In defense of "lazy" observers (like me)

I’d vote for a feature request that sent all Genus to RG automatically without having to manually tick a box every time. I bet experts/interested amateurs would just adjust their workflow to look at genus > species in the RG pile, and nonexperts wouldn’t. Which to me might help each type of identifier focus their labor. (Does such a feature req already exist?)

Meanwhile in Needs ID:

Hm, my own workflow may end up hurting your unknowns experience then, apologies! I tend to kick out everything that’s not plants in a swath, then do the not dicots, leaving those difficult dicot “deserts” for later, though formally still Unknown. Like I’ve said in another thread though, I’ll just get to all those later after I know more. Like “dessert”? ;)

Yep, just like that!

Here’s a stub that’s a wiki (so that anyone can redo it better if they want):

If the hard part (like, the big breakdowns done with smooth and clear organization, where people could easily follow the steps) were cast toward your kids above, it would probably be a win for either kid or adult novices. If anyone wants to take a hack at it before I get back to it myself, be welcome!


To me, most social media is designed to be ephemeral. I don’t use the majority of platforms that are out there but little of what I’ve seen on them has a very long shelf life. I think iNat is different in that it’s also a scientific database that has value beyond just the interaction of participants. That’s no guarantee that it will survive in the long term but it’s loss would probably have more repercussions since there is nothing comparable or as comprehensive I can think of that could replace it.


From my selfish viewpoint, the hours I spend here every day have taught me a lot about the biodiversity around me. And further away too.


Some random thoughts, mostly related to the topic of discussion:

Over my career as a biologist, I used or had a hand in creating several large databases focused on biodiversity conservation - databases like iNaturalist, in other words. None of them were perfect. All of them were very useful, if the targeted users actually spent time putting in and assessing the data. As large databases go, iNaturalist is extremely well-designed, very useful, and highly motivating to use, at least for people like me. Does that mean it can’t be improved? Of course not. But tinkering in any significant way on one part of it is likely to mean the performance of some other part begins to be eroded. If a database is 80% “good,” it’s great in every practical sense, and I think iNat is well over that 80% mark.

With the exception of improving people’s first introduction to iNaturalist, that is. Above, @jnstuart said that, ideally, new users should have an experienced iNat user close at hand. I completely agree. Now, obviously, that can’t happen for every single new user worldwide, but there could be more hands-on Introduction to iNaturalist workshops offered, if we experienced observers offered them to our local networks of birding clubs, libraries, adult education, etc. (I will say that, having conducted a few such workshops as part of the recent City Nature Challenge, this introvert had to go lie down in a darkened room for a while afterwards.)

Not every observation will make Research Grade, which is obvious to everyone reading this, I would think. Some observations should start out as Casual and stay that way. In between, there are many observations that may never be satisfactorily categorized as either Research Grade or Casual, even with the attentions of competent and experienced identifiers. In theory, every observation should end up as Research or Casual, after probably spending some time as Needs ID, but can I say that I’ve gone through all of my own observations (some 38,000+) and labeled as Casual the ones that clearly can never be identified even just to genus or sub-family? No, I cannot say that. Perhaps I should clean up my own Needs ID pile (9,000+) before complaining about other people’s piles.

So, the Needs ID pile is very large and growing fast. Accepting that fact is hard for people like me, who like things tidy and all of the to-do items crossed off our lengthy lists (as if that ever happens!!), but I try to see the good side: I’ll never run out of observations to identify. More and more people are learning something about biodiversity, even if that something is just a tiny bit of what they “ought” to know. More and more good, useful data are available to researchers and managers of biodiversity. All good things, in my opinion.


I hear you, and I usuallly use the filter in the opposite way - to only see observations from new accounts. But the option is there, and it can be really helpful at times if one’s not in the mood to grind though student observations.

Without going into specifics I think the odds of iNat imploding due to financial decisions in the near future (as in 5-10 years) are quite low. Obviously one never knows, but it’s not something I’m worried about, and I think about social media a lot (and read that article when it came out).

That’s sort of what we have with iNaturalist and Seek by iNaturalist, although I think we should do better messaging and design about the two apps. Unfortunately, Seek is designed to be privacy-focused and thus we don’t get a lot of usage data for it. Anecdotally, a lot of people I run into use Seek without knowing anything about iNat, so I think it serves a lot of people and we just can’t capture that with data.


In the end, that comes down to how okay you are with it just staying at “bees” indefinitely. If you work well with unknown, possibly looooong timelines, fine. I don’t. Mushrooms are really hard for me, but I always seem to end up going back and making the attempt, because if I didn’t they would be stuck at “Basidiomycete fungi” for what seems to me like forever. I don’t upload different kinds of mushrooms to have the world’s definitive collection of “Basidiomycete fungi” observations; I upload different kinds of mushrooms to diversify my mushroom life list. I may be wrong, but at the rate mushrooms go, we probably won’t know that for months or years – and I’m not willing to leave them at phylum that long.

That really is fine with me. For me the main drive with iNat is the impetus to get outside and photograph things. I enjoy finding things that are new to me, or occasionally (but rarely) new to iNat, but really I just like the fact that the time and money I spend out taking photos might eventually turn out to be useful to someone. Maybe in 3 million years the terrestrial cephalopods or whoever is running the show at that point will figure out how to resurrect the database and say “wow, here’s a hotspot for observations” when they see my yard :)


As one of the active identifiers, I have to say that this is discouraging. After all, the reason I comment with keys or links is so that I won’t be the only one who can identify the taxon. When I have come to the thirtieth “Genus Calisto” of the day, and it is one of the two or three common, expected ones, I start to get irritated. Why did I copypasta that identification guide so many times if nobody picked it up and did anything with it?

There is another thread going on, titled, “How to get more observations ID’d to RG.” Well, one way is to help out the active identifiers by using the resources they provide. After all, it takes two IDs to make RG, and any given active identifier can only provide one. I would consider it a success if I started regularly seeing those two or three Calisto species making RG, either by someone before me identifying them to species that I can verify, or by someone coming after me and verifying.


Understandable frustration! And yet . . . . I post plants and birds that I really want to learn how to ID, but I also post fungi and insects that I have only a minor interest in. (I hope they’ll be useful data for someone.) I’ll learn some of these organisms and I appreciate the identifications and hints whether I learn from them or not. Nonetheless, I have sympathy with the rest of us who don’t try to learn everything we post.


Here on the forum there is a season for the observers

  1. why don’t you tell me why it is that
  2. or why it is NOT
  3. don’t just add an ID, or an annotation, or make it casual
  4. why does it take so LONG to get an ID? Waiting waiting waiting some more!!!
  5. Identifiers should put in the time and effort (where I didn’t crop, or say whether it is for the bee or the flower or ??? the agama on the rock)

Then it is the identifier’s season

  1. if you KNOW it is a mushroom, ID as Fungi so the taxon specialists can filter for it
  2. ahem, I have already explained that difference to you. A few times. (But not from me - I am not a taxon specialist, IDing everything I can on my continent - and clearing the weird outliers on the distribution maps)
  3. Put up a tentative ID, follow your notifications, withdraw or agree depending on your knowledge.
  4. You want an ID on your obs? Pay it forward. Help to ID, for people like you, where you can. (Diana would like you to ID two and a half times as many as you observe - which would cover what you require from iNat volunteers - there are NO paid or employed identifiers. None)
  5. Still clearing Unknowns from CNC23. One girl guide added almost 1K obs (great for the vanity numbers) but almost all cultivated, from a nursery and gardens. That is drudge and grunt work (ID what I recognise, mark as Not Wild … :sob: :sob:
  6. Respond to questions. Split multiple species. Combine multiple obs of that one organism. Delete duplicates. But that comes back to - they don’t / can’t see notifications on the app. Frustrating for both sides.

Which circles back to the seasons turn. We each have a different way of using iNat. And an interest in making it work together. Spring flowers, new generation, first obs on iNat. (My name is Diana and I am an iNat ID addict - there is no cure)


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 :)

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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.

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.

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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.