Observing populations, not just individuals

I regularly combine several images of several members of a single population into a single observation. I do this for the following reasons:

  1. A desire to document variability in variability between populations.
  2. Aiding identification to species-level: Many keys and identification guides emphasize population averages for traits that differ between related species, but overlap somewhat in unusual individuals. This is often true in the plant world, at least - I’m less familiar with other keys in other contexts.
  3. Out of habit, frankly, and a personal preference to have to refer to fewer iNaturalist observations in my own notebook.
  4. Just a general sense that more information is usually better.

For example:
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/10769402

I can see some problems with my approach - for example, I could:

  1. Inadvertently lump together different species that I mistakenly thought comprised a single population of a single species.
  2. Or, especially for zoomed-in photos of smaller parts of an organism, someone else could mistakenly think that all the photos are of a single, highly variable individual (perhaps connected by organs not pictured in every photo, or perhaps by underground organs).

For me (and most users), these problems are probably very rare, and iNat seems like a great place to be corrected rapidly when/if they do occur.

Is this practice bad, though? Or at least, not in keeping with iNat standards?

I’ve come across some users asking other users to ‘split up’ observations of multiple individuals of (presumably) a single population. My guess is that they are making this critique because not every individual pictured in the observation is identifiable, on its own, to species-level, or perhaps to check off different phenology boxes.

i tend to combine individuals together in an observation if they look like the same species to me and if they are reasonably close in space and time. in addition to the reasons you mentioned, sometimes i lump them together simply because i don’t want to bother to take notes about which specific photos are individual A and which specific photos are individual B or C, etc. in those cases, it’s simply easier to say there are probably at least x number of inidividuals captured in the set of photos.

the only time that i can think of where i separated individuals into their own observations is when i was looking at some mining bees, and i wanted to specifically note differences in individual behavior and tunnel form.

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See this thread, which contains a long discussion about this. TL;DR: multiple individuals of the same species is technically incorrect, but tolerated (and encouraged by some people). Different species should be in different observations.

As in many other grey areas on iNaturalist, if you suspect you’re doing something that might confuse others, a good solution is to put a comment on your observation to clarify the situation.

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Also see the FAQ starting here.

That pretty much sums up the situation with respect to your question.

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@ ddennism, I not sure the problems are as rare as you might think. A few that come quickly to mind, Chinese and Japanese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis and floribunda, respectively) can occur in the same habitat, often growing side by side; one twines clockwise and the other twines counterclockwise. If you’re unaware of this when doing the observation, you could have examples of both in the single observation. Mature black cherry (Prunus serotina) and juvenile Carolina laurelcherry (Prunus caroliniana) both have serrated leaves and can co-occur. Spiderworts (Tradescantia), there are seven species in the the coastal plain of SC; Ludwigia, there are 13. And this is only in one portion of one state.

If it happens occasionally, I don’t think it’s a problem but, if it becomes a practice, then it’s like having to perform multiple identifications for each observation, you’ll have to scrutinize every image. It will certainly slow down identification. I don’t think it should be encouraged.

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I think it keeps everything “neater” so to speak. If you could sort your own observation page alphabetically, it wouldn’t matter as much. I really wish the observation page could be sorted alphabetically.

Thanks - I knew this must have been asked before but I couldn’t find it.

Thanks for all those examples. I still wonder how to handle situations where keys imply or encourage the identifier to sample many individuals. Maybe making many observations and then tagging them as a single population?

“. . . if it becomes a practice, then it’s like having to perform multiple identifications for each observation, you’ll have to scrutinize every image. It will certainly slow down identification. I don’t think it should be encouraged.”

Having to identify every photo of the observation doesn’t take any more time than identifying every photo/individual posted as a separate observation.

So, in my opinion, this is yet another gray area. Minimize posting multiple individuals as a single observation when practical, and be aware of the possibility of mixing species. Sometimes, like with the Pandora Moth I posted recently, posting multiple individuals as a single observation is not confusing.

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Hmm, so if you have 10 observations with 1 image or 1 observation with 10 images, when you complete 10 images, in one instance you’ve completed 10 observations and in the other you’ve completed one. As I watch the number of unidentified observations swell, I’d rather complete the 10 observations than the one.

And I guess I’m saying that I don’t think there is the need, in general, to include so many images per observation. If there are key features that need to be highlighted with multiple images, I understand that, but if there is a member of a population that is dramatically different, it would be my preference for that individual to be submitted as a separate observation. If it is that different and is buried with a bunch of images in an observation and not the main image, it’s not as likely to be noticed anyway.

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Keep in mind that the observation “belongs” to the observer, and it is up to them how many photos they prefer! Also, we just have to ID to a level that the photo supports, so if you feel that “sampling” a large number of individuals would be required to get to species level ID, then just ID to genus. Just call it as you see it, no matter what level that is!

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Yes, I completely understand that and am in no way attempting to limit the number of images someone includes with their observation. But I also understand that observers want their observations identified in a reasonable amount of time.

I don’t have the stats for all of iNat but, judging from from South Carolina, the number of unidentified observations has gone from around 30,000 to more than 47,000 in the last year and a half; that’s not a good trend. It just seems like I see fewer and fewer people providing identifications so, while yes, it is the prerogative of the observer to include as many images as they want, if there’s nobody IDing them, it’s a moot point.

Using a common and unique tag for all of the related observations is one option.

A little more visible option (to the community) might be to use a field like Related Observations. You can see an example of its use here.

There are similar fields for the same purpose, some mentioned in this languishing Feature Request:
https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/link-observations/1367

You can also just paste a list of related observations URLs into the observation descriptions or comments.

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Is that the number of “Needs ID” obs? That will swell dramatically over a year period just from the massive spike that comes from the annual City Nature Challenge. A considerable amount of those observations that are not at RG by now will eventually drop out of the needs ID pool as they get flagged “ID is as good as it can get”. New iNatters will have a higher than average rate of unidentifiable observations just by virtue of not having learnt the angles and views that are required for many taxa.

I think of it as being like trying to fill a bucket with rain. We don’t have to catch every drop of rain in order to fill that bucket. We get a downpour like CNC and we all run around with buckets as best we can, but we just aren’t going to catch everything. Aim to catch the most you can with the bucket you have, encourage others to pick up buckets… and if you can influence the rain to fall in an easier to catch way, then by all means!

And remember too, that not everyone is in iNat to put up observations of everything in their environment. Some are just sharing what they encounter while on bush walks, others are curious to know what one particular thing is, and some are “forced” to do it as part of a class assignment. As identifiers, we just aim to “add value” to the observations as they go past us in our review stream.

[edit] Actually, one more point. Even when an observation drops out of the needs ID pool because someone has flagged it “ID as good as it can get”, it doesn’'t mean it can’t still get ID’d further. 10 years from now, someone doing a research project in a particular area might go through all the old casual observations and work on the IDs. The important thing is that the observation was made. The ID can come whenever, there is no time limit on obtaining it! If the observer has a pressing need, then they can look to tagging identifiers for more urgent attention, and there are other avenues they can pursue as well :)

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I don’t have the stats for all of iNat but, judging from from South Carolina, the number of unidentified observations has gone from around 30,000 to more than 47,000 in the last year and a half; that’s not a good trend.

I am relatively new to iNat. At first, I wanted to try and contribute to IDs and would go through the “Identify” tab. I could do a few here and there, but the majority I had no idea.

Then someone on this forum pointed out how you can subscribe to specific locations and observations show up on your dashboard. I am able to do a lot more IDs because of more familiarity. This is a feature that could use being highlighted more. Rather than follow individuals, follow locations. It probably would go a long way to helping get better IDS in specific locations.

Yes, I completely understand that and am in no way attempting to limit the number of images someone includes with their observation.

With plants, I wish people would include more photos. It’s not necessarily an easy ID, when the only photo may be just a leaf or two.

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I approach iNat from a bit of a different perspective. I don’t submit a lot of observations but derive my enjoyment by helping others get identifications for their submissions. I do take note of what and where people are observing things and learn from that so, when I am out and about, I know what I’m seeing (but don’t always feel compelled to document it; a large portion of my observations are from my yard, a project of mine to see how many species occur in an urban environment).

But to the point of observations, I review the submitted observations for South Carolina on pretty much a daily basis. I am not seeing any fluctuations associated with CNC or really even school groups, just an ever increasing (never decreasing) number of observations that “need IDed”. When I started in 2016, there were less than 10,000 and I could scroll home beginning to end. In March of 2019 I tried that again and was informed by iNat support staff that there was a “10,000 record limit in searches”, so I couldn’t scroll all the way to the end anymore. At that point there were 27,600; that has now reached 47,400 six months later. [In my earlier post I was trying to go off memory and said 30,000 a year and a half ago, what I thought was a conservative estimate. I referred to the actual email and found these new, more accurate numbers and wanted to acknowledge the discrepancy].

While there are certainly new users submitting observations, I see a lot of familiar users submitting as well and those observations are just not getting IDed. A number of users who previously contributed significantly to IDs have either left the platform or not been nearly as active. And those roles have not been being filled by new people. I’m not sure if this is unique to SC, but I think it’s getting to be a potential problem. So, accommodating submissions, yes, but also being cognizant of the IDing process, I think is important.

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I scuba dive and frequently a photo of a school of fish. The fish in the school might all be the same or not, and fish that school together often appear very similar. So either I have a picture with one species or many species.

:tropical_fish: If I think they’re all the same species, I post the photo and explain in the Notes/Description that I think they’re all the same and to please correct me if they’re not.

If someone suggests they’re multiple species, I:

  1. Duplicate the observation. That photo is now referenced by 2 observations.
  2. Identify which species I want to ID in each observation. Sometimes you can just explain in the text of each observation like I did in this pair of observations:
    • https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/31903319
    • https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/31903502

    Sometimes you need to circle them in copies of the photo and add a marked photo to each observation. I can't find an example of this scenario.

This doesn’t allow me to record how many fish are in the school in a searchable way, like would be possible if I made an observation for each fish regardless of species. It also doesn’t allow me to mark attributes like adult versus juvenile, male versus female, and so on, if the photo contains a mix. But I don’t care about that. If someone does care, they can ask me.

:tropical_fish: You can do the same thing with a photo that you know contains multiple species.

If I think iNat users will be confused, like if I want to identify a camouflaged fish on a colorful sponge, I create an observation for one of them, duplicate it, and then add a closeup of the transparent fish as the first photo to the fish’s observation. I also include an explanation in the sponge’s observation that the observation is the sponge.

Check out this example:
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/31905872
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/31906279

:tropical_fish: In coral reef photos, there are often many species. Here’s a photo where I got carried away and created many observations. The duplicated photo links to all the associated observations:
https://www.inaturalist.org/photos/49769776

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thanks - this is very helpful