Expand the Similar Species tab into an editable identification guide

I recently attended the annual conference of the American Arachnological Society and there was a lot of discussion about iNaturalist. A lot of folks expressed interest in using iNat, but a short-coming that was highlighted (and a reason many folks still preferred using BugGuide) was the lack of information about identification. As one participant explained “All the identification tips are scattered across comments in individual observations.”

It would be awesome if we could expand the existing Similar Species tab into a more comprehensive resource for taxon identification (and maybe rename it “Identification”). Even if it was only editable by curators initially, it could become a really useful resource and help to cut down on misidentifications and redundant comments explaining how to ID various species. I know we already have the Wikipedia articles under the About tab, but those are typically limited to general descriptions rather than specific tips for identification.

I’ve sometimes wondered if BugGuide couldn’t be imported wholesale into iNat somehow: it’s so useful! And in many ways better for me than iNat when it comes to IDing North American bugs. But what would a general iNat “Identification” area look like?

I’m really not sure and it seems like a complicated question, but FWIW here’s why I use both iNat and BugGuide for local insects and spiders. Say I observe a new beetle … the iNat AI totally wins at the start, with suggestions that are often correct or pretty close. Next, the “compare” button sometimes helps–sometimes it lists something that’s clearly the right taxon. But not always.

Maybe it’s in what “compare” displays that any new, curated information could be added or made accessible? With “compare” as is, I still often feel like I’m just guessing in the dark. Sometimes I observe things that haven’t yet been seen in my area and don’t show up at all; or the examples all kind of look the same to my untutored eye and I don’t know which to pick.

BugGuide helps with 1) an authoritative sense of the range of possible choices. If I know that “there are XX species in our area,” a typical BugGuide bit of info for a given genus or family, I can decide to browse through all of them, species by species–or maybe if there are hundreds, just give up and leave it at a higher level. iNat doesn’t really describe the full range of potential species and doesn’t really give a taxonomically organized gallery view of potential options 2) range information to help narrow the possibilities 3) pro tips about distinctions between species, or warnings about when it’s unwise to attempt to distinguish without a microscope or something; 4) links to keys (or keys reproduced) and literature.

I wouldn’t want to overwhelm iNat’s current ID tools with a lot of advanced baggage like this. But definitely agree with @zygy there might be a way to augment the current automated ID tools with custom/curated info somewhere…

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This has been discussed extensively before (and I was among its supporters in the past). Some of the challenges with the idea you describe are that 1) the iNat community is so much larger than BugGuide that it could be difficult to determine what to include or not to include
2) different groups of organisms require different standards for identification, and a single template for ID guides might not work well for both fish, bees, and fungi, for example. 3) A wiki style format, like on BugGuide, works well for text but gets complicated if you want to make it look nice, and complex formatting or tables might not be possible. I’m not saying that a standardized solution couldn’t happen, but it won’t be perfect.

Instead, the ‘Journal’ tool has been used by the community for quite some time to develop ID materials, and enables a variety of formats. Some examples for flies include:
https://www.inaturalist.org/journal/upupa-epops/29497-identifying-allograpta-in-north-america
https://www.inaturalist.org/journal/edanko/27945-micropezidae-us-canada
https://www.inaturalist.org/journal/edanko/36353-guide-to-nematoceran-families
The challenge here is still that unless you hear about these journal posts in a comment on an observation or something, you won’t know they exist… maybe the solution is to make journal posts indexing other journal posts? :)

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There’s some related discussion here: https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/adding-useful-id-info-to-taxon-pages/657

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to work around the format issue, maybe it could be something modular similar to the way the observation fields are, where a field can be added as a block to the identification page? this could apply to tables and graphics as well, if someone were willing to code that into the site ;P since iNat uses wikipedia articles for the main organism pages, I’ve slowly been creating wiki pages for taxa I feel are important and lack useful information, especially with papers and databases not being readily accessible to most yet. that seems to at least somewhat work around it—journal entries as you highlighted are another great alternative, where experts can share their expertise. I think it would be cool if journal entries could be highlighted and attached to taxon pages where they are displayed clearly enough that they can’t be missed.

all in all, I agree that there is a lack of a wiki-like part of iNat which is a major drawback, but implementing that alone could have its own complications. maybe developing a pre-existing feature such as the journals or wikipedia links (add support for linking BugGuide info pages through links so wikipedia isn’t the only source?) would be a good way to address this.

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