"Plant Blindness" and iNaturalist

Came across a recent article I thought you might find interesting:

Christine Ro of the BBC recently published an article on “plant blindness” - that is, the tendency of humans to not notice the plants around them. While this is an innate bias all of us have, it can get reinforced by cultural norms such as animals for sports team mascots. However, the bias decreases for those plants for which there is a personal or cultural connection. In addition to describing the origins of “plant blindness”, the article also suggests that this bias could be impacting endangered species list funding in the US, as well as the use of plants in research.

As I read the article, I thought about how this might play out on iNaturalist. Certainly the site/app encourage an awareness of the life around us. While plants do dominate observation numbers, it seems that animals get IDed a lot faster. On the other hand, though, fungi and microscopic organisms (which the article doesn’t mention at all) seem to have the most trouble getting IDs.


Plants do not get as much love even among the iNat userbase, but I’m certain using iNat regularly is one of the best ways to learn to notice plants more. Some people are so focused on plants that you could accuse them of animal blindness instead.

The reason some groups of organisms get fewer IDs is not just because there are fewer people interested in IDing them. One overly enthusiastic expert could curate the world for certain groups, as often happens. But things like mushrooms can be difficult to ID with just the typical sort of images that get posted to iNat. Microbes obviously are overlooked because few people obsessively look at everything under a microscope. For the record, I have really good success getting my microscopic algae ID’d on here, usually in less than 24 hours after uploading it.


Yes, in fact, “second-class citizen” status for plants is built right in to the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Listed species are protected everywhere if they are animals, but only on federal lands for plants, except to the extent that there may be additional legal protection at the State level. Whatever one may think of the merits of that difference, it does highlight how deep-seated the perceived difference is.

Yep, as a vascular plant botanist, I fully confess to a bad case of bryophyte, fungus, lichen, and alga blindness! Glad iNaturalist is there to gently push back against that.


Guilty! Someone has to do it…:wink:


Excellent article! Thanks so much for sharing it.

I definitely recognise myself in the article - I really love nature (hence being on iNaturalist), but whilst I’ve got a passable knowledge about animals I know next to nothing about plants. I think it is because when I was younger animals just caught my imagination more than plants, and that tendency has stuck with me.

I’ve often thought about IDing plants on iNaturalist (all of my observations so far, bar one mushroom, are animals), but I think the sheer volume of plants is the barrier. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and so a large part of me wants to catalogue everything I see - which is impossible, but much more plausible with animals than with plants. It seems like an insurmountable job, so I don’t really want to open that can of worms! We’re moving to a new house with a garden soon, so maybe I could just limit myself to cataloging the garden first…


Do it! It’s fun!


The garden is a great entry point! If you tend the garden, you probably end up weeding. As you’re weeding, maybe you’ll wonder- is that a native or an invasive weed? Perennial or annual? Then you end up learning more about just a couple of plants and can go gradually from there since your “training” is now underway. :)


Hey Jonathan, you will find that learning to identify the weeds that pop up/have popped up in the garden of your new house will serve as a gentle introduction to plants. If I can help you with that, please feel free to ping me.

With plants it is often much easier to ID them if they are in flower or in fruit, but many weeds are easy enough to ID just from the leaves.

And you may be surprised to discover that you can already ID a few of them, such as the common dandelion!


I think there are reasons beyond any unintentional bias that lead to this. The question is well discussed here


If I’m ID’ing an animal and it’s on a plant that I recognize, I’ll often add a comment with the plant name. Sometimes I encourage them to duplicate their observation and ID the plant separately.


Well, maybe. ;-)
Especially note silversea_starsong’s comments.


When my lawn went for an extended time without mowing because of wet conditions, I was astounded at the diversity of “weeds” that came up and flowered, many of them natives. (Yes, I posted them.) Great way to get into plants.


I think the “common dandelion” situation is a case where we need to look at the DNA/RNA.


And if we find evidence that the “species” are all too similar? Do we just lump them and leave it at that? Or are the apparent morphological and ecological forms, which span large areas of Europe, still deserve recognition? It’s a difficult topic.

for research purposes yes, but then we need taxonomic units people can use without $897892468978926 equipment


My general rule for what I stop to document and share on iNaturalist is “blooming, moving, or dead” so about half my observations are of plants :-) I know it has made me much more attentive sidewalk weeds everywhere I go. I love the challenge of finding wild biodiversity in the urban core, and it’s usually weeds or animals attracted to the right kind of landscaping. I do hope that iNaturalist and Seek help put a dent in the “plant blindness” epidemic.


Plant blindness on the iNat series of country posts.
8 categories of animals.
But all plants are lumped as one.


Speaking personally, iNat has done a lot to decrease my plant blindness. When I first started, I pretty much only cared about herps (and maybe spiders) and I would get frustrated when I didn’t see any on a hike - which is often. But as Ken-ichi would tell me, plants and birds are always around and they are really cool. And since I wanted to make more observations because I was hooked on iNat, I started photographng plants.

Knowing your plants is also helpful even if you’re not looking for them as your main goal. If I know which plants a certain butterfly uses as a host, or if certain plants signify the type of habitat a lizard or snake might like (eg Creosote is likely a good indicator that Chuckwallas and Desert Iguanas might be nearby), I can know when to start looking more closely.

Finally, meeting up with and befriending other iNatters has opened my eyes to lots of other taxa, and I think that’s one of the best parts of iNat - the connections we can make with others. When we go out for a hike they’ll point out cool plants to me and I’ll try to wrangle a snake for them. It’s a beautiful thing.


for you, among my plants



@bouteloua pointed out she might have the opposite of plant blindness in an Observation of the Week post from last year. Example: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/7172969