How much disturbance is "okay"?

This post is motivated by my observation today of what I believe is a Dogbane Saucrobotys Moth (Saucrobotys futilalis). As can be seen in the observation, the first picture is of a leaf roll, and the next two pictures are of the caterpillar after I unrolled the leaf roll to see it.

And then I felt bad about it. Herpers on here will know what I mean – the ethic of always replacing the objects you turn over while herping, so as not to deny the animal its shelter. But I can’t re-roll a leaf roll. The caterpillar’s shelter is destroyed; I can only hope that it was able to construct a new one before something caught it out in the open.

I know that “it won’t affect the population.” That conversation has been had here, many times, always by collectors defending their actions. That isn’t my concern, and I don’t want to see any replies framed in those terms. I doubt that caterpillar has any awareness of being part of a population. However, that caterpillar is very preoccupied with preserving its individual life; in fact, the majority of its daily activities are directly related to preserving its individual life. Destroying its home to get a look and a picture? Was it really worth it?

I feel similarly when I accidentally walk into a spider web. So what if a deer can bound through spider webs without a care? My capacity for mindfulness surpasses that of a deer. But that is different in that that is an accident. Unrolling that leaf roll was a decision. A decision I now question.

Yes, our simply being out in nature is a disturbance to some organisms. Still, I think about spiritually advanced Jains, who might wear a face mask to avoid accidentally inhaling and killing tiny insects, or gently sweep the ground ahead of them as they walk to avoid accidentally trampling any living creature. It is possible to live with that degree of harmlessness.

How much thought do you put into this? At what point do you decide that the observation is not worth the distress or danger to the creature?


We rescued this moth from being trampled by horses and trail runners.
Put it on a shrub in the sun. But not as warm as on the darker sand. And did we set it up to be bird food? But trampled is worse, right ?

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Spiders routinely make new webs, I think if you destroy a spider web I would think of it more like you broke someones fishing line than destroyed their house


This is a very difficult but contextually necessary question for all users.
I don’t have a definitive answer to this question but may refer a quote from Dr. Salim Ali (Indian ornithologist and naturalist, who is referred to as the “Birdman of India”),
…it is true that I despise purposeless killing, and regard it as an act of vandalism, deserving the severest condemnation. But my love for birds is not of the sentimental variety. It is essentially aesthetic and scientific, and in some cases may even be pragmatic. For a scientific approach to bird study, it is often necessary to sacrifice a few, … (and) I have no doubt that but for the methodical collecting of specimens in my earlier years – several thousands, alas – it would have been impossible to advance our taxonomical knowledge of Indian birds … nor indeed of their geographic distribution, ecology, and bionomics.

The problem is that not all of us are ‘Dr. Salim Ali’, but who does like to think ‘I’m not Dr. Salim Ali’?
I always believe that before running after something crazily, it is always necessary to pass some basic standards and steps.


It’s easy for me to answer the first question… I put a great deal of thought into the disturbance caused by my presence in nature in general, whether walking, photographing or just observing. It’s not a question of sentiment, but of awareness and above all of respect for all forms of life. Every organism has its own specific world, its own universe, in which I am an intruder and my obviously impossible aim is to disrupt that world as little as possible, partly because my personal ethic tells me this is the right thing to do, but also because the instant my presence has caused a disruption, I can no longer observe that world in its infinitely more fascinating “before-me” state.
As to the second question, the answer is… it depends. If I’m just observing for my own interest and curiosity, I’m extremely unlikely to behave in such a way as to deliberately cause distress or danger to the life form involved. My own personal knowledge is just not worth it. But if the observation in question could have positive benefits for the conservation of a given environment and/or could contribute to raising the sensitivity of others towards a given life form, then I might accept a limited amount of disturbance for the better good.
Of course my very presence in an environment is likely to distress and even kill any number of organisms of which I am unaware. But that conscious, knowing decision to act in such a way as to cause distress or damage is something else entirely. It will very probably have no effect on the population or the habitat in question, but it most certainly will have an effect on me and on my relationship with that environment. And in the end I feel I have lost more than I have gained.


In situations like this, I go with my heart, informed by my intellect. I can imagine unrolling a leaf to see the caterpillar, then realizing what I did and not feeling so good about it, and in the future not doing it again. To me, it is all about how the action feels, before, during and after.

One thing that is also very important for me is intention. What is my intention when I do something? An action with this or that intention is different from the same action with a different intention the next time.


Only once. When we walked at Cape Point, a ‘herper’ had been thru flipping rocks. And left them flipped, habitat damaged … until the creatures can work their way under again. Someone, taught them to flip rocks - but not the other half about protecting habitat and herps.


I try not to get too tangled up in the small stuff, but the tiny makeup mirrors are nice for photographing the under/back side with less disturbance:


Dang, why did I never think of that! have dozens of observations that were never made because I couldn’t get a picture of the top.

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Have you read the book Braiding Sweetgrass? Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and botanist, summarizes the guidelines for an honorable harvest that are embedded in many North American Indigenous cultures (maybe others too, IDK)

Anyway, she suggests asking permission before you harvest or in this case, disturb the organism for a photo. This is a very subjective thing, of course, so there is no clear, binary flowchart. Knowing when to harvest requires knowledge and understanding of whatever it is you are observing AND the ecosystem it lives in. It also requires some humility and the willingness to walk away.

In my effort to approach the other-than-human world with generosity and reciprocity rather than self-centeredness and extraction this is where I am with decision making about the harvest right now.

In asking permission (i.e. does this feel right) I consider seasonality, the number of like organisms, and the benefit to science and learning. If all of those are trending towards positive, I disturb. The less positive the trend, the less I disturb even to the point of not taking the photo. It’s a complex question and sometimes I have to wait to allow subconscious dials to set themselves before I feel the answer.

I also embrace the idea of effortless effort. If there is some sort of tension or straining to get the photo, I don’t force it. If the organism presents itself to me, that is one “sign” (using a very broad definition of that word) that I should take the photo.

In short, whether or not to harvest requires a close relationship with the environment and ecosystem, one that includes (this is key) giving back and deep gratitude which softens the more strident urges of our consumptive nature that can even drive making observations on iNat. The giving back can be something simple like a version of putting down tobacco or it could be more pragmatic like donating time or money to an environmental cause.

This is a thoughtful question and I hope you are able to develop an inner sense to know when it’s ok and when it’s not.


Thanks for raising this topic and your thoughtful take on it. One of the reasons I contribute to iNat is to provide information for scientists and others that they can access online, without the disturbance that an in-person visit causes. How wonderful that modern technology lets us observe so much with minimal impact.

As I observe and photograph, I try to minimize my impact on all the beings around me. I don’t capture or move insects unless they are in my house, don’t use light traps, and watch my step. Just this week, I learned the value of closing my curtains at night to avoid light leakage that disturbs beings who are active then. I don’t go as far as the Jains but admire their commitment. For a Buddhist view on this topic, see A Plea for Animals by Matthieu Ricard.

Animals are not ours to use, including for entertainment.


I don’t have hard and fast rules. But I tend to favor minimal disruption.

I’ll move animals off roads so they’re not killed–disturbed > roadkill. Sometimes, but rarely, I’ll flip–and generally nothing with a solid seal around it.

I got a glimpse of what I think was a crayfish snake up in Oklahoma this week–we were crossing a stream, spooked it, it darted out from a rock next to me and under another. I didn’t move that rock to verify species or get a photo because I’d already accidently disturbed it once. But neither do I feel bad about accidently disturbing it. I was trying to be reasonably careful crossing the stream, was out with the family having a good time and teaching my kids about the environment. I don’t feel bad about photographing the birds and lizards and other snakes I saw, but I tried not to spook them too (did scare a couple I think that saw something looking at them and flew).


I feel like sharing a few anecdotes related to this topic

  • As maples were leafing out this spring I inspected a wooded strip dominated by invasive Norway maples. I made the conscious choice to girdle a moderately sized one so it would never fruit, making sure to identify it confidently beforehand. Thereafter, I cut a young silver maple to the ground, which at the time did not feel like a mistake since I had not learned how to differentiate the 2 species at leaf emergence. I now have to live with the guilt of having killed a native tree in a habitat where it struggled against faster-growing invasives. Does my earlier girdling of a Norway maple compensate for this disturbance?
  • To explore my local riparian band means to carefully inspect the life at my feet before every step. I inevitably trample lots of organisms, some of which like horsetails do not recover, while others like goldenrods generally do. I fear that my makeshift trails will encourage other, less prudent individuals to further disturb this cherished habitat. Is that plausible?
  • I recently caught a fish out of a ditch near my home. Confronted to an ape thousands of times its size, it started to wiggle erratically in the plastic bag I used to photograph it. After a while its fins depressed and its breathing slowed; signs of stress. I promptly released it into the ditch, hoping that the experience of being netted, then transferred to a bag and photographed above water had not depleted too much of its energy.
    (there was water in the bag, no worries)
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How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?

In the year 2017, a Tundra Bean Goose was seen in a River Barrage/Wetland of our Country. This bird came, for the first time in this wetland, far away from the Arctic Tundra region perhaps to find a winter shelter away from her home. Being a rarety in this part of the hemisphere, the news of her sighting spread very soon like wildfire everywhere. From the next day, and for the very few days she was here, she had to spend her time only by flying here and there, being chased all day by groups of Picnickers/Enthusiasts/Photographers/Birders/Naturalists. She never came here again after that year. Why?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind


Generally giant silkmoths have a biology where they don’t eat as adults and live a mere week - just long enough to mate and lay eggs. So becoming food after its battery is spent is probably the right outcome. It’s kind of a numbers game that you will mostly find those large moths dead or dying - that’s the condition they are most likely to exist in as adults.
Handling it respectfully and leaving it outside seems right, but as far as individual welfare goes, it’s probably past hope, and no harm done by handling it for a photo.


My take is that access (and trails) is important, even if it encourages access by less careful people. Because foot access (even by litterbugs with off-leash dogs, or children playing tag) beats bulldozer access by developers, and the person who just wants to walk their dog or run around is a potential ally.
We can get hung up on how to behave perfectly while shutting out people who need the space to learn to love the outdoors.
That’s not license to be careless once you know better, or to let very rare sites get trampled, but there’s a lot of wild spaces where maybe more imperfect use by pedestrians is on the side of greater good. A trodden trail is not meaningfully habitat fragmentation the way a road or development is.


Possibly outdated, but at one point the duck stamp program (licensing for duck hunters) was one of the best converting dollars to conservation work projects in the US. I would prefer that nobody shoot the ducks, but I can grudgingly admit that the people who are paying to shoot wild ducks, respecting bag limits, probably count as conservation allies, and that conserving wetlands so that they can shoot ducks in them probably aligns their interests with mine.


While I assume this was no one’s intention, discussions like these always leave me with the impression that people believe humans aren’t a part of nature.
I am of course as opposed to any unnecessary harm or damage done to any other organism and I think it is good we are talking and thinking about this topic, but at the same time I feel like the “no-disturbance-approach” is flawed.

Firstly, nature isn’t a museum that we can keep in a constant state. Habitats change and are disturbed naturally as well. While large scale human influence always tends to be fatal for an environment, I don’t see individuals walking through a habitat to be of much concern (in most cases), especially people, like we all, interested in nature.
On the contrary. I believe that first-hand experiences in and with nature will be the most effective way of combating it’s destruction. I think I’m not the only one for whom the love of nature started with being surrounded by it a lot.
I’d say the less we further alienate ourselves from the natural world, the better.

Secondly, too little disturbance isn’t always better. Moderately disturbed habitats tend to have a higher biodiversity than undisturbed ones due to a larger and more diverse “menu” of ecological niches. I am generally in favour of completely undisturbed (by us) environments existing, but I strongly believe that not all of nature should be “undisturbed”. I completely agree with dentalflossbay that foot access beats bulldozer access. (Also, I’d speculate that the more “undisturbed” area there is, the higher our disturbance on all other areas is.)

Lastly, regarding the animals (and other organisms) as individuals, I agree that we should always aim towards damaging them as little as possible and preventing suffering at all cost. I don’t think it is necessary for non-scientists (or scientists outside their professional life) to harm other organisms for the sake of a more precise ID. (Taking small samples of plants, lichens, fungi, etc. is completely fine though).


Certainly humans can be (and perhaps now inevitably always are to some extent) part of ecosystems and environments, but I actually don’t believe they are part of nature, otherwise what did we invent the word “nature” to describe and why is the opposite of “natural” “artificial” (Merriam Webster: humanly contrived often on a natural model : man-made").

To have positive connotations, high biodiversity should not be interpreted as simply the greatest number of species possible, but rather the RIGHT species in the RIGHT environment in the RIGHT places. For example, think of an unconsolidated Mediterranean dune environment where only a handful of specifically adapted plant species are typical of a (relatively) undisturbed dune, while human disturbance can easily take this to four times the number of species or more, often pushing the typical species to the limit of survival or ousting them altogether.

Sorry, this is only marginally relevant to the topic, so I’ll leave it at that, but you’ve just given me the inspiration for two fascinating threads for discussion I may open here on the forum when I get a moment :blush:.


Thank you for your thoughtful reply! :)
I agree that just looking at the number of species is a flawed way of thinking about biodiversity and the “ecological value” (for lack of a better term) of a place. However, I disagree with the notion of right and wrong species in right and wrong environments.
For example, I think (and many will hard disagree with me on that, I’m sure) that introduced and even invasive species aren’t that big of a problem by themselves. I think the “right” place for a species is any habitat it can survive in. Species arriving in new habitats is a quite natural process which happens usually due to natural changes of the environment. The only difference with “artificially” introduced species is that they don’t come from adjacent places, but often from halfway across the globe. I think that difference makes hardly any practical change (the only one I can think of is natural predators of that species not being able to catch up, but I think that’s only a problem in the short term) and is mostly sentimental. (Look at the sensational, shocking news article headlines every time mainstream (as in not scientific) media gets wind of a new introduced species, for example)

I think the actual core problem we have to combat is loss of habitat and loss of habitat diversity. These rob the native species which get into in competition with an invasive one the ability to escape into a different ecological niche which would ideally allow native and invasive/introduced to coexist. In the end, niche specialisation/diversification one of the most powerful drivers of evolution and biodiversity. (Of course, this wouldn’t happen in all cases. In some, the native species could be driven to extinction, but I’d also say that this to a certain extent is natural, again, nature cannot be kept in a constant state).

The other big problem is the time intervals and the scale these things happen at currently: Way too much, way too fast. Large scale influence of humanity as a collective is almost always fatal to any environment.

I can only theorise here, but I can imagine that this is mainly a relic of - in the “Western hemisphere” - Christian belief putting humans above the rest of the natural world as the “crown of creation” and having god’s permission to “subjugate creation” or something. (Though I think lots of religions and cultures probably have their versions of humans > other animals, but I don’t know anything about that really)
As I am not a huge fan of religion in general, I also don’t really like this belief. But I think this is a very personal matter and there is no right or wrong answer here :sweat_smile:

I’m happy to hear it and look forward to reading them! :D

P.S.: I didn’t intend for this reply to become so long, sorry about that! Haha

P.P.S.: Oh damn, yeah, this has gotten way too long :grimacing:

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