Informative Unknowns

For folks who also broadly identify unknowns, what are the top three interesting things you’ve learned while doing so? Mine:

  1. It’s new users’ favorite taxon
  2. Spiders are not insects (see Taxonomy tabs)
  3. Snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus) aren’t common in Southern California

Looking at forum guidelines, I don’t think we can post links to the observations, but looking at The vanishing of a fellow iNatter, we own our IDs and comments, so this is a gray area. Some clarification from forum moderators would be appreciated here…


Not all arachnids are spiders (I should have remembered that).

There are an awful lot of dicot species out there.

So many - so many! - perfectly good observations of fairly recognizable species languish for months in Unknown-dom, because the observer didn’t add an ID like Birds or Lizards, or maybe added a species name, but mis-spelled it a bit, or any number of other reasons why an observation is Unknown. And I also think that many new naturalists don’t know that adding an ID like “bug” or “shrub” won’t translate to scientific taxonomy.

So much to learn on my part, so much to help others with, where I can.

  1. Someone will tell you to spend time on their favourite taxon instead, but only do such and such, and only do it like this, and only do it on a Wednesday in late July…and…and…

I came into inaturalist some months ago relatively humble, thinking I knew very little… trying to broadly ID unknowns showed me how amazingly little I actually understood about the depths of the natural world. I have confused strange growths on trees that were formed by insects, fungus, bacteria… but it was a cool way to see a wider variety of life that I hadn’t known before Inat. It’s also nice for a newbie like me to see a plant and say “plant!” Compared to staring at a spider or mushroom for 45 minutes and not be able to match it up to anything, or more accurately differentiate it from several species or groups.


Something else I learned, which turned me off going big into IDing Unknowns, is that they are extremely rarely ‘unknowable’ even at a basic level, so the people who are focused on assigning IDs are doing good work! You also have more patience than I do :upside_down_face:

My anecdata indicates that Unknown obs seem to be more because the original observer couldn’t or wouldn’t try to ID even to Kingdom or thereabouts, rather than the obs being fundamentally hard to ID at such a level.

Sure, there are some organisms that are difficult for the layperson to ID even to a high level, but people leaving their own obs Unknown when they’re obviously a plant, an animal, etc just makes me feel like I’m clearing up after them. Even if that’s not their motive, I’m no longer prepared to do the work.

I still do look at Unknowns but only to catch the occasional obvious NZ spider. Anything else I will rarely bother about.


Only doing unknowns occacionally (and am usually at some point demoralized because most of those observations Ican barely improve it feels), but do run in a lot of “former unknowns” someone pulled out from the pile and I can then bring often to at least family or genus, the one thing I learned from them:

People doing unknowns are such an important part to keep the IDing-machinery going! I would not have found those little treasures. So thank you from my part!


Because they are not creative works, they are not eligible to copyright. In other words, no one “owns” them.

iNat policy does not define what is owned by who.


If my IDs and comments disappear when my account get deleted, isn’t that implied ownership? I think it’s a gray area that’s still unclear from that topic.

I can see this argument as valid for IDs, but it may be a stretch for comments. I don’t know that it would be fair to quote parts of a very long and insightful comment without some attribution to the author.


Hmmm…. I would guess that is more owing to iNaturalist’s UI not guiding the input and lack of “onboarding skills”.

Perhaps someday there would be a a pop-up if Species Identification field is blank; “if you don’t know the species you could still add a broad ID like Bird, Spider, Plant, etc”.

Sometimes, I see new users put a credible ID into Notes instead of the Species ID field.


I don’t think “ownership” is the key issue here in terms of posting links on the forum to content on iNaturalist. The key issue is whether the link is used in some way to call out another user or places another user in a potentially negative light, while erring on the side of caution against casting a user in a negative light. I would say this means, that, if there’s a question that posting a link could be perceived as negative, don’t do it. Describing the problem or behavior in general instead is a good alternative. This principle is broader as well (doesn’t apply just to posting links) but to all our posts on the forum. It’s summed up in the general mantra “critique ideas, not people”.

As an example: If a forum member wanted to give an example of one of their own observations, this is fine in some cases (assuming they aren’t asking for an ID, etc). However, if they post a link to their own observation, but do so in a way/context that calls out the behavior of another user (someone who commented or IDed the observation, etc) this wouldn’t be ok, even though it is the poster linking to their own observation.

I posted this in response to a direct comment in the original post, but let’s keep the focus of the thread on unknowns. If there’s an extended discussion to be had on forum guidelines, it should be in its own thread.


I consider that this is only iNat policy and that ownership is defined by the law, not by iNat.
“Your IDs” are the IDs you have published, it does not mean that you “own” them.


Thank you! I was mostly concerned about pointing to other people’s observations, where an identifier, who is active here, is the first ID rather than the original observer; often the case when reviewing unknowns.

It would be nice if we could share links to such observations on the forum, especially if they are interesting and don’t paint the original observer poorly, but the guidelines are iffy on this.

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That’s control, not necessarily ownership.


Yes, absolutely. The UI leaves something to be desired in this regard. Making everything (yes, I am exaggerating for effect) optional is an ‘interesting’ approach.

Perhaps a button saying “I really don’t know what it is” and another saying “I am too bone idle to put even a high level ID” :upside_down_face:

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…and put in a feature request that would enforce everyone doing it that way.

That a lot of perfectly fine taxa are still considered to be “iconically” unknown.

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I don’t do unknowns because through doing so I found out that some people are unknowingly trying to break the record of № of potted plants they see in one day.


It’s important to have a goal in life. Good on them for having such a thing.


Oh, you and Russell are funny! But so true, so true.


Haha, yeah, one thing I’ve learned from ID’ing unknowns is that the “reviewed” checkbox is a great friend to eliminate observations that frustrate you from the queue (or at least from what you can see of the queue). Some people may do that with potted plants, I’ve done it e.g. with several pages full of blurry infrared game camera pics.

Another thing I’ve learned: Placeholders can be very informative, so always watch out for those. Quite a few unknowns have been ID’d by the observer but with a typo or maybe a technical issue preventing a connection and their suggestion ended up as a placeholder.


For whatever reason, I’ve never gotten in the habit of using the Reviewed button. Since I am not a specialist in anything, I figure one of the useful things I can do is call a potted plant Plants (if I can’t do any better) and check Cultivated. I’ve also gotten to the point where if a photo is blurry, but shows lots of green, I’ll call it Plants and just move on. Ditto for marine life, about which I know scandalously little: does it look like an algae with a reddish tinge? I’ll call it Red Algae and note Maybe?? in the comments. If I’m the only identifier who’s had the time to really look at a particular observation from months ago, I want to say something to get it out of Unknowns. I am happy to be proven wrong if an expert in Red Algae cones along and says nope, that’s a hydrozoan or whatever.