Let's Talk Annotations

So in 2017, iNaturalist introduced annotations, which is a way to add metadata to an observation in an iNaturalist-controlled way rather than relying on the free-for-all that is observation fields. We wanted to start out with some basic ones, such as Sex and Life Stage, as well as Plant Phenology (which, I know, many botanists have argued should be Flowering Phenology) and there were many other requests, but the subject died down without anything else being added by iNat, aside from some taxonomic tweaks.

I’d like to revive that discussion here and see if we can add at least a few more annotations to iNaturalist and reduce some observation field confusion. So please reply with a request, if you have one. It would be best to define the annotation, possible values, and which taxa it would be applicable to.

Please keep the following in mind:

  • Annotations should be attributes that can be independently determined from an image or sound and are useful in the places where we use annotations, eg the taxon page charts and the taxon page photo browser.

  • We want to restrict annotations to qualitative values, so annotations with numerical values will not be added. Values should not be arbitrary, either.

  • These are not photo-level annotations, so the annotation should describe the observation as a whole.

  • In general I’d prefer that the annotation not be of very niche use but can be used for a good number of observations.

  • We can’t promise your suggestion will be added, especially until we implement a user interface that will not display15 annotations on an observation’s page all at once.


I think these could easily be made into annotations.


Alive/dead could be useful.
‘Present at the moment’ field should probably be limited to animals. Things like toasted annual plants could be referred to as ‘dead’ instead.
I’d love to see something to track leaf phenology, which is really important for plants both in cold areas like Vermont and in areas with dry seasons such as coastal California. However, that gets tricky because evergreen versus deciduous is something that comes down to genus level - oaks for instance have many evergreen and many deciduous species, and offering the pulldown for evergreen species may just confuse people.
It would be neat to have an annotation to tag other species visible in a photo but that may be too confusing if you also have people copying the photos… could already be recorded.


Do you have annotations for those, Jeremy? Those are values, but need an annotation heading, eg “Life Stage” has the values egg, larva, nymph, adult, etc.


For bryophytes, an annotation indicating whether there are sporophytes present or not would be just as useful as flowering phenology is. There isn’t any issue with multiple fields since I am currently the only person recording such information in fields [Sporophytes present], but if it was made into an annotation I would probably start adding it for every observation I look at and it would also be very helpful when viewing photos.

I think it would be best to add Plant Phenology to them with just the Fruiting value available, but you could also add a new value “Sporophyte”. If Plant Phenology cannot be used without including flowering and budding, then a new annotation called Sporophytes with the lone value Present would work.


I would really, really like to be able to add annotations during upload!

I would like to be able to choose more than one Life Stage per ob (like one can with Plant Phenology). Say the photo is of a moth laying eggs - I would like to be able to add both annotations Adult and Egg.

And I would like to be able to add more than one Sex annotation to a single ob (e.g. ob is of a mating pair). Also, we need more options for Sex. I know this was discussed somewhere else so I won’t go into it here.

I don’t know if it’s just my laidback rural bandwidth, but annotations take ages to ‘take’, and I have to wait for the spinning wheel to finish before I can do anything else on the page (like add the ob to a project). Sometimes I even have to refresh the page - sometimes the annotation has recorded and sometimes it hasn’t and I have to do it again.


Southern African Request.

We would please like our field “Habitat (s Afr)” to display on the Taxon Page, alongside Seasonality, History and Life Stage on southern African observations.
An explodable pie diagram of the different habitats.

The field is here: https://www.inaturalist.org/observation_fields/7498
It has over 360 000 entries for our 500k observations, so is quite comprehensive and a very useful summary of taxon habitat requirements.

It would be cool to have it as a southern African annotation too. But I imagine that expanding it to the rest of the world will be rather overambitious. Still we would love it for our community.


similarly i would love to have the ‘natural community’ field as an annotation but you usually can’t tell from a photo and it sounds like they are only adding annotations that can be verified with the photo.

I think it would be really neat if users could choose to have certain fields or annotations always show up on every observaton, but it might be too similar to the ‘field update’ that we aren’t going to get so…

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Upon further thought, I think a lot of this could be covered in one annotation: “Type of Evidence”. Some possible options:

  • Photo of a living organism
  • Photo of a dead organism
  • Photo of tracks - animals only
  • Photo of fur/feathers/shed skin/etc - for mammals/birds/reptiles/etc.
  • Photo of scat/excrement - animals only
  • Recording of sounds made by organism
  • Animated photo of living organism - there’s a project which manually collects these
  • Illustration/sketch of organism
  • Photo of a photo or screen

I’m not sure if I’m trying to put too many things in this category or not. I think these are mutually exclusive…

There’s the issue of observations with multiple types of evidence, but we already deal with that in observations that have, e.g., both a male and female in the same photo. Like those, this annotation would be used for observations that have only one type of evidence.

I’m probably missing a bunch of possibilities for plants.

Edit: I’m definitely mixing up two things above, what was recorded, and how it was recorded.


I agree with @karoopixie, the ability to add annotation during the upload process would be a huge help. I try to use annotations as much as possible because I thinking they add a lot of value to observations, but going back through batches of observations after upload to add annotations is a pain.


Besides changing plant phenology to flower phenology, also adding “cone phenology” for conifers:

  • pollen cones (yes/no)
  • seed cones (yes/no)

This could already exist/ be covered in an observation field I don’t know about…I have observations depicting a “kill site” or likely predator/prey encounter which have tracks, blood, feathers or fur, sometimes scat, usually without the animal, would this also be something that could be a part of evidence type or is this a whole other thing? I like the “Type of Evidence” idea.


if the app is changed so annotations can be added, please don’t make it a default part of the process of taking an observation. That would be unacceptably slow for those of us who use the app a lot.


For shelled mollusks, it would be very useful to record whether the photo is of a dead empty shell, a washed-up but intact mollusk (perhaps dead, moribund or soon to be so) or a live organism in situ. It would also be good to be able to say that the dead empty shell is long-dead, which is sometimes apparent from the appearance of the shell.


This should be fairly easy to do. I’ll try and diagram out a Plant Phenology hierarchy, also taking into account @bouteloua’s suggestion.

Remember that an observation on iNat is the record of an encounter between the observer and an individual organism at a specific time and place, so technically one cannot choose more than one life stage or sex per observation. I think this is a case where Observation Fields like Copulating are working fine.

I don’t think we will do this for observation fields, but perhaps some sort of visualization like this can be part of your feature request.

I like this idea, although I don’t think photo or sound are needed, just the type of evidence.

Playing devil’s advocate here, I find it very easy and quick to annotate my observations in the Identify tool right after I upload them, now that I’ve gotten into the habit. I’ve bookmarked https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/identify?reviewed=true&quality_grade=needs_id%2Cresearch&user_id=tiwane and this shows me all of my own observations I’ve reviewed (ie observations to which I’ve added an ID), with the latest ones first. Then it’s just a matter or going through them. That URL should work for anyone, just replace “tiwane” with your own username.

Now, I do have pretty good internet speeds at home, so maybe the Identify page doesn’t work as well for others, but to me the integrated keyboard shortcuts make it much quicker than the upload page would be.

BTW, @eraskin, I did finally add Sex as an annotation for mollusks. So sorry for the waaaaay too long delay.


In cases of very small organisms, like some annual plants for example, it’s nigh impossible NOT to record an encounter with multiple organisms, no matter how far in one zooms. If there is mixture of flowering and fruiting individuals (of the species being identified) in the resulting mass-capture, I think that is still good information to record.

Have fun with the Pteridophytes…


I dont know if this is exclusively true. Often it is “an encounter between the observer and a “population or group of organisms” at a specific time and place …” Think of a school of fish, or a duck family crossing a road. Would it really be acceptable for me to put each fish in the school, or each member of the duck family (mum, dad and 20 ducklings), as separate observations? Or 200 observations of aphids on a branch?


@tiwane* is referencing:

1. What is an observation?
An observation records an encounter with an individual organism at a particular time and location. This includes encounters with signs of organisms like tracks, nests, or things that just died.

So yes, there’s nothing strictly prohibiting adding 200 observations of aphids on a branch, but for most people that’s probably not a very meaningful/interesting way to use iNat.

*looks like when you quote quoted text, it attributes the wrong person


But that is exactly my point. When I put an observation of Milkweed Aphids on a branch, it is about the population of aphids, not Jane (the 174th one on the branch from the left).
So whereas it is acceptable for me to add observations for each of Annette, Antioniette, Barbie, Bungie, Cinderella, Clara, Charlie … etc. etc., I wont: I will only add one for all of the aphids - the population or family.
So the definition should be altered to make it clear that this is equally acceptable practice (or perhaps even more desirable than adding Annette …).


yeah i agree on this one. If there are both male and female aphids on the stick, i don’t see any advantage in assigning the observation to one specific aphid and don’t understand the downside of just marking both. It gets even weirder with plants, where oftentime things reproduce clonally or are connected underground and without genetic work it’s literally unknowable sometimes, and even still the boundary of ‘individual’ is blurred. I’d rather have the option to choose more than one.