Let's Talk Annotations

There are fields such as “mating pair” and 'in copula" that imply both sexes

If the observer hasn’t specified which individual the observation is for, I often mark it for the rarer individual. In my area of identifying that usually means juvenile rather than adult if the photo has both an adult and a juvenile. Of course, if the observer has specified it’s for the adult, I respect their wishes, but I may ask for them to repost the photo to annotate a second time as juvenile.


If I could wish for one type of additional annotations, it would clearly be the distinction between workers and reproductive individuals in social insects.
Both types are typically found outside (not so much the larval and pupal stages) and a distinction would make the ID easier or could support to learn the distinguishing characteristics between, say, queen, male and worker bumblebees.

Furthermore, some ants swarm at particular time windows in the year, and this could be nicely depicted by the phenology diagram and also support an ID, where related species differ in the time of swarming.

And lastly, these data might be valuable to see if a shift in occurence of the respective forms is taking place, possibly relating to the ongoing climate change.

That would be my request :)


Male and female in a single photo may not be a mated pair. And sometimes there are multiples of one or both sexes. (The “each observation is a single individual” is theoretically true, but not always practical I think.)

Annotating the observation with the rarer or more seasonal life stage (if two are present) makes sense to me.

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usual caveat of “I’m not staff or dev, just a passionate user, and this is my understanding”:

It is the official iNat position that each observation is for an individual organism. Fields are very unstructured and often there are multiple fields for the same thing, so annotations were created as a more structured version of fields. They were intended to align more with the official iNat position of one individual = one observation (and vice versa). Interactions, counts, mating, courting, behaviours… all of those things aren’t representable in the context of an individual at a moment in time and place.

I do agree that the more contextual information presented, the better, and for that we have fields, comments, descriptions… annotations just necessarily need to adhere to the core iNat definition of an observation… that is after all why the were created!

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As a new joiner to the topic, have we considered the option of adding more annotations than just adult, juvenile or egg on avian taxa? I’ll give three examples. My thing is raptors and I hate placing annotations on Red-tailed Hawks that are 1st Year birds. A bit of background, a 1st Year RTHA is a either (1) a juvenile after between January 1st and March or (2) An adult-plumage bird with aspects of juvenile, namely retained remiges and rectrices, and light-colored eyes. Perhaps immature would be a more appropriate term to use and would also cover 1st Fall individuals, or hawks that starts obtaining adult feathers in fall instead of spring. Other species like Swainson’s Hawks also have a 1st Year/Immature plumage and a 2nd Year plumage.

Example two, we know large species like Golden and Bald Eagles take 5 years to mature and each year they acquire a plumage that’s different from the others. So I think perhaps a chance to label a Bald Eagle 2nd or 4th Year would be helpful but once again, 2nd-4th Years can fall under the category immature.

Lastly, the White-crowned Sparrow. It has a juvenile plumage that is very streaky for summer but once migration starts, they molt into another plumage that most observers are used to seeing in the US. There are two distinct plumages before adult in that species. Once again, it can fall under immature.

All the examples I described have multiple plumages before adults but they can all fall under “immature” and I think an annotation for that would be awesome.


I think once you start looking at species or genus specific annotations, you should really be looking at fields to manage that information. Part of the reason for the annotations, as I mentioned above, was to simplify… ie one way of describing gender instead of multiple fields all labelled differently… gender, sex, M/F, F/M, male/female, and so on. The same applies in reverse, in that an annotation option for 4th year plummage would not be relevant on all Aves, so to present that as an option on the house sparrow, for example, doesn’t make sense. It could probably be implemented at the species level, but then that opens up a huge can of worms of annotations specific to each individual taxa, effectively making the annotations more complicated.

[edit] Immature is effectively juvenile? We almost have the same situation for spiders, in penultimate (last instar before adult, which can be an important distinction). Usually we mark as juvenile and make a comment that it is penultimate… and there is a field to indicate penultimate than can be used as well. There is also a field for “teneral”, the state after shedding the skin and before the new exo has fully sclerotised.


As someone whose primary interest is in birds, I also find the current annotation choices for that group less than ideal. In particular, the word ‘juvenile’ is probably interpreted differently by different people and/or for different taxa. However, I also agree with @kiwifergus that we don’t want the complication of having stages that differ across different bird taxa.

I think the options for all birds could usefully be expanded to:

  1. Egg
  2. Chick (hatched but not yet flying)
  3. Juvenile (a flying bird of the year)
  4. Immature/sub-adult (from one year to breeding age)
  5. Adult

I suspect ‘juvenile’ is currently used at various times to cover the second, third, and fourth of these, but in a lot of cases they’re quite distinct. ‘Chick’ is usually readily identifiable, and for many longer-lived species categories 3 and 4 are often distinguishable from plumage and/or soft part colours. Obviously for birds that breed at one year, the ‘immature/sub-adult’ category isn’t necessary, but I don’t see that as a problem—it can just be ignored in those cases.


What about the many species who breed in their first juvenile plumage or immature plumage that is distinct from adult?

In my mind it is plumage that defines the terminology that is used, not sexual maturity. I would like to see the addition of “immature” as an option for birds out of juvenile but not yet in definitive adult plumage, however many people also use the term as an catch all for anything not in adult plumage and or juvenile the same way. I see the potential for misunderstanding and misuse high for the addition of pretty much any option though.


I think @obscurus touched on some really good points. I just can’t see how the three examples I’ll share below should be labeled under “juvenile”


However I think it be more appropriate to call it ‘nestlings’ instead of ‘chick’.

I don’t wish to sound pedantic, but I would say that, although ‘nestlings’ is good for altricial chicks (who stay in the nest), it’s maybe not so appropriate for precocial chicks (who immediately leave the nest), and that ‘chicks’ covers more bases…

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Yes, I work on precocial species, which is why I used ‘chicks’. However, I wouldn’t mind a combination of the terms (i.e. chicks/nestlings) if that resulted in less confusion.

One of the problems here is that some annotation categories (e.g. juvenile) aren’t defined locally. What about the ability to click on (or hover over) the word ‘Annotations’ to bring up a small window or drop-down showing the options, with a very brief definition of each—a bit like the middle paragraph of my post (128) above. Then at least we could all be using the same criteria when adding an annotation. That would (hopefully) reduce “the potential for misunderstanding and misuse”.


Is there a way to add the translation for new annotation type similar to what was done with “budding”?

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OK, iNaturalist now has an Alive or Deadannotation for observations within Animalia. The possible values for this annotation are:

Alive - meaning that evidence shows the organism is alive and shows no signs of imminent death.
Dead - meaning that evidence shows the organism is dead or shows signs of imminent death.
Cannot Be Determined - meaning that the evidence shown does not allow one to determine if the organism is alive or dead (eg a dropped feather or a snake shed)

And there are keyboard shortcuts for this annotation in identify:

We decided against applying this annotation to plants as it’s likely many perennial plants seen in winter might be erroneously marked as Dead, as brought up here.

Speaking of plants, as @fffffffff noted, the Budding option under Plant Phenology has now been changed to Flower budding to make it clear that the annotation only refers to flowers. Like the other changes noted here, it should all be available for translation on CrowdIn.


Are there plans to populate the new alive/dead annotation based on some of the frequently used observation fields? For example this one was tagged on 30K observations: https://www.inaturalist.org/observation_fields/92


Should probably work, we’ll take a look.


Can you elaborate on the “no signs of imminent death” part of the Alive annotation?
How soon is imminent? Hours? Days?

I’m not trying to be pedantic; I actually have an observation this could apply to:

I observed a sick animal. It had no wounds, emaciation, or anything overtly disturbing; it was a bit listless, which doesn’t necessarily look much different than sleepy in still photos. I observed it on a Tuesday, and was told weeks later that on the morning after my observation it was discovered dead.


I would say within minutes or an hour or two at most. I’m thinking the most obvious (and maybe valuable?) use of this annotation will be for roadkill, so the situation that comes to mind is when you find an animal hit by a car that is still alive but is clearly going to die very soon. An unfortunate occurrence when you’re out road herping, since a lot of cars don’t avoid snakes and other animals.


Ok, that makes sense. :)

So since I don’t know whether it died within an hour of the last time I saw it, hours later that same day, or the next morning, should I annotate it as “alive” (as it was at the time of the observation), or "cannot be determined ", since I know it was sick and died, but don’t know when?

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