As an identifier, I find myself frequently supplying subspecies IDs when the community ID or observer’s ID is to species.
I also noticed that there are many places in the iNat UI where species are presented to users as suggestions, but that subspecies never play a role in that UI. This made me wonder about the design decisions that must have been made along the way to focus most of the attention on species, presumably to make things a bit simpler for newbies and for app designers.
Part of me wonders though if it this situation should be improved, especially in the case of regional subspecies. What would happen if the iNat suggestion system offered up the regional subspecies as a suggestion instead of the species, under certain circumstances where it would be quite unambiguous, where for example, only that subspecies is a realistic possibility in the known location.
If subspecies were offered in more places in the UI, it would be much more straightforward for users to choose them, rather than putting the burden on users to input them manually (often having to type quite a long name before getting to the subspecies part of the name).
I’m curious what others think about the value of identifying to subspecies. In practical terms, it occasionally feels superfluous, but occasionally feels important, but that could be subjective based on my knowledge and experience with that particular taxon.
Would it be worth exploring ways to improve the support for suggestions of subspecies?
I personally don’t see much value in most of the subspecies identifications for the organisms I identify and observe (though I accept that in some cases subspecies IDs have value), and I prefer the current treatment of subspecies. In my min, the lack of value to the IDs is especially true in cases where subspecies IDs are based on region only. In this case, the ID adds no “information” to the identification - the location is already included in the observation data. At worst, adding subspecies ID based solely on location (ie, without any other identifying characters) could obscure true observations of different subspecies that could be introduced or maybe be changing their range naturally due to climate change, etc.
There are a variety of topics that deal with the value of subspecies IDs and how they are treated on iNat that may be of interest:
I don’t care for identifying to subspecies for anything other than phragmites australis. The taxonomy for that is a big ol’ mess and the subspecies have major differences. It’s hard to track the destruction of the invasive one and it’s hard to track the small populations of the native one, so getting those to subspecies seems important since the differences are so significant. I’m sure there’s some other things that are similar but that’s the only one I know. I usually ignore other subspecies IDs but that’s partly because of my lack of knowledge on most of them.
We fought to get dicot plus subspecies to reach CID at - species Needs ID.
It was previously taken to CID at dicot. Not remotely useful!
Apparently subspecies is more interesting to botanists than zoologists.
@gordonh I’m unclear from your post what group(s) of organisms are your primary focus. As others have pointed out, there are differences in emphasis, treatment, and acceptance of subspecific taxa in various major groups.
As an identifier who works mostly on plants, I have quite a few “use cases” for improved support for subspecies (and infrataxa generally) within the iNat interface.
If I can confidently provide a subspecies ID, then I will do that. Why bother? Here are some scenarios.
Taxonomy changes, and today’s subspecies may become a full species in 2030. (Let’s not pretend that anything moves quickly in plant taxonomy!) Where that happens, it’s valuable for iNat observations to have as precise IDs as possible so that they can easily and accurately be moved to the correct new species.
Protected status can vary between subspecies, so knowing which exact organisms are where helps to focus protective measures on the right populations.
iNat data gets used for all sorts of research questions, and the answers will generally be better where the input data is more precise.
But I recognize that ID’ing to subspecies also has pitfalls. To the extent that location (vs. morphology, etc.) is used to determine a subspecies ID, that really isn’t adding new information as @cthawley points out. There’s a fine balance here, and I’ll suggest that it’s reasonable to use location to identify likely candidate IDs at species or subspecies level, but one still needs to see visual evidence that supports one choice over the alternatives.
I would support improving support for subspecies within the Identify interface. For example, the Suggestions tab will currently only provide photos and distribution maps for species observed within a particular country/state/province/county and it would be great to be able to see these at a subspecies level.
Extending subspecies visibility further up the observation lifecycle might be problematic. Already we have an issue with observers choosing species-level IDs suggested by computer vision when they personally have little knowledge of how to distinguish similar species. Shifting this issue to a subspecies level isn’t likely to improve the outcome.
And I’m aware that the limit of photographic identification can be quite different in other fields. For many spider observations, a genus-level ID is the best that is reasonably achievable from photos.
As I read through the previous threads here, I found as you suggested, that this taxonomic level is strongly related to the type of organisms. I am a plant person, and also a regional IDer for the Pacific Northwest, or Western North America more broadly. I also have in-depth knowledge on certain genera such as Lilium and I will sometimes take on a certain group in order to really develop a deeper understanding of it, such as Pinus.
I personally found that for some taxa, no one cares. It seems few people care whether a Douglas fir was “coastal” or “interior”. But for some, people do care. Pinus contorta contorta (Shore Pine) is different from Pinus contorta latifolia (Lodgepole pine). In common parlance, these are treated as different plants, sold as different plants in commerce, etc. etc.
I cared most about some taxa that I personally learned as species (Stachys cooleyae), but for reasons I may never understand, are not treated as species by INat’s taxonomy (Stachys chamissonis var. cooleyae). For these, I make a diligent effort to mark subspecies, and I wish the suggestion mechanism did this as well. In my local herbarium this is unambiguously found as “Stachys cooleyae” so it does matter.
I’m not a taxonomist or biologist, but I tend to be on the “lumper” end of things. I generally don’t care about subspecies that much unless there’s a conservation status involved (eg the San Francisco Garter Snake) or clear visible differences.
I don’t think subspecies should ever be included in the Computer Vision model - I agree with @rupertclayton that introducing it early in the ID process would probably be more detrimental than helpful. But an option to show subspecies in the Suggestions tab of Identify doesn’t seem like a bad idea.
As an aside, iNat tries to follow external global taxonomic authorities, and we follow POWO for most vascular plants. So if you’re wondering about a certain plant taxon on iNat, check POWO.
This 1989 paper appears to be the one that transferred Stachys cooleyae to become a variety of Stachys chamissonis. POWO (and therefore iNat) is basing its taxonomy on this work by Mulligan and Munro.
Thanks. Burke Herbarium lists that name under “Synonymns and misapplications” and lists “Stachys cooleyae” as the “Accepted name” although I haven’t dug deeper to see if it’s clear what authority they follow.
Washington Native Plant Society lists it as Stachys cooleyae.
My county lists it as “Stachys cooleyae”.
But federal websites list it as “Stachys chamissonis var. cooleyae”.
This is a great example, because people who know this plant as a full species find value in designating it as closely as possible to what they believe to be the true species, which is the subspecies in iNat, so that’s why I take pains in this particular case. Maybe some future work will elevate this taxon to species again in global databases. As has been noted, it would be much easier to move existing identified observations from the current subspecies to the possible future species at a later date if the taxonomy change occurs.
There are two species off the top of my head where I actually bother with subspecies.
On is Dark Eyed Juncos/ Junco hyemalis, mostly because they are a species in the process of speciation and their subspecies have massive visual differences.
And the other is Boletus variipes fagicola, because AFAIK DNA testing has confirmed that it is distinct from Boletus variipes, but mycology papers are really slow to catch up.
Maybe I’m assuming things not in evidence, but I get the sense that this outlook was shared by the iNat designers while the current treatment of subspecies IDs by iNat was being developed.
Personally I approach subspecies as I do any other taxonomic rank on iNaturalist (as the code of botanical nomenclature does, and as I wish iNat would do also). If I can confidently identify something at that rank, then I will; otherwise I will identify it at a higher rank. Full stop.
IDs at that rank shouldn’t “count less” than IDs at any other rank. Of course I realize that this may be my botanical bias showing through…
Many users don’t realize that only partial names need to be typed. For example, to bring up Artemisia tridentata subsp. vaseyana, I only need to type something like
Art t v or
Art vas and it comes right up to the top of the choices to pick from.
I thought of one case of a subspecies about which I’m rigorous at IDing: There is a distinctive Arizona subspecies of the widespread Thin-banded Lichen Moth (Cisthene tenuifascia) which in all likelihood–when someone gets around to doing the necessary genitalic and genomic work–will turn out to be a distinct species. It’s presently "Schwarz’s Lichen Moth (C. t. ssp. schwarziorum) and I make an attempt to add that ssp ID wherever appropriate because I think it is likely to be raised to species level at some point in the future. Having all of those observations together in one subspecies “bucket” will make the transition on iNat much easier–when/if the taxonomy is changed.
Sounds like you have several analogous botanical examples.
I Italy we say “the more contains the less” (nel più ci sta il meno). So, ok for identifying the subspecies when it’s possible. It would certainly give an added value to observations, especially for rare, threatened and peripheral populations.
This happened recently with ramps in eastern NA - Allium triccocum burdickii got bumped up to species level and a lot of tricoccum obs got bumped to species complex as a result, but stuff at subspecies was spared having to be re-ded
This is the type of case where I think subspecies can be useful - if there is at least one character that allows clear identification and if there isn’t a bright geographic delimitation. Having those IDs can definitely help in the case of taxon changes.
That said, if any subspecies ID (or any taxon really) is location based, and there’s a taxon change, it should be atlased anyways, so IDs based solely on location wouldn’t really have value in that situation.
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