Observing entire ecosystems

Here is something that I have had a chance to think about a lot, and it might be a useful thing to discuss, although I do not believe there is a single right answer to this question.

But first, lets start with a picture:

I submitted this picture to iNaturalist with it being an observation of a species “Licorice Fern”, which is indeed in the picture, but that wasn’t the reason why I took the picture. I took this picture at the William Finley National Wildlife Refuge, which is a complex of lakes, marshes, fields and forests that floods seasonally. I took this picture because I wanted to record what the forest looked like while flooded. (In this case, this is an expected, seasonal flood). To me, there is a wealth of information contained in a picture like this, about the entire ecosystem, terrain and climate.

Before coming to iNaturalist, I was more interested in ecosystems and landscapes than I was in single organisms. I have adjusted because of the format of this site, but sometimes I wonder if I have adjusted too much.

I think that there is a wealth of context around specimens, things like the landscape, terrain, and big climate events, that explains them very well. Seeing a flooded forest, or a burnt grassland, or just what a forest looks like when covered in snow, is an important point of understanding biology. So I sometimes think it would be good to have a systemic way to have observations for “frozen over streams”, for example.

But I think that technically, that would be difficult. It would also perhaps dilute the purpose of the site, leading to people posting lots of random pictures of beaches and sunsets. So I don’t know how this would be implemented, or whether it would be a good idea, but has anyone else ever wanted to make an observation that didn’t refer to a specific species, but rather to an ecosystem, or ecosystem event?


I think this is a great way to think about nature, but it would also completely break iNat’s species-based systems.
I’d be curious if anyone knows of something like this which has been tried before.


Hi @mnharris I share a lot of your sentiments and have even done some similar observations (ie. redwood resprouts but with the motive of showing a burned landscape/ecosystem).

I think one way to do this well is to make a Journal post and link your relevant observations into it with an extended written narrative.


I agree, although I think this would limit the scope to just one person’s observations.

I think it would be possible to use a traditional project to collect such observations, but you’d have to have a separate project for each kind of ecosystem and there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to publicise a project’s existence so people can add their observations to it.

If a picture has a defined ‘primary’ species, as in @mnharris’s example, it would be a legitimate iNat observation.

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One thing I sometimes do is take a representative photo, tag as a key species that is visible in the photo, and use the natural community field to track ecosystem type


It is good idea for another site.

In ecology studies it’s common to define a place by its ecosystem classification, but that’s also something that’s more difficult to do than you’d first think. Even within “one type” of ecosystem classification there is a lot of variation, and disagreement on how it should be classified, or where the ecotone (ecological transition point) lies, or whether the ecotone itself should be classified as a separate category.

@charlie can expand on this in far greater detail.

Take a look at Elizabeth Thompson and Eric Sorenson’s Wetland , Woodland , Wildland: A Guide to the Natural Communities of Vermont for an excellent example of how ecosystems in just a small state can be classified. This was one of our grad school textbooks and all of us out in the field had some spirited discussions when trying to sort out what specific ecosystem category system we were in, even though the classification system used in this case is kept pretty simple and clear.


I think this can be done by recording all the species you can within the area/ecosystem. It is possible if you have the time. The vegetation community builds a pretty concise picture for those who know what they are looking at. You can also paste in a summary in each observation about the ecosystem. Also, build a project that binds the area together,


How would this be applied to Cities? I know that this is a bit off-topic, but trees growing in the city could host an small number of organisms. Obviously, this very small ecosystem would not last long due to city maintenance, but it would be important to record those too, yes? Perhaps by putting them in a Journal Post would be better because ecosystem in a city is not technically “natural”.

If you make photos of places I used to add these photos to Panoramio. This does not exist anymore so maybe photos of places can be added at Google Maps or in Wikipedia commons ( if you agree with the license). I do not expect iNaturalist is fits your needs.

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Hm, maybe if your place has Wi-fi access or you know the exact locality of where you took the photo, you could create and import a 360 photo with Google Street View?

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I would like more of the species observations to include a picture of the habitat it was found in, which would perhaps be a compromise between the current situation and what you are suggesting.


I prefer to use a few photos per obs. Some strategic details, and also a wider view.


Maybe, though it seems like iNat accepts only a few media types.

I didn’t mean posting the image on iNat, but rather posting the image on Google Maps at the site that it was found. For example, here’s a 360 photo taken by someone else of a nature preserve I often visit just after a controlled burn, posted on Google Maps.

That is a good idea, but I think a separation from Species posts would be needed…perhaps a Project: Habitat??


I think a lot might be done by tagging. There are already projects that store all of a type of observation. We might have a wetlands tag for example to find photos taken in wetlands and group them in a project without changing the current system.


Consideration of ecosystem type is no less important than species identification. In fact knowledge of ecosystems can greatly assist in species ID (and vice versa). Identifiers probably do this all the time sometimes without being conscious of it (looking at location in the landscape, soil surface, species cohorts and surrounding habitat etc.)
From time to time identifiers in iNat already note ecosystem information in their additional notes. @gregtasney’s idea to include an ecosystem summary (where known) in observations would add useful information. I also like his and @katharinab’s suggestion regarding ecosystem based projects and @rozzychan’s suggestion of using a tagging system. So if the interest is there iNat can already accept and display ecosystem information. In our area (Queensland, Australia) ecosystem classification and mapping is well advanced so we already have a useful framework in place.

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In South Africa we have a Project “Habitat”
which requires you to select the Habitat from a list and lets you add as well the altitude where you found your species


I love the idea and have often thought the same thing. Tags could work, but it does sound like a new framework for habitats is needed.

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