How do *you* expand your knowledge of different taxa?

Some people have very niche specialties for identification and overall knowledge, and some have really broad areas that they know about. A big part of this, I think, is how different people learn new taxa. Do you personally sit down and study identification guides and textbooks for species that seem most interesting to you? Do you talk to lots of people from different fields and listen to their tips on topics they bring up?

For me, I just started absorbing casual media regarding animals I found cool (reptiles, especially snakes), and over time as I constantly interacted with posts and articles about reptiles I became more familiar with them. This expanded into a greater interest in habitat management, conservation, and educating people about animals they often find frightening or gross. That then led to an interest in vultures, particularly New Worlds, and carrion-eating animals in general. So for me it was never sit down and methodically study these species but rather gradually interact with more things that seem interesting and end up building knowledge and expanding interests along the way.

But I know people’s brains work in different ways, so I’m excited to hear how y’all go about learning new taxa or expanding knowledge on your favorites!


To preface, I mostly specialize in flies, with decent knowledge of certain other arthropods. Reading scientific papers and online resources is my preferred way of researching a new group. I have not yet had the privilege to visit a scientific collection (my interest started during the pandemic), but in the future, I plan and imagine that studying specimens will be part of my process.


I primarily rely on research papers too.


I’m pretty new to identifying plants, have been doing it less than 2 years so I remember the before/after.

I think the most important factor for me was deciding that by default, every new plant I am looking at is special, interesting, and worthy of observation, whereas before it was: they’re all plants, there’s only grass, weeds, trees, and shrubs… that level of coarseness was enough to satisfy my curiosity at the time.

If you can be selective of this mindset, that’s helpful. I apply it to just plants since it can be a slippery slope to interest in other lifeforms and there’s only so much time to observe…

To fill in gaps, I started reading books. Gardening books, country-wide books (with a title like Trees of North America), and plant foraging books are okay but they don’t provide good insight into plant families.

The best books I found, are region-specific and written by experts in their field. They give insights into families so you start developing a good feel for similar taxa and can work your way down from generic identification to species level.

A good example of such books is Flora of the Santa Ana River and Environs (2007).

If you’re interested in just local taxa, a good way to learn more is to Explore in iNat, filtering by only today’s observations that are marked research grade. It’s like flashcards for reviewing known and unknown taxa.

A bit controversial but for local taxa, if you notice the same user ID popping up and they occasionally comment/interact on IDs, maybe reach out and see if they can recommend any good books? I wouldn’t do this with non-commenters, though. I don’t think everyone checks their messages…

I’m a plant guy so maybe this experience isn’t applicable to other lifeforms. Hopefully it’s analagous.


For me it’s actually going out into the field and looking for those things. Each time I get a trickle of an interest in some new group, I’ll try to find species from it on all my subsequent bushwalks/trips. If I want to learn more about orchids, I’ll go out and specifically make an effort to try and find orchids in the field. This immersive way of doing it is what makes names, identifying features etc stick the most in my mind. Generally, if I’ve seen any given species myself in the field, I’ll be more confident in making or confirming identifications of it on iNat versus species I’ve never seen before, or have only seen in books/online.


I’m the same way. Seeing it in the field makes it stick in a way that seeing it in a book doesn’t, at least for me


that certainly seems like a good approach with flies! i think they’re very interesting creatures, but learning about them seems daunting. they’re basically everywhere but small and overlooked by most people (beyond "ew a fly swat it) and many of them look so similar in comparison to vultures where there are two species in my area and both are large with distinctive colors and markings. i hope you get the chance to see a scientific collection soon! do you think you’d ever work on a pinned collection of your own?

sometimes they can be so interesting to read. i use sci-hub all the time for access lol. although sometimes i see a phrase i don’t recognize and i try to google it and the only result is the same paper i was just reading. but i reckon that’s a good time for some more research into terminology for the subject, which can help me learn more!

that’s a good approach to have. i don’t think about plants as much as you do, but maybe i’ll start paying more attention to them. when i initially started exploring outside with any real regularity i was only excited for ‘cool’ organisms, like big snakes that i could show pictures of or things like that. i realized i could get so much more out of nature if i enjoyed things without worrying about how cool they were and now i am always happy to look under an old log and see a little centipede scuttle away or some cool fungus.

that’s a good idea! i know not everyone is super interactive through comments/messages on inat but personally that’s probably my favorite part—i love having conversations with other people about nature, even brief ones. someone messaged me for tips on how to find a certain species because i was having better luck and it absolutely made my day :)

i like that! that reminds me i should try to set up a small pitfall trap for some meat-eating beetles, i’ve been meaning to get around to it but haven’t yet. i’ve been learning more about carrion/burying beetles recently and would love to see one of our native species (baiting them with meat is the best way to find them)

agreed, reading paragraphs in a book can be great but nothing is quite the same as seeing it up close or having it in your hand


Yeah, it’s the same for me. Aside from birds, I usually research and learn more about taxa after I’ve actually come across them in person. For birds, I use a guide I have to seek them out instead.


For me, I reached out to many experts in the fields I was looking into and had specific questions in mind when “interviewing” them:

Looking into O. rimosa reports in New Jersey, I emailed the author of “First Breeding Record of the Cicada Okanagana rimosa Say (Say’s Cicada) in New Jersey” and asked these questions:
-“What do you know about the cycle (proto-periodical) of O. rimosa? It might be a good idea to look into what years they’d be more prominent”
-Where he had first heard about them in NJ, which lead me to the fact he’s heard them in different towns but never found a specimen.

When I first got into bugs, and still now, my favorite are Phylliidae. I’ve talked to Royce Cumming more than any other entomologist I know, and have asked PLENTY of questions. Some include:
-“What resources did you first use to learn about them?” (phasmidspeciesfiles!)
-“How long did you spend at college, and for what?” (currently part of a 5yr PhD program, for forensic entomology!)
-“Was it hard, as an entomologist, to find work after graduation?” (not really! many museums are looking for help, and agriculture is where the money is)

I really recommend reaching out to the experts in whatever you’re looking into. It may take a little while for a response (I usually give it a week, though it does vary, they’re busy after all!), but it’s definitely worth it. They are more than willing to talk to like-minded people and are an often untapped resource.

Hopefully I’ll get the chance to talk to more entomologists in the future. Maybe if I continue working hard I’ll eventually become one myself. :)


i’ve done that too, and sometimes it leads to really interesting bits of knowledge! even species i’ve seen many times but never identified. for example, i grew up often seeing whirligig beetles (family gyrinidae) and when i eventually identified them as something beyond Water Bug i learned that their compound eyes are divided—the top eyes see above water, and the bottom eyes see below water, because they mostly swim along the surface. how fascinating is that?

that’s smart to reach out to people in the field you’re interested in! and that’s also a good question to ask lol. as much as it sucks, knowing future career prospects can be necessary when deciding what path to follow. i would love to do something nature-related as a real career, maybe conservation work. i wish you the best of luck with pursuing entomology!


Noctuid moth person here. Perhaps it’s my history - in the 1980’s one of my jobs as an Entomology technician was to identify moths. Back then (take note all you youngsters!!) we had no internet, so we had to rely on written descriptions, terrible photos in a book and occasionally looking at a preserved specimen. So I prefer written descriptions and ‘scholarly’ papers. The internet is invaluable - I use Moth Photographers Group, Bugguide, and Pacific NW Moths a lot. I will also use online papers, especially the series Moths of America North of Mexico.
These resources give me at least two things - a sense of what things look like, and the variation within each species. I also know a few folks on iNat who are more expert than me, and I can, and do rely on them to clarify tricky features.
My method of learning is basically through identification. I identify what I know, and if I am unsure, I search for resources. Often this leads me to Google Scholar, where I have picked up a great deal of information, both written and visual. A good taxonomic paper includes range, life history and the plants that the larvae feed on. As well as some sort of visual cues - photos or drawings. I remember keying out insects, and the keys with a visual reference were fantastic. They allowed a visual cue to accompany the written ones.


Definitely agree with that! For any kind of identification, knowing the right terminology helps, especially when interacting with more experienced people whose careers are in the field. The specific language can be very foreign at first (example: Identification of a Pepperweed), but easily lets people describe and understand very specific parts of a lifeform without having to share pictures and circle things back and forth.

For plant identification, the holy book is The Jepson Manual (2012). It has very exact/bare-bones descriptions of plants, sometimes with line drawings. What’s most powerful about the book is it’s dichotomous key: a series of yes/no questions that let you identify any plant to the species (sometimes variety) level. It sounds easy, but only works 100% of the time when:

  1. The plant in front of you
  2. The plant has flowers, fruits, and seeds available for examination
  3. May need a microscope to examine/measure < 1 mm features (Popcorn Flower)
  4. Many more I’m not aware of

This doesn’t mean dichotomous keys are without merit, they’re still really useful if you have a rough idea of what plant family something belongs to and want to narrow it down.

Having looked at an older version of the Jepson Manual, it’s pretty funny. The editor makes a point about it using the least technical language to describe things… but then the remainder of the book is full of botanical terminology, without understanding which, makes the rest of the book incomprehensible.

Thankfully, there’s an extremely helpful glossary of botanical terms at the very beginning of the Jepson Manual with helpful line drawings. There’s also an online version without drawings. A really good online version with line drawings is the Go Botany website. They also include line drawings into their dichotomous keys.

Also, consider participating in a local BioBlitz if you can. It’s a great way to interact with other iNatters and is a good way to meet local experts.

Maybe others can recommend similar resources their preferred taxa?


I have a pinned collection, but of assorted arthropods that I’ve collected, not just flies, and certainly not just of the groups I have a special interest in.

1 Like

bugguide can be so helpful! and agreed, keys are great. it’s satisfying to work through them (to me, at least). i’m a very visual person, so i really appreciate when they have some diagrams, etc

thanks for sharing! i love hearing people explain things / share resources regarding topics they’re passionate about, even if i don’t know a ton about the subject myself. all this plant talk is making me want to go learn something about the plants in my area :) i’ll keep my eye out for bioblitzes in the area, thanks for the tip!

very cool! i’ve been tempted to start my own, but there are so many species out there i don’t know if it’s even worth it to start lol


I would say I´m pretty good at recognizing families and sometimes genuses all over the insect/spider world.
I am also a specialist in certain kinds of spiders.
If it comes to new knowledge, both abilities are nowadays often sparked by trying to ID what I have observed myself, often using field guides first if I don´t know anything to get into the right corner (or IDers here pointing me in the right direction) and using scientific lists and literature later to start the deeper dive into the matter.

However, for most of the generalist I don´t really recall how I started getting into this exactly. I can just tell you that my parents at some point started hiding the (back then) common TV-magazine that included the TV program from me as they sometimes had hopes for not having to watch the millionth nature documentary for the 5th time on our only TV in the house :-D. Also my room was crammed with all kinds of animal related nature books. I just absorbed everything as a kid, when it is pretty easy… kids are able to remember and recognize the weirdest stuff.
I think this recognition of arthropod families and species got an important push when I got my first digital camera, photograped everything I saw and researched it later. I also started early using internet discussion boards to interact with other nature enthusiasts and learned a lot from them. It´s nice if your are able just to ask and learn instead havng to figure it all out by yourself… especially as a beginner that might not have a feeling yet what to look for. I also had some formal training during my studies, but by that time it did not add too many new knowledge to my general knowledge of animal species around me.

The specialist part (mainly in spiders) started as a self-cure-attempt of slight arachnophobia and worked similar to the general attempt. I started photographing those “beasts” and tried to figure out what those were and then ended up reading up on them, getting fascinated and then totally sucked in into the arachnid world. Now a lot of my specialities are species I had observed myself and then got familiar with by observing them multiple times and/or reading up on them in more popular sources and scientific papers alike. Some other specialities just fell into place when I read up on how to distinguish similar species (this is usually scientific literature) of the ones I know in certain areas - even if I have never seen them myself yet.


i agree, there are so many benefits to being able to connect with people all over the world that have knowledge on things you’re interested in. as much as i love a good book, i can’t imagine having to go all the way to a physical library and rely on their selection for information lol. lots of respect to y’all that can identify arachnids so well, i struggle with creatures like that that are everywhere but tiny and not always obvious—if i can’t clearly see the identifying traits by walking past the animal, it’s probably a lost cause for me


I’m a plant observer/identifier… during my time on iNat the way I’ve expanded my own knowledge of plants has changed quite a lot.

When I first started out sometimes identifiers would give a tip of info here or there. Oftentimes you can ask around and most will be happy to explain their identification/share their knowledge, especially to those who want to listen.

Nowadays, I’ll often look through observations with comments in them, because often there is useful information on identification shared within observations. Usually they’ll be favorited so I sort by favorites in the filter. And then I’ll favorite those observations too. I’ve found tons of useful IDing information this way, and often they can explain it in a way that is easier for the average user to understand.

This is why it’s useful to familiarize yourself with people in your local iNat community… you’ll start to learn who is experienced in what and know what you can ask of them.


Eventually I began having to look through literature—keys, flora books, research papers, etc. At this point I started having to track down all the technical botanical jargon. It takes a lot of effort to understand what is being said in a key/scientific literature, especially for someone like me who's rarely ever done so before.

Luckily there are a lot of websites that can help with that, such as GoBotany as @vreinkymov said. Even then, you might not have enough on hand for a proper identification. To make it easier, I recommend working from both regional and more comprehensive sources (aka Flora of North America).

It is also important to not just study scientific literature but to also apply it to the field.

You can try looking at RG iNat observations, but there are always misidentifications so you can never really be sure of accuracy, especially for more difficult taxa (depends on observer and identifier of obs as well, another good reason to know your iNat community). Herbarium specimens also work but I find them more difficult to study compared to having a live, fresh, specimen in your hand.

Once I obtain useful identification knowledge, I’ll go out into the field and check it myself, look at the characteristics mentioned. Only then can you really get confident with this new knowledge.

For example, earlier this year I was trying to determine the differences between *V. persica* and *V. polita*, which both occur in my area.

I started by checking through observations in my local community-ish (within a metro area, region, state/province, etc.), under the taxon V. polita (the more uncommon one in my location), sorted for number of favorites, and looked for observations with comments. I found a few observations with useful information (here and here) based on relative length/shape of sepals, overlap of corolla lobes (aka petals), and possibly leaf margins. I also checked the person who was giving the information, who is a Professor in Germany who had studied the genus Veronica for ~20 years.

Having done this, I began checking speedwells I saw for these characteristics, and made several observations on both species (Here’s an observation I made for V. persica and for V. polita) until I was confident in my ability to correctly identify the two.

Also every now and then when I'm searching up a species on the internet I'll find useful identification information, but I check it with species descriptions from other sources just to be sure.

*Edited lightly for readability… I curse my concision problems!


I have a bunch of niche taxa, and most of them started with negativity. For instance, I remember trying to identify Rhexia (meadowbeauties) from a field guide and getting very frustrated. “Hate those things!” But it would be like an itch waiting to be scratched. Eventually I’d comb through guides and keys and websites and scientific literature and make a big matrix of characters to tell the species apart, and then I’d go hunting in the field until I had “collected them all.” Then I’d start noticing other people’s and IDing them or suggesting what information they would need, until eventually people started asking my opinion. The famously “difficult” taxa are especially enticing. Nerdy but satisfying!


Absolutely! Descriptions, photos, other observations… nothing compares to seeing it for yourself. It’s what helped draw me to iNat in the first place—it’s a way to take what you learn and apply it to the field, in a fun and engaging way.

Why just read about it when you can just go out and see it for yourself?


I have a few ways that have worked for me:

  1. ID as best as I can as often as I can, even if it is still a higher level taxon. When others come along to refine the ID, I look at the notification and after seeing a species identified a few times I can usually gain some confidence IDing that species, especially if the other IDer left comments as to how they identified it. Repeatedly seeing a species identified helps a lot, and for that reason I am also on many Facebook groups for identifying different organisms. After seeing the same species a few times show up in these groups and on my feed, I usually learn to ID them. It is more passive learning, but still effective for me.

  2. Posting my own observations. When uploading to iNat, I do research how to identify some organisms using local resources such as field guides or online identification guides. I also use iNat to compare different possibilities and help rule out lookalikes. I also post on Facebook groups occasionally, and it helps a lot to have a more collaborative space where you can ask experts questions about IDing certain organisms.

  3. This one is not for everyone, but I meticulously organize my photos. I have unlimited cloud storage so I figured I would use it to help me learn. I have my photos organized taxonomically, so each time I have to save it to my storage, I have to look up the taxonomic tree for that species on iNat or hopefully have already learned where the organism falls taxonomically. This has helped me a lot in learning how to identify things to at least a higher level taxa. After filing enough photos under Brassicaceae, I got pretty good at identifying members of that family even if I can’t identify them to species. It helps a lot to at least have a starting point when identifying. It started out as a way for me to find specific photos faster, and has now turned into one of my most helpful learning tools.