodiversity crisis we’re facing means trying to strike a balance between what might ultimately disturb or harm an individual(s) and what is necessary for the greater good. It’s tricky. But if we can help to minimise disturbance then that is surely a good thing?


This is a good discussion to be having. It is difficult to balance science, education, and ethics and this is super helpful.

I mostly photograph reptiles and invertebrates, and as any reptile or invertebrate enthusiast knows, it is often impossible to photograph/identify an individual without catching it. Often times, taking time for white background photographs is necessary.

For example, this observation of a scorpion was identified based on a spine on the foot, a feature impossible to see without catching the scorpion.
Another example is this shieldtail snake. I took white background because shieldtails are one of the most poorly understood groups of snakes photographs showing scalation details are extremely useful to our understanding of them.

Another reason for handling for photography is because a good picture can change people’s opinion on a species very fast. For example, people often react much better to this photograph of a scorpion than this one, simply because the professional look of white background photographs makes them look a little closer, at which point they can really appreciate the beauty of the scorpion instead of reacting in disgust or fear.

As @dianastuder said, handling for photos is very common, and it can stress the animal. I’m not sure how stress-prone small mammals are, but most reptiles are very resilient. I can usually photograph a lizard or snake in a minute or two, or if it is a species I haven’t seen before and I want to get nice photos, I will take around 15 minutes. In the case of difficult to identify individuals or rare and poorly studied species, I will bag them until morning (I normally find stuff at night) when I can get nicer photographs. Usually, this causes no visible signs of stress. Sometimes, the reptiles are so relaxed they will fall asleep sitting in my hand! In all cases, here is my policy:

  • If the animal shows clear signs of stress - excessive resistance, aggression, unusually heavy breathing, etc. I will put it in a dark box or bag (This calms reptiles and invertebrates significantly) for a few minutes. If it doesn’t help, I will just take cell phone photos and let it go.
  • I will not take white background photos if the animal refuses to settle down within about 5-10 minutes, which is why I don’t have white background of this snake, even though I would have ideally gotten them.
  • If possible, I take photos in situ, or with a small amount of handling. Only in under 5% of cases I will bag the animal to take photos in a different location or at a later time when the light is better.
  • I never use techniques such as freezing or knocking out a specimen purely for the purpose of a photo
  • When I release the animal, it will always be within a few feet of where I caught it (or exactly in the same place if possible). The only exception is road cruised snakes and lizards which I will move far enough away that they will not return to the road.

Of course, if the animals are being handled for photographs, it is very important to use the photographs for their intended purpose of science or education. Putting them on iNaturalist achieves part of this, but I also often show my photographs that portray reptiles in a non-threatening light such as this gecko, this cat snake, or this vine snake to non-reptile people. They are remarkably useful in changing people’s minds, almost all of the time people walk away at least a little less scared or hateful.


Wow, @prakrit, I think we have the beginnings of a set of guidelines! This is a fascinating aspect of wildlife photography and your photos are a credit to your sensitivity in the quest to increase knowledge and appreciation for reptiles and invertebrates.

The question of handling animals is a step beyond what I was originally thinking but is clearly very important for identifying certain types of wildlife. The question of whether the animals are stressed from being handled is intriguing, so I did a very quick search on the Web of Knowledge database regarding ethics for handling reptiles and found only 2 relevant articles (there are likely far more if you vary the search terms). One presents a standard operating procedure for trapping and handling small wild rodents and marsupials, designed for the purpose of helping researchers who need to provide ethical protocols to conduct a study (DOI: 10.1071/ZO12102). The other was a long term study monitoring a population of sea kraits (snakes) (DOI: 10.1163/15685381-00002839) which says:

“We gathered approximately 11 200 captures/recaptures on 4500 individuals. Each snake was individually marked (scale clipping + branding) and subjected to various measurements (e.g. body size, head morphology, palpation). In addition, a subsample of more than 500 snakes was forced to regurgitate their prey for dietary analyses. Handling caused a significant stress hormonal response, however we found no detrimental long-term effect on body condition. Forced regurgitation did not cause any significant effect on both body condition one year later and survival. These results suggest that the strong short-term stress provoked by field procedures did not translate into negative effects on the population. Although similar analyses are required to test the validity of our conclusions in other species, our results suggest distinguishing welfare and population issues to evaluate the potential impact of population surveys.”

As has been mentioned already, members of iNat have varying levels of experience and expertise regarding interacting with wildlife. Probably most people are happy to only take a photo, but it could be really useful to provide some guidelines for amateur naturalists who are keen to learn how to handle animals sensitively, but with caveats. I can’t help thinking about the Australian naturalist Steve Irwin whose controversial handling of dangerous animals both educated and alarmed. Among many (mis)adventures he was nearly blinded by a deadly snake which spat venom into his eyes as he captured it by its tail and ultimately died after being stung when swimming close to a stingray.I think we would want to avoid that!

It’s great to see support for the idea of providing guidelines. How do we proceed from here?


This seems to be my most common thought in life. Kinda paired up with the thought that humans are an invasive species and they’re isn’t any going back is there? This is basically why I post what I see. What I see is usually in human activity areas so I feel that data might be worth more then my lack of know how to identify it and educational level. Especially since they’re cutting down the trees to put huge houses in so that’s just more wildlife being displaced. Last year I thought there was more wildlife, someone thought it was because of better regulations and cleaner enviroments, I don’t know about that. I’m beginning to think it’s more about how much my area is changing and they just don’t have anywhere else to go.

I do know that if I look down at some ants, they hide till I move far enough away for them to start working again. My phone affects them in a similar way if I’m holding it but not looking at them, but if I put out a tripod they ignore it after I walk away. I know I have an impact but they’re not going to find any peace around here anyway so I may as well document it for the history books.

All of that is why I post my photos. If I care more about the possibility I might be helping then the possibility I’m doing something wrong. I don’t often go off the beaten path so I like to think that diminishes my impact a bit and I don’t mind being told I’m doing things wrong.

sorry that’s all a little depressing isn’t it. I’m usually a more upbeat kinda person, promise.


Great point!

Humans aren’t an invasive species. Saying this erases all the groups that didn’t act that way. Colonial capitalism is an “invasive” system.


Invasive might not be the correct word. Our ability to reach places we shouldn’t be physically able to survive might be more accurate? The impact that has on the planet and beyond. I guess that kinda depends on what is considered a natural ability to survive and if ‘man made’ things are natural But this goes off the point and I’ve had these thoughts since childhood, a depressed opinion of our species as a whole. I’m middle aged at this point so I think I’m probably biased a by now.


Hi @charlie, thanks for joining in. I’m not sure how iNat works - whether it’s driven by the community or there’s a top down decision-making process. Either way, it would be helpful to get some input from an iNat staff member to advise whether a set of guidelines fits within the platform’s aims and objectives and what the scope of these guidelines might be.

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i doubt they will ever add official guidelines (though i could be wrong) but it’s worth discussing within the community

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@charlie who would be the best person within iNat to talk to about this?

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i don’t know, maybe email

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ok, thanks!

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Very timely seeing your post. We were just discussing a local wildlife photographer who had proudly captured an image of a Copperhead snake in a defensive pose (brilliant photo for what it worth).
He said he had spent a full hour with the animal.
Given that it is still July, and the animal has depleted energy stores as it is, we were quite concerned that he had remained ‘with’ the animal that long and had clearly provoked (perhaps accidentally, but regardless) a defensive response.

It is concerning to say the least.

I know other photographers who are judges in international photography competitions, who will immediately discount any photos of eggs/chicks in the nest, due to the need for that photographer to have risked disturbance of the nest to capture the image, and therefore has compromised the ethics of wildlife photography.

Definitely want to encourage positive interactions with nature… tough one to navigate I suspect