Ethical behaviour when observing and photographing animals

@guapa Thanks for bringing this up! Always something to keep in mind when we’re out in the wild and wanting to photograph/document organisms. Like @prakrit I also enjoy photographing snakes, and I personally don’t like to spend too much time photographing or posing them (I don’t like the look of posed snake photos anyway), even if I do catch one. But yes, I think the main thing we can say about all of this is what we know very little about the long term effects we have on animals and plants during these types of encounters.

My suggestion would be to perhaps start a tutorial here on the forum and keep it simple, maybe to birds only, or to tidepooling only and get some discussion going. But be prepared for very heated discussions.


Hi @tiwane and @TriciaStewart, thanks for these insights and suggestions. A tutorial on the forum sounds like a great idea. I’m happy to look into this further and put some initial ideas together for a tutorial with help from the ideas already posted here (with permission of course). Is there anyone on iNat who could help that hasn’t joined in already?

I think these are really good concerns to bring up.

For birds, the Audubon’s guidelines for ethical photography might be a good starting place.

My thoughts on this subject is that the worst damage seems to be caused by a small portion of total behaviors, and often, the damage caused by them can be large relative to the damage caused by other interactions.

For example, I have seen massive crowds of people show up in wildlife refuges to view rare or vagrant birds. The crowds can stay all day long, sometimes for days, and I’d imagine that this could be much more disruptive to other animals living in the surroundings than one or two photographers visiting occasionally and then leaving after an hour or so. Also, I’ve talked to people who have driven hundreds of miles to see these birds, and this bothers me because of the environmental impacts of the vehicle use.

Worse things that I’ve seen, include people going into protected nested areas in beaches, riding or driving vehicles where prohibited, or doing drone photography in areas where birds are active and even have nests. Usually these people aren’t serious birders or serious amateur naturalists but rather, people unfamiliar with the norms of this stuff.

iNat seems to have a lot of casual use, which is good, but I think it would be good to steer these users gently in the direction of learning how to minimize negative impacts on nature.

There are a lot of great ways we could make these policies visible too. For example, we could show people guidelines or best practices or link to other pages when people upload their first few pics of birds. We could talk about the stuff in the process of signing up for a site. We could have links to these things on observations with pictures of certain types of animals.

Only a small portion of users is going to be active on the forums, or actively seek out the documentation. As the damage is most likely to be caused by the most casual users who are least familiar with these issues, I think it is critically important that we present the information or guidelines very early on in people’s use of iNat, possibly repeatedly, and emphasize it and make it easy to see (and perhaps hard to avoid) if we are to have any sort of impact on the worst behaviors, if that makes sense?


If something addressing ethics is added to iNaturalist’s, e.g. as guidelines for new users etc, other typical examples - of behaviour to avoid damaging what we are intending to observe/preserve/learn from - to include would be: Don’t move or disturb intertidal organisms. Don’t handle amphibians.


For photographing fish you do not intend to keep and eat:

Wet your hands before handling the fish. Dry hands will remove the slime coating, which is important to the fish’s immune system.

Do not hold the fish out of the water longer than you can hold your breath.

For smaller species, try using a photo tank. Photo tanks allow you to take the time to photograph the species while it breathes water. Example of a photo tank:

Do not throw the fish back in the water; carefully lower it back in. Catch & Release tips:


There are a lot of great ways we could make these policies visible too. For example, we could show people guidelines or best practices or link to other pages when people upload their first few pics of birds. We could talk about the stuff in the process of signing up for a site. We could have links to these things on observations with pictures of certain types of animals.

I think an excellent way of doing this would be through illustrations, almost comic strip style. I’m reminded of the way Pokemon Go has (used to have? I don’t think I’ve used it since the first month!) an illustration on the splash screen warning people to pay attention to their surroundings, and it sticks with you because it was slightly humourous. I used to have a book when I was younger (an Usborne Guide to the Countryside, I think) which likewise had a little character on a cartoon strip explaining the do’s and dont’s of the countryside code.

Perhaps iNaturalist could develop something similar (if we had a set of guidelines)? I do some illustrations myself, and so would be happy to lend a hand if needs be. Either way, could be a good way to help these things stick in people’s heads!


Sure, although I might consistently violate those guidelines due to the nature of my activities as a museum collector of arthropods, beetles in particular. The name iNaturalist strongly suggests benign observations and associated photos, videos, and recordings yet most of my contributions are not so much “öbservations” as records of specimens I have killed for study, anatomical description, and publication. (Many species I collect are new to science. I typically post just one photo set per morphotype.) I can easily see my approach being vilified by those for whom ethical treatment of insects trumps traditional science.


Hi @mcclarinj, that’s a really interesting point. Presumably where people are conducting scientific research, ethical permission has already been gained to carry out these kinds of activities either via their institution or for individual projects, so they are following/developing established standards and protocols? Although is it still the case that ethical permission isn’t required for working on many ‘lower order’ species?

Certainly food for thought regarding how any guidelines could be framed and who they are targeting. The purpose I had in mind when I originally asked the question was to raise awareness in a positive way about how to avoid detrimentally impacting on the wildlife (plants and animals) we’re observing and photographing, and approaching it as an inclusive learning process for all iNat members. What do others think?

Am loving all these ideas and tips!!


Thanks for the tip about the Audubon guide.It looks really helpful.

That sounds fantastic. Love the idea and thanks for the offer of help!

The considerations I think about are usually based on collecting. For instance, if collecting a specimen (resulting in its demise) is not harmful to the population, it might be arguable that any photography “harm” to one individual is passable.

With that aside, the next step is deciding how morally “right” or “wrong” it is, for instance having a fish out of water for a long period of time, or holding insects that are fragile and likely to be damaged by the photography setup. I think this is individual taste. I like to err on the side of caution but I know there are times I’ve posed things in circumstances where others would not have.


@mcclarinj – I can relate to your position as a former avid collector for a museum myself. I’ve kind of left that behind as I rely more on my camera these days than taking specimens. As any field biologist knows, you can’t study something without affecting it in one way or another, to one degree or another. Even ornithologists studying bird behavior via binocs or scopes can’t avoid some influence. I don’t know how you come up with guidelines for all situations that a naturalist might be in to document a record since it depends a lot on the organism and whether it can be photo-documented without capturing or handling. Having learned much myself about nature in my early years by capturing and handling (and undoubtedly causing some stress to) animals, I’m not one to discourage such actions by budding naturalists. A camera is useful but so is getting up close and personal with some critters.


I’ll have a look at a few of the existing guidelines for photographing birds and will put some ideas together here so we can see how we want to proceed. cheers!

I had an interesting ethical challenge recently. I saw a Hemaris thysbe the other day, which happened to fly directly into a spiderweb on a nearby bush. I took advantage of that situation to take some pictures, and because I love moths so much I decided to “rescue” it from the web. I did so with minimal damage to the web but then had some concerns once the excitement wore off(I had always wanted to see a sphingid moth and it was the first time I ever did!!) I thought about the big meal of which I deprived the spider, simply because at the time I liked the moth better. I’m not really sure what would have been the optimal thing to do, probably to leave it all alone…


I do try to stay far enough away from the animal that it doesn’t notice I’m there. However I do have quite a few observations where I am handling the animal such as This Eastern Eyed Click Beetle but I find such cases completely fine. I let it crawl into my hand on its own and it was placed into some grass after some quick pictures. Other observations like this Gulf Coast Toad I handled because I found them at night and I needed to take pictures under my porch light to be able to illuminate it’s pattern and confirm what species it was. Nothing I catch is held for very long, only for some pictures then it is placed exactly where I found it.

Other animals like birds and mammals are much more tricky and I believe being quiet and not startling or interfering with them is a good idea to reduce stress. Overall I think if the animal wasn’t harmed or kept for long it’s okay to handle them. Especially in things like reptiles, amphibians, and inverts.

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I guess it reminds me that we are, after all, animals that are a part of the ecosystems we live in, and interacting with and impacting those ecosystems are not necessarily bad things. The problem arises when our species affects our ecosystems to a degree and speed the system can’t cope with, as is happening on a massively detrimental worldwide scale. But if we can find ways to interact with the environment that don’t throw everything out of balance, then that interaction can be ok. Just because we have nifty inventions and unusual brains doesn’t mean we shouldn’t engage with our ecosystems, and forgetting we are part of them is probably where a lot of our problems arise. After all, if those fungal spores rely on passing animals to be spread through their environment, and that is part of their niche in this system, then you are fulfilling an important role as a ‘brusher-up-againster’. But that brushing would have a very different outlook if it involved wading in a creek colonized by didymo. Those worms are supposed to be a food source for the birds, and humans are not the only organisms that leave footprints. But if you led a group of 800 people down that trail, then perhaps it could throw off the rate of birds eating worms to a detrimental degree (not to mention trampling plants underfoot and other sizable impacts).
It reminds me of an article I read about a research student quantifying the impact kids had on the wooded areas they play in. He mentioned that blanket policies of ‘take only photos, leave only footprints’ often scare the rule-following kids away from nature, or are ignored all together. He proposed signs to teach kids and their families which flowers were invasive (and encouraged to pick) and which flowers were sensitive (and should be left undisturbed).

Anyways, I think I strayed a bit off topic, but I thought your comment was beautiful.
It made me think of the Jane Goodall quote: “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”


More on topic, I was a kid who loved catching frogs, salamanders, lizards, insects, crawdads, etc etc, and being on iNat is definitely teaching me better handling practices (including when not to touch). But I probably wouldn’t be hearing all of this if I didn’t peruse the forum.


Some excellent points, especially this one! It happens to adults, too.

We have a species of spider here in NZ, the katipo, and when I first went looking for it, I was aware it was a legally protected species. Letter of the law says you can’t interfere with them at all, and given where they occur, you can’t find them without some level of interference. Mindful of that law, but still eager to see one in real life, I went looking and have made a few observations over the years. I’m always a little panicked that one day I’ll be arrested for my tampering with the spiders!

The katipo only has a very narrow habitat along the foreshore, in fairly specific plants, and has a number of introduced predators. Particularly here in Gisborne where I live, we are at a point where there is a clinal change in forms, and given climate change concerns, populations near interfaces of two forms like this could be significant studies. With that in mind I have been keen to get a study going of the spiders in these dunes and further along the coastline. I am an amateur, of very limited means and influence, and consequently have had little momentum in that regard. I could just jump in and do it, but the legal protection status has me “wanting to do it proper”.

About a month ago I became aware that a new walkway has been approved, which will extend right through these dunes, the entire length of the beach where I have found them. The nature of the walkway will involve significant vibration during it’s installation, and that vibration will very likely have a devastating impact on these spiders. If I had just gone ahead with my amateur survey of that beach 2 years ago, the data would be there to advise the council on this situation today. As it stands, it is unclear how extensive the colony that I found is, nor what the full impact of the walkway would be.

Many of your other points, too… go to a need to understand the environment better. For me, the comment I made about spreading spores was with the Kauri dieback that we are experiencing in mind. In Northland New Zealand we have a culturally significant tree that is under threat from an introduced pathogen that is being spread rapidly by trampers/visitors, and large areas of reserves have been closed to the public until there is more knowledge and control around it’s impact. But yes… we are beneficial pollinators and transport mechanisms within the environment, too. Again, it comes down to knowledge about our impacts. Unlike the deer and the mice, we can move sporses and such over tremendous distances, and unlike herding buffalo, we don’t stick to fairly traditional migration patterns, so our ability to impact the environment in a negative or disruptive way is huge.

Perhaps more important than “treading lightly” in the environent is the need to “learn about and value” our position within it? iNats mission starts to look more on-point… :)


Does the ‘spider’ boardwalk have an environmental impact assessment?

Ok, yes, with Kauri dieback that would be a concern.
That is why I emphasized the ‘if’ with italics ;)

That is rough with the spiders. I’m sorry. :(