Let's Talk Annotations

This discussion is about which annotations people would like to see added to iNaturalist, so let’s not get derailed here. If you want to have a discussion about how an iNaturalist observation should be defined, please start a new thread. Let’s avoid the mess that the Google Group was.

I will note, however, that changing something as fundamental as how an observation is defined would likely require a ton of work so odds are slim that this will happen.


I apologize, I didn’t mean to imply that this side discussion made things “a mess”, which is perhaps too strong of a term. Just that I think it would be best to for discussion to stay on topic and branch off when needed, to make each one easier to go through.


For shelled mollusks it would be very nice to automatically have these choices:

alive / moribund or fresh dead intact shell with soft parts / fresh empty shell but intact / shell in damaged condition / shell of indeterminate age / I don’t know


I’m going to buck the trend and suggest the removal of an annotation value. In the case of Odonata, the Life Stage options are Egg, Nymph, Teneral, and Adult. As far as I’m concerned Teneral (recently eclosed and still with an unhardened cuticle) is a condition, not a life stage. A teneral adult is still an adult. Nymphs become teneral as well after molting between instars, but they are still nymphs of course.

As far as I know, Odonata are the only arthropods which include Teneral as a life stage option on iNat, but I don’t look at all of them. It doesn’t make much sense to me. If someone wants to indicate the teneral condition (whether for adults or for nymphs), it makes a lot more sense to use an observation field for that.


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 have a very slow connection speed at home. I also upload in bulk, and have to do it in small batches over the course of an entire day. It’s extremely frustrating, but that’s not iNat’s fault. The thing is, while I’m doing my bulk uploads, I can do my identifications, bulk edit locations, bulk add my observations to projects, and all that, before I press the upload button.

I have hundreds, if not thousands, of unannotated observations of caterpillars I need to go through. At the time the annotations were being rolled out, it wasn’t clear to me that the observation fields were not feeding into the annotations, so all the time I had spent carefully adding life cycle info to that field was for naught (this was back when I did all my uploads on the mobile app, if you can imagine). Using the identify tool to individually go through observations takes me about 2 minutes per image. If I was able to do it all during my bulk uploads, I could annotate in 15 seconds or less before, before pushing the “upload” button.

I know it’s probably a lot more complicated to code than I would like to think it is, but holy carp I have over 17,000 observations and please believe me when I say I haven’t had decent internet at home the entire time I have been using this website. Once I upload an observation, unless I have a very good reason for it, that’s it, I have set that observation free into the world as a gift and I don’t have time to go back to it, because I have to spend the next two hours uploading my next 50 observations.


I agree that there’s a problem with including Teneral for Odonata. I’m guessing that the intention was that it should be seen as somehow equivalent to the Juvenile option that is included for some other taxa. But Teneral has a very specific scientific meaning, and is certainly not a mere synonym of Immature/Juvenile.

Having said that, for the purposes of identification, distinguishing between Teneral, Immature and Adult (i.e. fully mature, breeding) is very important for Odonata, since many species can change their appearance quite dramatically between these “stages”.

So I think that either the Teneral option should be removed, or an Immature option should be added. I would guess that the latter would be a lot easier to implement, since there would then be no need to convert the existing uses of Teneral into an observation field (or whatever).


@nanofishology thanks so much for sharing your perspective! Like I said, I’m lucky enough to have fast internet here so it’s not an issue for me. Unfortunately Identify is a pretty heavy page, resource-wise.

I can definitely see how having annotations on the uploader would be helpful in these situations. I’ll see what we can do.


It can be important for identification purposes, but that should be apparent in any decent photo. I’m not going to check the life stage annotation to figure out what kind of adult I’m looking at. [But perhaps you mean for searching purposes, e.g. you want to see what teneral of a particular species looks like?] And not that there would be firm agreement on what qualifies as teneral versus immature versus mature adult. Many times it is cut-and-dried, but other times it is very subjective.

I just don’t see the utility of multiple adult life stage annotation values when observation fields work fine to specify a teneral adult or immature adult (how about an “elderly” adult?). I’d think it would unnecessarily complicate the life stage histogram when just Egg/Nymph/Adult likely tells you what you want to know as in other hemimetabolous insects.

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Yes, for searching, and also for general identification purposes. Many different users may look at the observation, and they won’t all have the same levels of experience/ knowledge as I do. However, this can just as easily be achieved with observation fields or brief comments.

My own preference would be to remove Teneral, because I think it is far too specialized for an annotation option. But if it must be retained, I strongly dislike having Teneral and Adult, but not Immature. Without the latter option, I feel it invites misuse of Teneral as a synonym of Immature.


Teneral does imply that the change to adult has occurred very recently, which might be a useful indication.


Yes, it implies that the species is very likely to be resident at a given site, since a true teneral usually won’t fly very far from where it emerged. The same cannot be said of immature individuals, which generally spend most of their time away from water feeding. However, the presence of exuvia is an even better indicator that a species is resident, and yet that is currently only an observation field.


I’ve asked for this one before, and never got a response. For the fish families Labridae and Scaridae, the Life Stage should include values Initial Phase and Terminal Phase. This would be helpful because the different phases often look very different and this is confusing to manhy observers. Some people try to equate Initial Phase with female and Terminal Phase with male, but this is incorrect. Individuals who appear IP can be either male or female.


I wanted to echo my agreement with many of the suggestions in the thread. Having Annotations be a default part of the observation submission process would hopefully lead to a higher degree of use for them.

I would like to see annotations that make a distinction between what ‘kind’ of observation it is - A live animal, or something else. For example tracks are common, but nests, burrow or funnels feel like they should also be categorically different to a normal observation. Another example would be the empty exoskeleton of a Dragonfly nymph left over after emergence. These are all interesting observations, but not really the same thing as an observation of the actual organism. A formal, searchable, filterable way to acknowledge these sorts of observations would be great.


things i’d like to annotate:

  • Condition: Alive, Dead, Diseased / Parisitized, Injured, Dormant
  • Plant Phenology: Leaf Buds, Leaves, Leaf Senescence (?, the leaves are turning brown)
  • Animal Signs: Tracks, Scat, Shelter, Body Parts (ex. exuvia, feathers, fur, bones, cast off skin, shells).
  • Animal Behaviors: Mating, Ovipositing, Eating / Drinking, Sleeping, Shelter Building, Fighting, Hunting, Caring for Offspring

Mark, is there a source you can point to for this? Not that I don’t trust your expertise, but I’m not familiar with this at all and would like to check it out.

Susan, what would the Annotation be for this? Are you thinking these would be values for “Type of Evidence”, should we choose to add that? I would be hesitant to add these as annotations as they’re wordy (I think annotations should be simple and easily translatable) and can’t always be determined from photographs. Probably best suited for an observation field.

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@maractwin, I’m playing around with your suggestions on our test server. Is this what you’d want?


Could you add “Castes” to ants and termites?
The options should be - queen, male, worker. Or three more - winged queen, winged male, unknown winged reproductive (=alate, but I guess many people don’t know the word)


If you use it, they’ll learn it! A tooltip could define it for anyone who doesn’t know it?


I agree that this is an issue, and there is no way that the millions of observations on iNat should have to be manually updated one-by-one after the fact. The good news is that there is a way to accomplish this for insect life stages. You can add field values during upload, and the field “Insect Life Stage” populates the annotation (the field has a drop-down list of adult/larva etc). This is very handy for someone with 50 moth observations, just select all, enter the field once, and everything is set.

However, we allow people to add multiple “Plant Phenology” annotations, so why not an insect and it’s eggs - at least it’s the same species. And it becomes a much richer observation.

I like this concept, can you add “Specimen” to the list? We get a decent number of those and the only way to track them currently is with yet another field (of which there are many similar options).


This is because an individual plant can be flowering, budding, and fruiting at the same time. But yes, I hear you.