Museum Specimens / Antique Photos and iNaturalist

I’ve seen a lot of confusion on observations of old specimens on whether or not they should be counted as research grade. When I went looking for guidelines on what to do in situations like this, I’ve found out that we (currently) only have one concrete rule on how this should work: the evidence of the organism shouldn’t be more than 100 years old. The purpose of this is mostly to rule out fossil observations.

The problem with this wording is that it’s ambiguous when it comes to old specimens or old photos (like this specimen from 1768, this photograph from 1881, or this drawing from 1879), so I can definitely see where the confusion comes from.

So, here’s the question that I’d love to get input on (or ideally a staff member to provide a concrete rule):
If the evidence of the organism is older than 100 years from the present day, but within 100 years of the date of observation, is that considered “Recent evidence of an organism” in the DQA?

Edit: I’ve changed the title to more accurately reflect the discussions in this thread, the original title was “Museum Specimens / Antique Photos and Recent Evidence of an Organism”


All those old observations really need to be marked as captive, as most of them weren’t collected by users who upload them, those specimens likely already are in GBIF via museums they’re in, or can get there if owner of collection would want it, but it’s incorrect to upload observations from 1800s or 1920 as if it was collected by you and have it RG.


Yeah I do agree that a lot of the museum specimens and public domain photos shouldn’t necessarily be on iNaturalist for reasons related to copyright/ownership or duplicate entries in GBIF, so those examples may not have been the best to choose. A better one to illustrate my question might be one in the same vein as this one from my family collection, where the photos have been passed down to me and so I have ownership and control over them. (I didn’t choose this for the original post because it’s not yet at the 100-year mark, but I know I have photos from the 1910s-1920s which would be within the questionable time frame)


Is it wrong to upload observations to iNaturalist that correspond to museum or herbarium collections already databased in GBIF? On the downside, I suppose this would create duplicate records, but on the upside it allows photographs of the collections to be viewed.


If it’s your own observation it shouldn’t be a big problem as GBIF initiated some cross-acount searches for matching observations, otherwise you can set a restricted licence on those observations and they will stay on iNat.
@ajamico you can create accounts for each of your relatives who made photos, so it will be published under their names, but 100 years won’t be a problem for such observations, it’s made to filter out fossils, as animal was alive at that date, it’s ok (if iNat lives long enough most observations will get past that 100y mark).


There’s actually a pretty good discussion about this here


The problem with this is that for many of the photos, the information on who actually took the photo was lost. They’re all just in boxes in my (climate-controlled) closet :sweat_smile:. My plan is to write in the observation description what part of the family collection each is from as I go through and digitize/organize them.

Yeah, that’s my stance on it too, there is recent evidence at the time of observation so I feel that it should count.
And that’s a great point, if we based the rule on 100 years from the current day (rather than from the date of observation), more and more valid observations would leave research grade and become casual as time goes on!


iNat recently added a rule to date observed requiring it to be within the last 130 years:

So it isn’t possible to add more observations like the ones you linked in the initial post.


For family observations, it’s ok to post old ones less than 130 years old. One caveat might be if there isn’t a clear date to post from. Observations without clear dates could be a problem. But I think that the answer in the past has often been along the lines of: if it’s an occasional post, it isn’t a major issue. If you’re planning to do hundreds of older observations, then it might be more of a problem.

This is also the type of guidance I’ve seen when it comes to duplicate records from museums. If it’s just a few duplicated, it isn’t a major issue, though not ideal. But larger scale/systematic posting of specimens in NHCs is discouraged.


I’m not going to do this but I could potentially go back to the many specimens I collected 30 or more years ago and photo them for upload to iNat as they are my observations. They’re all curated in a natural history museum. But that seems unnecessary as the information already exists in GBIF and other databases. I just didn’t photo many specimens in the pre-digital past.


I’d think “captive” would not be an appropriate label unless the specimen was actually captive/cultivated.

There is a journal article encouraging adding iNaturalist record numbers to museum specimens because of the added value. The “problem” of replicate data in GBIF is a “GBIF problem” which undermines the value of combining iNaturalist with museum specimens. No one should be using GBIF data in a way that is negatively impacted by replicate data. There are millions of observations on iNaturalist which are multiple observations of the same organism made by different people–and these are in GBIF also.


That article does exist, but I think there are some potential problems. First, staff have made it clear in the past that iNat isn’t intended to be used as alternative NHC database, which I would argue the paper sort of proposes.

I think that the duplicates are a fairly minor issue, but they can cause confusion. For instance, identifications for entries in NHC databases are often fairly static - they are rarely changed unless re-examined by an expert. On the other hand, the community taxon of an observation on iNat may change quite easily or quickly. This is also true for other aspects of the observation: fields, date, time, location, all are editable, though for most observations this is a reasonably rare occurrence. If any of these occur and the NHC records are not updated, there are now two records of the same thing, one on iNat, one in the NHC, with different info (which will be quite difficult to identify as duplicates). At the extreme, iNat observations can be deleted by a user at any time. All of these attributes make iNat less suitable for use for NHC collections which generally aim to be permanent.

I also feel like in some cases, this type of approach seems like NHCs can be co-opting work done by others (iNat users) as their own. If an employee at an NHC uploads their own observations or those created by volunteers specifically on an NHC sponsored/coordinated project, I don’t think there’s much of an issue. However, if NHCs are linking to observations or pulling info from the API for import to their own database and then presenting that data as their own, I think this is a potential issue. For one thing, it’s possible to do this without respecting the observation/media licenses that users have made (so that would need to be handled carefully). Also, for NHC specimens, there’s an expected level of rigor when it comes to identification - I think most people have the expectation that a specimen ID from a museum record has been made/checked by museum staff. If they are pulling in community taxon IDs, annotations, or other data entered by iNat users, this seems like benefiting from the work of iNat identifiers without necessarily crediting them.

Relevant sections of the cited paper indicate their proposed workflow may be subject to some of these issues: “Taxonomic identification is facilitated by artificial intelligence features in iNaturalist, the iNaturalist community, and a community‐curated taxonomic nomenclature. iNaturalist improves efficiency and accuracy for botanists relative to field guides or memory alone by providing a list of identification suggestions and a set of pre‐defined taxonomic names from which to choose (e.g., avoid misspellings, taxonomic synonyms). Accuracy is also improved with identification suggestions or verifications from other iNaturalist users. Second, once observations are complete, these data can be easily exported and directly converted into herbarium labels and merged into collections databases.”

This implies to me that this workflow is assuming that the AI suggestions are good, and that iNat IDers will have a higher ID accuracy than botanists (true in some cases, definitely not in others). It also implies a one time conversion of iNat data (which may change) to the database and collection and the potentially uncredited use of data from other users (annotations, ids, etc.) which I think is ethically problematic.


I think I accidently hijacked the topic–which was specifically about historical specimens collected by other people. It seems pretty obvious that no one should be using iNat as a digital image repository of museum specimens collected by other people and stored in a museum (or photographs taken by other people). But if I collect a specimen, document it on iNat, and deposit the specimen in a museum as a voucher (as the paper describes), would this be inappropriate also?

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To me that seems perfectly appropriate and it’s something I’ve done a few times. Adding the museum catalog number for the specimen to the iNat record is a good way to tie the two together.


Yes, I think this is fine if done occasionally.

I also don’t think you hijacked the topic! It was about historical specimens, but conversation was about those collected by other people as well as those OP could post “for” (like those from a family collection). One of the examples was also an old museum specimen uploaded to iNat, so I think this discussion is somewhat relevant. I probably took it the most off track with my longer post, really.

If people do want to continue discussing whether new/future uploads of museum specimens are good practice, we can break that off into a separate topic.

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About 20 years ago I had the opportunity to look at a bunch of museum specimens in the Smithsonian collected by Teddy Roosevelt in Africa during big-game safaris in the early 1900s. These were all stored offsite and not open to the public. If I had a digital camera at the time I’d probably have photo’d a lot of these just for the historical significance, but I would not have uploaded them to iNat because they aren’t my observations.

Since that time, a lot of natural history collections have started taking and archiving digital photos of their specimens which can be accessed by the public – or they’ll take photos of a specimen if a researcher requests that information – so in a way these collections are already doing some of what is being discussed here. For fragile specimens that might not handle being mailed out on loan, a good digital photo might suffice for some research purposes.


It is correct to mark those as such if you observe collected specimens that were moved from original spot. I know it may not sound the best way, but that’s what staff said.

Oh! I think I understand what you were saying now. Yes, mark them as captive/cultivated if the location is set to the museum or where the specimen is kept, but if the location is set to where it was collected then it is fine not being marked captive. Correct?

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Partially yes, but as iNat says that An observation records an encounter with an individual organism at a particular time and location. it means you should be the one encountering it, ofc we for some reason still have group accounts, but idally everything uploaded under one account should be seen by one owner of that account. If you didn’t encounter this organism at time and place of original collection, your observation is marked as date/location incorrect, as you encountered it at museum later. Sorry, I should’ve written it from the start.

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I agree with this! Just to be clear, I’m not trying to push for museums or public collections to digitize their collections via iNaturalist. This is firstly a place for people to connect with nature (and secondly for research purposes), and I believe that seeing the species that my family encountered is a great way to connect with it!

Also, I think it goes without saying that a clear and accurate date and location are needed for a research-grade iNat observation! :grin: I unfortunately have a lot of photos of old organisms that have a date but not a clear location (mostly hauls from oceanic fishing trips that my grandparents and great-grandparents took). I’m not going to post those unless my grandparents are able to say something like “yes we were just off the coast of Cape Canaveral in Florida” or something like that, and I would boost the accuracy to make sure to cover everything. I’m still debating on whether I want to post photos where I don’t have a date and/or location, but I would leave whatever I don’t have blank, so they would always stay at casual grade anyway. But I think that train of thought may be a little off-topic for this thread :grin:

Also, do you (or anyone else here) know the reasoning behind the new 130-year-old limit on observations? I realize that most of these observations would be spam, mistakes in date input, or in the museum-collection-gray-area, but I’m just curious why this was an intentional new feature.