Overthinking plant identification

This is a perfect definition of it. I just could not find the right expression.

I am also very new to IDing plant species, but a good rule of thumb I use when IDing really anything is that if someone questions my ID do I have a reason or answer to back up my ID? This can sometimes be a very small answer that could be proved wrong, but if I at least have something like “It’s the right time of year and place” then I will ID. Not sure if this could be improved upon, but that with a few other things is how I ID.

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Dichotomous keys can be great, but they are no substitute for personal experience (i.e. familiarity with the species one is attempting to identify). I’ve found myself keying plants over and over again that seem to meet all the described characteristics, then when I see a picture of that species, I realize that it is nothing like what I have. My complaint with field guides and botanical manuals is that they are always either too descriptive to the exclusion of photos/illustrations, or they rely too heavily on photographs and leave out important characteristics or even whole species (many beginner’s guides only feature common species). That said, there are many useful characteristics that often go undescribed in technical manuals (such as plant form). What I find myself doing more of is identifying a plant to genus level (or sometimes family level) and trying to familiarize myself with that group rather than try to separate individual species immediately. Once you allow yourself the time to become familiar with a group of plants, it is far easier to identify species. Eventually, the subtle visual differences between species will become obvious, but, in my experience, overthinking an identification is a part of the process of getting there.

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I’m an expert in plant identification – some plants, in some places. I make mistakes. Sometimes they’re just careless mistakes – I labeled a Canada Goose as a Canada Gooseberry recently – and sometimes I really don’t know how to distinguish species I thought I could (Vinca minor vs. V. major), or what I thought was just one species are really two or more (Galium, Verbascum). I pay attention to the notifications. They alert me to errors and sometimes teach me distinctions I’d like to understand.

I agree with you that one usually can’t key iNaturalist photos. That’s OK. General appearance and some major morphological traits are most useful.

When I don’t feel confidence of my identification at one level, I may bump the ID up to genus or above. However, sometimes I’m close enough to confident that I’ll add a note saying “maybe” or “In my area I’d call this species X but I’m not sure that’s correct in your area,” or “I think it’s species X but I’d feel more confident if I could see the underside of the leaf,” or something else that explains my concern.

Sounds to me like you’re doing a good job and are on the learning curve like all of us. As they don’t usually tell us in class, that curve just keeps curving and curving. Have fun.

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as a fellow novice naturalist who feels similarly…

I feel a bit lucky in my location. There’s a Minnesota website that deals with native plants. If you’re looking at one species, it will tell you what species look similarly to it and what details point toward one or the other(s). I really need this. I need a X has these details and Y has these other details.

Additionally, being in a large urban area/county, we have lots of people identifying plants uploaded to iNat. So I get lots of response to things I upload and that helps me learn and develop my own skills over time.

My modus operandi is when trying to identify my own obs (and to some extent, others)

  • Look at iNat’s computer vision suggestions. Take a quick look at some images of that taxon on iNat to see if it looks reasonable. I use this as a rough screen only and mostly only for species recommendations. If it looks wrong. I discard the suggestion. If it looks possible. I proceed.

  • I immediately go to my beloved website. If they have the species that iNat recommended, I can get down to some granular identification details and a suggestion on what other species I should consider and what I should look for.

  • If I feel pretty confident I may have it, for my own obs I may go to species with a suggestion. If I’m a little less confident, I may go to genus or above. If I’ve taken good photos, I get pretty quick suggestions from others.

  • I use these suggestions (made by others) to learn. I might go research the suggestion they’ve made. Can I get enough info to agree with them? If not, I might ask: “hey, I was really struggling with how to tell if this was X or Y. Can you give me a mini-tutorial on what you looked at to determine it was X?” Not only have many of them helped me with details to look for, they’ve given me other sources to reference. That advances my own skill and confidence level.

  • Sometimes I feel the need for more info, I’ll search for other online sources. Usually those sites I find will tell me what X looks like and I’ll need to search for other species that I think might be possible. This is risky because I may not know what other species I should consider. But some info I will seek out, if I’m being dogged enough is: what is the prevalence of this species in my area? what is the preferred habitat of this species? I’ve found some interesting resources on surveys done in natural areas. I’ve corresponded with people monitoring invasive species in the state to see if there has been any report of Y in the state. I’ve contacted the city park board to see if they’ve ever planted this ‘exotic’ tree in the parks because I think I’ve found one (answer: yes… they did).

I don’t do a lot of genus/species level ids, esp. for plants, on other people’s obs. But I do (over the winter) try to move ‘unknown’ obs to something else. I’m not likely to research these identifications but, like you, I can get a sense. If I think it might be a type of X plant, and iNat suggests it strongly, I’ll sometimes go with it (genus level or above only). If iNat offers some similar looking suggestions and I’m not keen to go research, I’ll go with something high level (that I’m most comfortable with) but say ‘not sure but it looks like X’ in a comment. That’s more useful than leaving no suggestion at all, in my opinion, and if someone comes back and say ‘it’s X’… I feel I can more readily agree.

At my novice level, I would (personally) only work on things in my state/area. I have a hard enough time trying to determine between native X species and the very similar Y species that only grows naturally in the south but has been brought north as an ornamental and has now gone native! I’ve run across many organisms that have ‘twins’ in other areas of the county/world that are distinguished mainly by their range. I respect my limits in knowledge and respect the scholars who dedicate themselves to broader ranges.

And I would echo: check your notifications. I have made newbie bonehead mistakes and I wouldn’t want my error hanging up a RG designation. And… fixing my mistakes is all part of the learning curve for me.

my beloved website for anyone in the Minnesota area: minnesotawildflowers.info

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i started using iNaturalist by identifying plants in local parks that had relatively high numbers of observations. if i came across an observation that i wasn’t sure about because the evidence wasn’t enough to key things out to, i would go out to the location and try to get the additional evidence needed to key things out. especially for plants, sometimes, there’s just no substitute for being able to see it, touch it, smell it, etc. in person; to see where it’s growing (shade? soil? terrain? proximity to water? proximity to other plants? etc.); to see what other organisms are visiting (ex. why does this plant seem to attract so many beetles and flies but not a lot of bees? are those ants interested in the flowers or are there extrafloral nectaries somewhere on the plant, and why would this plant need EFNs? etc.)

i think another thing that may be useful if you’re not super confident is just to pace yourself. there’s no need to try to add IDs to all observations of a particular species if you’re not sure. they’ll still be there later. maybe just do a few IDs, then go out into the field or check out the species page in iNat to study up on species that are often mistaken for your plant or look at the map to see what nearby plants look like and when they were observed… then when you know more and are more confident, come back later and do some more IDs.

finally, always feel free to discuss IDs with the observers and other identifiers. sometimes, observers can provide additional photos or context, and identifiers sometimes will provide lots of good knowledge about identifying, about the plants in general, and about resources or otherpeople who might also be helpful.

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This issue has come up under different guises, and is one of the semi-controversies that new users deal with. We aren’t really sure what iNaturalist is doing here. Primarily, iNaturalist is here to connect people with nature. Some people here use it as a serious database of species distribution, and those people can get annoyed when an ID is wrong.

I am in the first group, and to me, the important thing is to get an intuitive sense of what things are.

A very good example species is the California Poppy, Eschscholzia californica. This is an extremely common species along the Pacific Coast, especially in California, and it takes literally a single glance to be able to identify it from the “gestalt”, either in person, or in an observation.
But technically, there are other species in the genus. Almost all of them are endemic to small ranges. There are some that grow in the same range as the California Poppy, but are more rare. It is hard to tell them apart, because the natural variation in appearance in the species californica can be greater than between species. To know the difference would require examining small features of the plant.

But, on a normal day, I just trust myself. If it is a non-controversial, common plant that I have a good image of, I just trust myself that I can identify it without looking for microanatomical proof that it isn’t a rare endemic species growing hundreds of miles outside of its range. That might not be good enough for a scientific paper, but it is enough for me to learn more about the natural world around me.

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Wow, thank you all for the replies!

I guess the general consensus is that it’s okay to make identifications based on “gestalt”, as long as you know what you’re doing.

Yeah I started off by learning trees of North America using field guides, and I gradually moved onto vascular plants. (I have no experiences with any non-vascular plants.) Around that time, I became more familiar with the concept of “keys” to identify plants. In my experience, using “gestalt” to identify plants works better with trees than with wildflowers, since wildflower guides will often have only the genus. Currently, I’d guess I have the most experience with plants of northeastern North America, but I also do a lot of IDs of high-level (e.g. Plantae or Angiospermae) plants, to where I’m confident.

In some ways I’m also lucky because the site that I use often, http://gobotany.nativeplanttrust.org, has keys for the New England area, and if you’re not sure of the terminology, you can hover over the text and it’ll give you a definition. That being said, it doesn’t seem to have descriptions of the species. Like @mmmiller has mentioned, I also occasionally use minnesotawildflowers.info for a “second opinion”.

There are probably a lot of other ideas I wanted to add, but I can’t remember them all at the moment. Oh well.

I guess this conversation could also be expanded to how people identify other organisms. I have some observations of other organisms (insects, amphibians, and birds) and I have no idea where to start, haha. Definitely there needs to be like some sort of “master list” of online resources…

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Depending on your location, these series of books might interest you. They function as kind of a general guide - some detail but sometimes not enough. And I’m not crazy about some of the photos. But they’re affordable and I stuck most of them in my Amazon wish list since they make an easy gift for someone to pick out for me. (and, although they are meant to be carried into the field should one wish … and I’ve known people who do … they are really handy for pressing paper projects flat after gluing)

Kollath+Stensaas Publishing : “natural history field guides for the North Woods of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, New England, the Rocky Mountains and other regions of the U.S.” http://www.kollathstensaas.com/books.php

There have been lots of suggestions for resources on the forum and I have bookmarked a lot but it can be hard to remember one has a resource for any particular quest one is on. And if the resources cover all the flies in North America… I need it broken down more. I tend to use the resources that are for areas around me and only people in my area would be interested in those! (I have thought about either adding some of those links to my profile page or making a journal post about them so I could easily reference them myself or recommend them to someone else).

I’m surprised you found minnesotawildflowers.info and find it useful. (since it looked like you were on the East Coast USA - I checked your obs for just that reason) That’s encouraging to know. I emailed them about a bad internal link they had and they responded pretty quickly and fixed it. For nature this year, I donated to iNat and that website - I use it so much I figured it was only right!

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You can check the thread about favourite guides, but depending on group you need to search for a book or simple key, there’re tons of them online.

Great suggestions by @mmmiller. I often find the minnesotawildflowers.info site helpful, and I’m in Mississippi! Likewise illinoiswildflowers.info.

The suggestion to ask an identifier “What did you see in this photo that told you it was X instead of Y?” is super. I have used that tactic many times and learned much, and no one has ever taken offense. And I don’t mind being asked, either. It sharpens my own IDs.

Here’s a trick I use when I’m on the edge of my expertise in doing IDs. Let’s say I’m pretty sure a flower is a Hibiscus, and the observer is in Alabama, USA. I use the “explore” function in INaturalist to see how many Hibiscus observations in Alabama there are, and then I click on Species to see how many species people have observed. It it’s just a few, like 3 to 5 species, it might be worth going further (field guides, keys) to review how to tell those apart, but if it’s more like a dozen species, I’m in over my head and I should leave it to someone else…for now anyway.

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Great question and discussion!

I’d just quickly add, I have personally started with and still primarily rely on the ‘gestalt’ or ‘feel’ for various family, genera, and species ID of local plants I’m familiar with, but am coming around to using keys and local/county species guides/lists (like CalFlora) to at least rule out or narrow down more tricky IDs to the species level (whether mine or others’).

I think the original question had a really important consideration that I haven’t seen in the discussion yet (might have missed it), which is that there is some risk in not making higher-level IDs–or stretching your comfort zone a bit.

Leaving some observations at order or family level (don’t get me started on the many ‘Plantae’ IDs I’ve gotten) I believe can put an observation into limbo, since there’s 12 million observations for ‘Plantae’ between Jan 1 1920 (earliest date available)–Jan 1 2020 in Plantae, but nearly an order of magnitude (1.6-1.7 million) observations even for the species-rich orders and families Asterales + Asteraceae.

I assume some braver souls than I trawl Plantae for ID purposes, but that seems a monumental task!

On a side note, I’ve only recently gotten into subspecies/variety-level IDs, for which I almost currently always rely on dichotomous keys and species range (location) maps, and habitat/substrate to determine just what I’m looking at–here’s one example where I waffled around on a Cirsium occidentale species before coming to a subspecies ID through use of range and habitat maps with some help from @morganstickrod.

I’ve also started looking through some of my older observations, which can be somewhat embarrassing/humbling to see how little I knew just 2-3 years ago about the observations I was making at a species level!

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somewhat embarrassing/humbling to see how little I knew just 2-3 years ago about the observations I was making at a species level!

Um, I hope you don’t feel that way. iNat’s training philosophy seems to be letting the user discover things for themselves. There isn’t really an indoctrination or training scheme, particularly for identification. Unless one reads the Forum messages, there’s not a lot of “best practices” guidance. Well, there is a training effort afoot currently for some ID training, but that is just coming to be now.

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That is probably true now that they have all gone to photographs; but under the Peterson system, with line drawings allowing eight to twelve species on a page, there are comparisons of species within a genus.

My take on this:
I’ve become less afraid of wrong IDs on my own observations, although, as @sedgequeen said, if I’m not sure, I’ll put a comment mentioning it.
However, for IDing other folks’ observations, I hold myself to a higher standard and will only go to the lowest level I’m confident is correct. Sometimes, I’ll just leave a comment if I think the original ID is questionable.
One thing I’ve found useful about going through dichotomous keys (as much as I think they’ve really reached the end of their useful life,) is that they teach you what to look for and to photograph. Sometimes, for example, if you need pappi, or seeds, or fruit bracts to make an ID, you just need to resolve to go back when those characters are there and document the evidence for a reasonable ID. Some plants, like Jepsonia, are easy to ID even though the flowers happen months after all the vegetative parts have disappeared, but others, like Atriplex or Stephanomeria, require that you get the fruits.
Maybe some day, we’ll figure out how to reify the AI knowledge and turn it into useful polyclave/multi-entry keys

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Through constant practice you have to narrow down to the genus or subgenus level only with the sight of the plant and then, if possible, right to the species level. Of course this is not always possible as some genera of group of species need the observations of various, and often minute, characters. The knowledge of the flora of a specific area and data on the environment are essential in order to exclude some taxa.
Keys are often useful only with a specimen in hand but in few cases are almost unuseful so that istinct is what can lead you to the identification.

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Also a big thing to think for iders is subspeciess ids, when you add them first time it doesn’t change comunity taxon, and observation stays up at e.g. Plantae, inviting someone who at least can id the species/genus/family is a good practice for such situations (also users are afraid to id higher levels hen ssp is added which often results in a forgotten observation that in fact has a good id).

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Like you, I’m not an expert in any field of biology, but I do have a good amount of experience just from exploring on my own and being curious about the plants that I saw where I grew up and when I was out and about.

Since I’m from British Columbia, I’ve opted to focus there. It helps catalogue the local biodiversity AND it also helps me to learn the local flora and fauna. It’s one thing to just narrow the location, but it also helps to narrow things to ones I’m largely familiar with and which I know are locally found. Like you, I have some local sources that I regularly consult.

But largely these are species where I know:

  1. There’s a narrow set of possible species because of the geographic limits, so it’s usually going to be one of the ones I know.
  2. These are species where I have enough familiarity to ID without resorting to a key (or that one essential piece of the key has been internalized)

So to make this all go smoothly, I made my own custom search URL. There’s an excellent tutorial on the iNaturalist custom URL search features.

I use the “Search multiple taxa using a List” method, for which I keep a list of BC species (most are native, but some are imports & invasives) that I feel relatively confident in identifying. That list has a list_id value (e.g. list_id=1139967 … though that isn’t mine). There’s also an associated place_id for British Columbia (place_id=7085).

So if I wanted to do IDs in Canada (place_id=6712) with a particular list (list_id=1139967), the URL would look like this:

https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/identify?place_id=6712&list_id=1139967&quality_grade=needs_id

I keep that bookmarked so I can quickly get back to identifying local & familiar flora.

The downside of that method is that it only catches something if there’s a preliminary ID of a taxon in your list. Two ways to address that shortcoming are:

  1. To include higher level taxons in your list.
  2. Create a list for the higher level taxons that you want to ID within & repeat with that.

At present I’m not great with mosses, save for a few. So I only include the small handful of exact moss species that I know & don’t have any higher level moss taxons.

It isn’t a perfect method, but it’s darn near close enough. And it does allow me to be more selective and contribute in a more useful fashion. Plus my home province has an unending stream of observations that need IDs. (We seem to have several professional biology folks who upload in bulk!)

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@someplant I just wanted to say that I very much appreciate your identifying, particularly on cultivated plants. They are a largely underserved group and it is nice to have another person outvoting bad computer vision suggestions.

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