How detailed should an explanation be for an identification of an observation?

I have been using iNaturalist for about a month now. I have also read a lot of posts on IDs, especially subspecies. Part of how I provide explanations for my IDs has been shaped by other posts on the Forum. However, I am not sure if there is a post which states how detailed should one go when providing an explanation for IDs.

I know that it is controversial to identify subspecies for some people, and it is even more controversial to do so based only on geographic location or different appearance. As I stated in my first topic…

I also use Wikipedia, NatureServe Explorer, BOLD Systems, and any other credible academic papers/sources to help with identifications. Usually, I cite the aforementioned sources along with reasoning for the identification. I even state sometimes when I am unsure, “I am not an expert on X, so I could be wrong on this identification." Each of these sources has different important information, whether it is geographic data, morphologic data with pictures, or even both.

For instance, here is what I posted for identifying Biston betularia cognataria, or the North Amercian Peppered Moth.

This is a male Biston betularia cognataria morpha typica. Males have narrower thoraxes than females, and they have bushier antenna. In contrast to other similar looking moth species, the Peppered Moth does not have as many bold latitudinal lines, nor does it have prominent edge scalloped spots. The range of this subspecies is only North America (Müller, Bernd, et. all. “Ennominae II: (Boarmiini, Gnophini, additions to previous volumes).” Google Books , BRILL, pp. 306, 2019, Accessed 7 September 2020). Upon being compared to the nominate European subspecies B. b. betularia , the American subspecies is darker and has more pronounced lateral lines, producing a unique “Cookies-and-Cream swirl” effect. Additionally, this specimen may be the bright morph since the spotting wing pattern is discernible on a light-colored wing background.

Based on what I have read on the forum, this appears to be a very detailed, albeit, wordy explanation. It incorporates both geographic information, morphological information/sex/morph, and a cited source. Do you think I should change the way I write my explanations so that people are able to understand them better, i.e. making it shorter, break into separate posts? And do you think I should link any genomic/phylogenetic analysis to make it more convincing/complete? I have made a BLAST phylogenetic tree that outlines the evolutionary relationships between geographic regions of the world. It was arduous to do since NCBI does not have an option to filter sequences by country/geographic region. I also have the list of the Descriptions table from the BLAST search.

While I only posted for one of my descriptions of an ID, how do you think detailed explanations for IDs should be handled in general?


I haven’t been here much longer than you but I think I’m on solid ground when I say that some explanation is better than none and more explanation is usually better than less. There are folks here who expertly ID enormous numbers of observations; they manage that by keeping the commentary to a minimum and many offer explanations only when asked. Like most things in life it’s about the trade-off; more information means fewer IDs and more IDs means less explanation.

Learning is the raison d’être of iNat. People learn in different ways but clear explanations of why things are what you say they are seem like a pretty solid contribution. That’s especially true for IDs that contradict the original identification; you’re telling somebody they are wrong and an explanation seems like simple courtesy.

I imagine you learn a lot while putting together your mini-essays. Seems to me that that alone justifies the exercise. One caveat is that there are a lot of levels of formal training (none to wrote the book) and many reasons for being here so explanations that use very technical language will help a smaller group than those written in plain language.


While I would say it is unusually detailed, I would say that it is unusual in the right direction. I always appreciate it when people take the time to tell me what tells them that my observation belongs to a particular taxa, as it gives me an opportunity to learn.

Additionally, there seems to be a culture among some iNaturalists (possibly mostly among the Southern African community as a holdover from the way that I.D.s were weighted on iSpot) of agreeing with an I.D. as a way of acknowledging or thanking the identifier, rather than because they have any reason to know that the identifier is actually right, so when people cite their sources and give other visitors to an observation the information they would need to make an informed agreement, it makes ‘research grade’ a much less meaningless attribution.


Basically, you can do whatever you want. I have found that people appreciate some information, and as mentioned it is a good way for you and them to learn. Personally, I feel there is too much detail in the description - not sure the full references are needed, nor the comparison between continents.
Ultimately it boils down to what you want to achieve. An identification with that much detail takes time. If you want to take the time, then do so. I’m trying to reach a balance between speed (there are a lot of observations that need identification!) and providing information. With more common moths, I may simply paste a link and if the person wants to follow it they can.
Here’s a recent comment of mine trying to sort out a moth id

I’m wondering if it is not A. volubilis . It has fewer markings on the lower wing. Here’s a comparison -[]=110658.jpg%2CAgrotis+stigmosa&image[]=110651.jpg%2CAgrotis+venerabilis
I don’t really know, however.


Its a case of MORE is more.

Greetings @william6

Welcome to the forum.

Some folks provide pretty detailed observations at times. Here is one from somebody I follow that I found interesting:

I agree that it is unusual in the right way. The incredibly rapid growth of iNat has strained the capacity of identifiers quite a bit and the response has included a lot of IDs with no explanations. That reduces the rate at which less confident IDers learn, unfortunately. A few folks who take the time to explain in detail is a good thing.


As a non-scientist, I have to say that I really appreciate plain English (or whatever language, I guess) explanations. I also really appreciate links to let me learn more. I find that full citations in the middle of a paragraph breaks up the useful information, and should usually be relegated to the end, if they need to be included at all.
A long and detailed comment shows extraordinary commitment, and I appreciate them when I get them (usually after I ask a question), but I certainly don’t expect them.
Don’t burn yourself out!


I do a fair amount of identifying in groups with which I’m familiar, primarily moths and plants here in Texas. I would categorize my comments on observations in three generalized “tiers”:
(1) I will typically add an ID without comment for readily apparent species which can be investigated and confirmed by just looking at the primary image on iNaturalist or on some commonly frequented site like BugGuide or Moth Photographers’ Group (for species in my realm of interest).
(2) Since moths commonly involve more difficult ID challenges, I will often paste in a link to either or both BugGuide or MPG or some other relevant resource, as a starting point, without comment. If there is a geographic component which simplifies an ID, I’ll add that as a note.
(3) I will usually let (1) or (2) suffice until/unless I see a request for further details. Then I’ll go into full tilt ID help mode by reciting field marks, references, context, etc., to the degree that it seems appropriate for a given ID challenge.

There’s a fourth level we sometimes get into with the toughest ID challenges. Those involve detailed exchanges of information among commenters with much give and take. Those can truly be some of the best and most enjoyable moments. But those are relatively uncommon; the effort required of such exchanges, including background research into references, quotes, etc., etc., can be tedious, but it’s the kind of thing I like to dive into occasionally.


Your explanation is unusual, but good. I occasionally copy such information into my own records to help me identify better.

You may find it useful to copy such explanations into a document so you can just copy and paste the next time you want to explain. I have such a document I call “iNaturalist responses.”

You’ll probably want to balance speed vs. explanation. Personally, like @gcwarber I put no explanation on what I consider straightforward identifications and brief explanations for most cases where there’s a potential problem, including where I disagree with the original explanation. Sometimes, though, only a thorough explanation will do.

Thanks for doing identifications and for trying to make them helpful.