Evidence transported naturally far from its source

This question arises from an observation I just identified, of a pine cone in a drainage at the bottom of a remote desert valley, that clearly originated many miles away up high in an adjacent mountain range. (Will post a link if/when the observer gives me permission.)

[EDIT: permission granted: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/37600457]

The cone is easily identifiable to species, is now Research Grade, and will show up on range maps for the pine species. Yet the pine grows nowhere near the cone location.

Should we give an observation like this any special treatment in iNaturalist? The cone is where it is, without human intervention, so I would hate to see it get “demoted” to casual status. Does it need some kind of “accidental” occurrence category similar to that often used for birds, that could optionally be filtered on maps etc.?

Interested in everyone’s thoughts!


Personally I feel like the location should stay as where it was found. If you think about the myriad seeds and other flotsam that get transported around the globe via the ocean, it’s basically impossible to figure out where a floating coconut came from, but you know where it ended up.


This sounds like another candidate for an addition to the Annotations portion of observations.

Cases like that should stay research grade. They provide valuable information about transport mechanisms and distances and they may also lead to being able to track when species enter new areas.

A good example of this would be Japanese marine species that wound up in the Pacific Northwest after the 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami. As an aside, I would argue that these species should not be considered “invasive” as they arrived via a natural transport system rather than being intentionally or accidentally transported by humans.


I think it could be pretty useful with annotation. Adult plants are only seen in area X, but evidense of the organism is seen in area Y, indicating that even though the seeds could transit, the environment isn’t conducive for growth.


depends on your definition of invasive. if they’re destructive and have no natural form of control, could still count as invasive. but it wouldn’t be fair to call them introduced (via human means) because of what you said


I think an annotation could work for this, something like “Indirect evidence: yes/no”. Would work for plant seeds, insect sheds, mammal fur tufts or droppings, bird feathers, etc

@tiwane is looking at introducing annotations for “types of evidence sans presence of organism”, which I think seed material/residue would count for.


The reason why I wouldn’t call it “invasive” in this case is because of the way it arrived and the fact that all species everywhere, other than the very first ones some 3.5 billion years ago, originated somewhere else.

The term “invasive” carries with it very specific baggage is is used inappropriately in many cases.

I work in environmental conservation and had a strong focus on environmental change in grad school. One of the big issues we face with climate change and global warming (which are technically two slightly different, but related things, the latter is what is happening and the former is the result of the latter) is that species need to move from where we are used to seeing them into new areas that are more suitable for living in as as result of shifts in the climate.

This is a natural process and takes place all the time all through the history of life everywhere, and not only in times of rapid environmental change.

We humans, however, tend to have a very narrow perspective in a temporal sense and think things should stay as they were when we started paying attention to our surroundings, and this spells disaster for the environmental near future (next few thousand years) of the planet as we are forcibly restricting natural movement of species and lumping very different things together and treating them the same.

An example: on Lake Camplain, the large body of water acting as the border between Vermont and upstate New York has traditionally been a place popular with ducks of various species. A while back cormorants moved into the area. These had not been previously been recorded in significant numbers right there (other than in their migratory season), but they’re the species that’s native to New England and widespread all through North America. The cormorants used some of the same nesting areas as the ducks in Lake Champlain, which caused people to start treating them like an “invasive” species and killing them (spraying oil on the eggs which kills the babies, but keeps the birds sitting on the eggs so that they don’t re-lay right away).

Thing is, they weren’t “invasive”. They were just doing what all species do, changing their ranges.

This range change is more and more common as we enter warmer and warmer climates, but we keep treating entirely natural movements of animals and plants as “invasive” even when they are simply a response to environmental changes. At the same time we are trying to keep certain species in areas that are no-longer suitable for them, and we have erected nearly insurmountable barriers to movement for many species, which will significantly impact their ability to adapt to a changing world.

Rafting events, as in the case of the aforementioned Japanese species, is also an entirely natural movement of species. Non-human primates are considered native to the Americas (South and Central America), but they rafter across the Atlantic in the past. Tortoises on Aldabra Island got there by rafting. Lemurs on Madagascar got there by rafting, on several different occasions from what genetic evidence tells us. All species that have colonized volcanic islands came from somewhere else.

None of those species should be considered “invasive”.

“Invasive” is reserved for human introduced (intentionally or accidentally) species that have moved beyond the “exotic” or “naturalized” state and pose harm to an ecosystem.


Getting back to the topic of evidence transported far away from its source affecting range maps etc…

An annotation might be a start, especially if it could be used to filter which observations appear on maps. For most mobile organisms, things like droppings, sheds, feathers, etc., will usually still reflect the true range of the species. My concern is more with parts (or all) of non-mobile organisms being transported long distances beyond their habitat/range by wind or water.

I’m not sure of the best answer for how to designate observations like these.
But I do want to echo comments that observations like this are a really valuable part of iNat! These types of rare but potentially important occurrences are observations of processes that are really difficult to observe in a systematic way.
In this case, we know the long distance water-borne dispersal of plants happens, but it is tough to observe, so this observation has real value.
Whatever the solution, I hope it will preserve this value of the observation (and avoid the observation getting casualed, etc.).
One valuable outcome of observations like this being on a map is that observers may not be looking for this organism farther afield because it is “out of range”. If observers realize that this type of transport may happen by seeing an observation on a range map, it may help them ID similar events in the future.


A seed is a life stage of a plant. So the organism is certainly present when there are seeds. Its a pitty that we do not have life stage annotations for plants though.

Suitable life stage annotation for pines and other seed plants might be:
seed / dispersal unit
mature plant (flowering / fruiting)


I say map it as is also. For what it’s worth I’ve found ponderosa and jeffrey pines (like, mature trees) growing way lower and drier than usual, if they happen to land near a stream or in a wet spot of some sort.
This is one of my favorites: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/809887
also https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/3731559
these are some of my favorite things to map on iNat.

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I agree that the location should reflect where the organism (in this case the pine cone) was observed, and that, so long as it reached that location without human assistance, this merits research grade.

A well-designed annotation system could allow researchers to separately map different life stages of plants. But even without that, the presence of photos in iNat allows a researcher to examine edge-of-range observations after the fact. In this case, someone can identify this observation as beyond the expected range and seeing the photo and comments can easily understand why.

This scenario does provide another example of why including elevation (either observer-supplied, calculated, or both) would be valuable in iNat. See these threads:


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I’m piling on this thread as another signature in this “petition” for an annotation.

From a species range modelling perspective, I would rather it didn’t land in GBIF as a location point for the occurrence of the species, if its not viable there. iNat annotations won’t help with this use case. Until there are lots of these records its too much of an edge case to start to worry about though.

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Observation in question: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/37600457
(posted with permission)

Yeah, that’s the crux of the issue in this particular instance. Just to be clear, I am not advocating that observations like this should be treated as anything other than Research Grade. But then as @lera noted, it gets incorporated into GBIF as a species occurrence even though not viable there (or anywhere near there). Thus the conundrum in my head…

Within the context of iNaturalist at least, I agree that


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I guess I would say someone using GBIF data should be doing QC and screening before using the data for a given application.

If the GBIF use case is the main “problem” with this observation, whatever solution to be implemented would need to extend to GBIF’s use of the data then?

Like a flag or field that would either show up on a GBIF record (I doubt they would want a new one that doesn’t already exist in their data structure) or one for iNat that prevents individual RG observations from being added to GBIF.

But then what if someone is searching organisms on GBIF for extralimital records of interest?..


I’ve seen isolated ponderosa pine trees in places I would not expect them and without evidence they were planted there (out on the prairie, miles from nearest stand of conspecifics). One of these days I’ll stop on the road and photo one of these outliers for submission.

Granted, an established tree is a little different than a cone, but I think the cone is still worth noting … with annotation.


There is an iNat project for sea-distributed seeds.

Perhaps this needs a project?

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I know all the replies so far have mainly been asking about annotations, but each observation has a ‘comments’ section. Perhaps just add a comment, then anyone using the data would know it is an outlier. As mentioned above, the observation is important in terms of possible spread of the species. If you found it there, then mark it from there. I’ve been a participant in an observation that extended a species range over 1,000 Km/ Sometimes I think we put too much emphasis on making iNat easier for researchers.