In defense of "lazy" observers (like me)

I certainly understand @jasonhernandez74’s frustration. And I wish I remembered every helpful hint an IDer has given me. I remember some, I write down many in my field guides (“These 2 moths need genital dissection; leave the ID at genus”), but my brain is full and leaking rapidly.

But I could try harder. Pick a pair or small group of species I don’t know well, research their identification, summarize my findings in a journal post so I can find the information again, and make some IDs. Maybe a different set every month. Hmm.


Yep. So true. And on both sides (the observers and the identifiers), there are only so many hours in the day.

I helped lead a local trip for dragonflies yesterday. Great group of people, beautiful places, perfect weather, good bugs - and boy, am I out of practice. And today’s another beautiful day, great for practicing dragonfly IDs, but I have to check two moth traps right now, come home and upload those photos (with initial IDs), do the laundry and dishes, mow the lawn, dig up more sod so I can plant more natives around my tiny lily pool (I have Spring Peeper tadpoles!!), head to the Green River to cut down more knotweed, set the moth traps somewhere around there, come home and upload the photos from those sites (with initial IDs), remember to email @jcarm about helping him to collect dragonfly exuviae sometime this coming week, and collapse into bed. And do some IDs somewhere in there.

And do it all again tomorrow, slightly differently. And I’m retired and live by myself and do a minimal amount of housework. As much as I would like every iNat user to at least add an initial ID to their photos, I feel I must try to see iNaturalist from their perspective, too: “Hey, cool app! It’ll tell me what this bug is!” “How the hell does this work? Oh, right, click the green checkmark, I think.” “Toby, stop trying to drown your brother!!!” And never look at iNat again.


Heh, you’re THAT Lynn Harper! I thought I recognized that name :)


I need the fabled iNat witness protection program…


I recently went thru unknowns and added coarse IDs (like Aves, Lepidoptera, Fungi, Coleoptera, Actinopterygia) to about 1% of the first few pages unless I knew more (very rare, just the genus Phlomis and one bug). Usually it then took minutes until someone IDd them down to the species. I abstain from that for plants (unless I can at least say something as specific as Fabaceae or Asteraceae for two reasons: 1. what @dianastuder said, and 2. most of my own plant observations are just dicots (which iNat has (wrongly[0], that name is now essentially for Magnolias and similar plants) as “Magnoliopsida”) and they tend to sit there forever.

There also seems to be a bug which effectively makes old unknowns unreachable: when I try to open page 17765, it says (in german) that pagenumber multiplied by number of observations per page must not exceed 10000, I’m going to mention that in the bug reports.

[0] I know, changing the database internals to quickly follow the recent changes in phylogeny and taxonomy is next to impossible. I’d love to see Opisthokonta so I could preclassify my own unknown which is either a rust fungus or someones gall on a leaf.

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I’m not sure it’s a bug that makes those older unknowns unreachable; I think it’s a feature that limits very large searches of the database - but I could easily be wrong about that.

In any case, what I do when I want to work on the oldest Unknowns is filter for the year (say, 2021). Or filter in Ascending order, not the default Descending.


Thanks, that works. So the error message might need rewording.

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Speaking as a newbie: one of my reasons for posting on iNat is to learn about nature where I live now, in the US state of New Mexico. So I do spend time on IDing before I upload an obs. Sometimes a lot of time. That’s just me.

I have beside me “Flora of the Pacific Northwest” by Leo Hitchcock and Arthur Cronquist, the condensed version, 730 pages, published 1973 (I used to live in Oregon, and that was my book) (boy, is it out of date on some taxonomy!). But working through the dichotomous keys was then; now there’s the Interweb! With its many possibilities.

I’m curious about how others approach IDing an organism they have never identified before. My own approaches are still evolving, but I have used:

Google Lens,
Flora of North America (eflora):
USDA plant database:
Patrick Alexander’s SW plant list:
SW Desert Flora:

Usually my last step is to look on iNat for observations of the organism. (edit: last, but essential!) This is because I worry about piggybacking on questionable IDs in the case of hard-to-distinguish species. I don’t know if this really is a thing or not, but I imagine someone with all good intent IDing a plant to species – brownplume wirelettuce, Stephanomeria pauciflora comes to mind – when the plant is actually the very similar small wirelettuce, Stephanomeria exigua. And then I piggyback on their ID because it sure looks exactly like the species I posted, and then some else piggybacks on the two existing but erroneous IDs, etc.

Does that happen? An expert might sort it out, but not if the posted images didn’t happen to catch the subtleties which distinguish pauciflora from exigua. Do we know if errors tend to propagate like this? Does it matter?

Anyway, I’d love to hear about other people’s IDing workflow and resources.


Yes iNat can get tangled in mistakes. It takes only one person, to make one ID, on one obs - for iNat’s CV to offer that as Seen Nearby. Which skews the distribution map.
Whether it is CV, or human research / knowledge, it is still our own name on the ID, our choice, our decision, and then my own fault if I was wrong.

Taxon specialists do methodically trawl thru and check IDs over the course of time.


I agree that using other resources for ID and then checking against iNat is a good plan, particularly for less common species. When I first started identifying plants on iNat, I found that the total of maybe 6 observations of an uncommon species in my group were actually all the same thing, all misidentified, and were actually a different, even rarer genus. The first person to ID had given it their best shot, there weren’t other photos of either species to compare to, and other people who identified these were then like, “Yes. My plant is the same as what was identified as X, so it must be X.” Comparing a tentative ID against sources other than iNat can help avoid problems like that, though with uncommon taxa, sometimes it can be frustratingly hard to find alternative resources. I always hope in cases like that, if I mis-ID in the same way everyone else has done, at least it will make it easy for the next specialist in that group to find all the observations that need correction.


Over the last few days, I collected some minor “stats” when changing things from “unknown” to coarse clades (usually as broad as “spiders”, “anura” etc. as I rarely know better):

  1. People love frogs, beetles, spiders, snakes and butterflies - many of the things I changed were IDd (or at least specified further) in minutes

  2. Nobody loves weeds, so labelling them monocots, dicots etc. doesn’t seem to help (I didn’t change any from somebody else, I have enough thereof in my on observations). Fungi and Hymenoptera also are refined rarely (maybe because there are so many of them and my label still is almost as broad as “unknown”). OTOH, things i labelled “insects” sometimes get improved to “ants”.

  3. Some people seem to first uplod lots of pics as “unknown” and later (on the same day) add the exact species, probably to save time or online data volume when outside of their Wifi. To avoid unnecessary labor, I’ll look only for unknonws that are a few days old from now on.


Your #3 is an especially useful point.


It does help… a little. There are people who are looking for non-vascular plants, or for monocots… so any preliminary sorting will eventually be appreciated.

also I do love weeds. their resilience and ability to carve out a new niche for themselves is cool.

edited to add:

also, it will notify the people who made earlier IDs, and I find that they often take notice and refine the ID further!


Luckily there are interesting things blooming all through September. Just fewer of them.

Please continue to refine fungi. The issue is less that people arent IDing there just arent that many fungi IDers, theres tons of fungi that just look vaguely blobby and are hard to ID without specific pictures, and a lot of folks just… dont know what to photograph to get a species level ID.

But getting it to fungi does help IMHO.


From an outsiders’ perspective, but one who knows some mycologists, fungus taxonomy just seems to be in so much flux that it’s pretty daunting to even an attempt a fine or semi-fine ID unless it’s something like Amanita muscaria. They sure are cool, though.


Well. That too. But even then with the stuff in flux you can usually get it down to at least like, family. Usually.

Edit: like if I’m going through top level fungi obs i usually try to knock even the obscure ones down below lichens so its a little easier to filter that out.

Edit 2: i know theres a couple different DNA projects across various states for mushrooms too, Ohio for sure has one going, so that may help in the future refine some of the more obscure ones.


Non-vascular plants are essentially mosses (which I think don’t exist cladistically anymore, I haven’t seen them here anyway) and Red+Green Algae. I didn’t find them in the unknowns (maybe there are some in the microscopic images, but I don’t recognize them anyway). Since Brown Algae aren’t plants but look like them, I keep my hands off all of those to avoid errors.

PS: I just found another reason for me to not change unknowns into “weeds”: 90% of unknowns are dicots anyway, so if anyone wants to look at plants, just selecting unknowns is a place to go.

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Unrelated question: is there a way to mark somebody’s observation so I get messaged if it gets an ID? There are weird beings out in the world and I’d love to know what they are, e.g.
I might add a second ID as “unknown” but that seems silly.

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You can either favorite it or follow it like this (apologies for the French interface):