How you can easily make virus observations

Viruses are everywhere. By some measures they’re the most abundant component of the biosphere. Whether you describe them as “alive” is a semantic distraction that I don’t want to discuss here – they’re biological entities that are classified into species, genera, families, and so on, and they can be observed and identified on iNaturalist (here). Viruses have immense environmental, agricultural, medical, and societal impacts, and so understanding them and collecting data on them are likewise immensely important.

However, few iNaturalists are even aware that viruses may be observed on iNaturalist, and the number and diversity of virus observations is low. Of course, many viruses cannot be detected without laboratory techniques, but this is not always true. I would like to provide some suggestions on how you can easily make your first virus observation. Below is a list of commonly seen and relatively unambiguous signs of viral infection.


On your own body or the body of a consenting family member or friend

  • Typical warts – subfamily Firstpapillomavirinae

  • Molluscum contagiosum, a.k.a. water warts – species Molluscum contagiosum virus

  • Chickenpox / shingles – species Human alphaherpesvirus three

  • Oral / genital herpes – genus Simplexvirus. I believe genital herpes would require close cropping to comply with iNaturalist’s policy on nudity.

  • Roseola – genus Roseolovirus. Be the first to observe this species!

  • Measles – species Measles morbillivirus. Be the first to observe this species!

  • Rubella – species Rubivirus rubellae. Be the first to observe this species!

  • The ‘common cold’, flu, COVID-19, AIDS, dengue fever, yellow fever – best avoided unless you have had a diagnostic test performed, as the symptoms are ambiguous.


In your garden, your neighbours’ gardens, or urban vegetation


On your pets


If I have missed something you think should be included in this list, please make note of it. You’re welcome to tag me on any observation you think might show a viral disease. You are also encouraged to join the project Viruses of the World, where additional resources can be accessed.

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Could you explain what is the best id for papillomas?

Yes, I listed that at the top as “typical warts”. Papillomas in humans are caused by a variety of species which may not be identifiable to species from a picture of the lesion alone, but they are all in the subfamily Firstpapillomavirinae.

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Thank you! I knew about family, I checked now that the second subfamily is some rare fish thing, it’s cool!

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Thanks so much James! Great to encourage people to do this.

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This is awesome! I really hope people make a greater effort to observe viruses and their consequences!

@jameskdouch do you know how feasible it is to observe the viruses themselves? My understanding is that they are generally really really small – maybe to small to visualize with a light microscope. But I’d love to see one if there happen to be any easy representatives.

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Australia has Flutracking.net which is a weekly survey that asks about cold and flu symptoms. I do this every week, it is quick and easy. Obviously a very useful resource. I don’t think participation is limited to Australia, but most of the data is coming from Australian participants (often health care workers).

Flutracking.net | Tracking Influenza Across Australia and New Zealand

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Thanks for the positive feedback.

Conventionally, viruses are considered ‘sub-microscopic’ – too small to resolve even at 1000 x magnification with a light microscope. This means that direct observing of viruses is generally limited to transmission electron microscopy (TEM). There are a few TEM virus observations on iNaturalist (see here).

However, more recently, giant viruses in amoebae have been discovered that can be made out as small specks under 1000 x magnification light microscopy. I would be interested to make such an observation, but so far no-one on iNaturalist has done this. (See here for an example in a scientific journal).

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For those not hasty to get an ID, you can upload plant infections! Some of the most common and easily identified are listed here already. But any time you see odd patches of colour, striping, etc. where they shouldn’t be on a plant, or odd shapes and lumps on stems etc., there is probably an infection which may be viral.

It is worth noting that the large majority of infections are host-specific, so when you also upload the host organism, make sure to report back with its ID in the infection observation :)

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I wrote a little journal post about Viruses in May 2020:

https://www.inaturalist.org/journal/susanhewitt/36292-viruses-in-nyc-in-plants-not-people

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That’s how I got my first virus observation.

Surprised nobody mentioned Banana Bunchy Top Virus, considering its economic importance. For that matter, I am surprised iNaturalist has no taxon for it! This virus has the potential to decimate the banana industry.

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This post is about viruses that are easy for the average iNaturalist user to observe. Economic importance is a different matter, which doesn’t necessarily correlate with ease of observation. I doubt the average iNaturalist user grows their own bananas.

Since you mention it, I curated the iNaturalist taxon (here). Any virus taxon that hasn’t been observed yet is unlikely to have been curated already, since each one has to be established manually. If there’s any taxa you’d like to see established, feel free to request it.

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I see observations of bananas all the time – because I provide IDs for the Caribbean region often. As iNaturalist is a global platform, it has many users in countries where bananas grow. Thank you for adding the taxon.

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Curly top virus should be relatively easy to observe for many gardeners

Yes, I’m aware that some users in the tropics do actually see banana plants all the time. If they can observe Banana bunchy top virus, and you can identify it, that would be great! But I do still stand by my statement that the average iNaturalist user doesn’t see banana plants often, because the average iNaturalist user is in the contiguous United States. Unless you’re in Florida I guess.

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This is merely out of concern that I did it wrong since I don’t really know too much about navigating viruses, but, did I do this right?

https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/98801515

I looked up the virus that causes plantar warts and it was human papilloma virus and so I put that. It’s awkward for me to not be uploading plants and animals since that’s really all I do, so I wanted to get confirmation that I didn’t completely bungle it.

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iNat suggested this as an interesting topic shortly after I joined. It was very much correct!

I was rather excited today to see what looked viral on dock leaves, but I’m starting to think it may have been fungal. Thoughts?

https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/98789205

Also, should I duplicate it to record an observation for the host plant?

…and within a few more mins of research, I know believe I’m looking at Puccinia phragmitis

Thanks. You did fine. I added an ID under that observation.

“Human papilloma virus” is a misleading name because it actually includes many different species in different genera. There is no single virus that causes warts in humans.

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I recommend that, unless the plant was cultivated. Pathogen identification often requires confirmation of the host.

I don’t know anything in particular about Puccinia phragmitis, but I agree it looks like a fungal disease.