How often are new species described based on Nat observations?

I’ve seen observations like this, this, and this, where the observations either led to descriptions or are those of holotypes. There’s also this project, which has a couple hundred observations of species observed on Inat that are thought to be undescribed. How often do researchers describe novel species first documented by Inat observations? Do the observers in this case get credited as the “discoverers” of the species?

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I wouldn’t say it’s super frequent, but it’s certainly becoming increasingly more common given the huge number of observations being submitted every day.

It’s context-dependent. In most cases I would say yes, but it can depend on whether that first observer also then collected/helped to collect the type specimen. I recently posted a silverfish that I found that got ID’ed to family. With this info, I contacted the Australian expert, went back and collected a specimen, and it’s now been described as a new species (which probably never would have eventuated without the family ID), and I was lucky enough to be listed as a co-author. In other cases, the original observer may just be noted in-text or in the acknowledgements.

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Whether the original discoverer gets credit is a choice of the person who first publishes the name for the new species. I think most people agree that this person should get credit! What kind of credit? The sequence of events leading to its discovery and naming should be explained, including who discovered it. Inviting the discoverer to be a co-author on the paper is good practice but not required. Naming it after the discoverer would be considered bad practice by the many people who think that a scientific name should be descriptive, not a person’s name, but some people do it anyway. Also note that doing it excludes the discoverer from authorship of the paper because it’s considered very very bad practice to name an organism after oneself.**

(Full disclosure: I’ve named plants after people twice. In the case of the grass Calamagrostis muiriana*, I could not come up with another appropriate name that I could translate into Latin and wasn’t already published for another species in the large and confusing genus Calamagrostis.)

  • for John Muir, early California conservationist, who cannot be said to have discovered the grass but doubtless camped on it where it is a community dominant in his favorite Tuolumne Meadows in what is now Yosemite National Park.

** Carolus Linnaeus named the small, northern wildflower Linnaea borealis after himself. Even at the start of modern taxonomy, that was considered arrogant, but he explained that this was OK because Linnaea is just a modest little plant. Linnaea is sort of modest – not chickweed modest – but this was certainly not a case of matching personalities; Linnaeus was not a modest little man.

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At least for the first example, the frog was formally described by specimen, not photo. I don’t know if this is the very first example or not - the paper was not clear. In my experience with published papers, the people who do the grunt work often only receive minimal credit. Or none at all. This means the folks who went out and collected specimens for 3 months, three times per week, or went outside at -20 C for six months to collect (and then collate) data may or may not receive recognition. Certainly not a name at the top! I don’t know how new species are done. Especially since some are based on specimens from museum collections.

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There do seem to be cases like this kukri snake first documented on Instagram, where the person who photographed it was invited to co-author the paper (although he was a PhD zoology student, so perhaps someone with less qualifications might not have been).

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We currently have 989 possibly undescribed species listed on our site gallformers. Many of these are generated based on iNat observations. For any undescribed species that we list, we create a unique name for it and then use that to link it back to iNat observations. e.g., Unknown q-alba-rugose-spangle, scroll to the bottom and you will see a link to an iNat query that will show you all of the tagged observations.

I am not sure that any of these have been formally described yet, but I certainly do expect for that to happen before too long!

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One I know of is https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/1339690-Neuroterus-aliceae, because it was still listed as undescribed when I observed the gall.

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In about 2004, I found a new species of Carex in South Carolina while another person found the same species across the river in Georgia; we worked independently. He and others fleshed out the publication of the name and did more field work and analysis before describing the species as new to science. With plants, unlike animals, the name or names of person or people who prepare the published description actually become part of the official name of the plant such as Sonchus asper (L.) Hill. That is, Linnaeus described the species, but Hill put it in a different genus. The naming of species gets quite technical and is not worth describing in detail here. As for me, I thought it would be interesting to have my name as part of the plant’s name. However, I had minimal contact with the authors during the preparation of the paper and they added the names of three people to the plant’s name (here is a fake name: Carex hyattii Smith, Wang, and A. Chen. I would not name it after myself (Philip Hyatt) but this is a fake name! I use “A. Chen” to differentiate the person from another botanist with a family name of Chen, as another example.

Having four names attached to a species would have been over the top and all I did was happen to be one of the first to collect it. They cited my specimen in a list of specimens, so I had minimal official credit for finding the species. But that’s fine with me.

I like to say science is a cooperative effort. I would not have wanted to have to assign names to the 1104 taxa I recorded for a county for my master’s thesis. Names change over time, like the death of all the American “Aster” species which are no longer in the genus Aster. Such is life. That’s my attitude. Basically, if a person is involved in the publication of a new species’ name, it is good to include them as a co-author.

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