Relevance of cultivated species observations

I’ve been using iNaturalist since the beginning of the pandemic , and I rarely add observations of cultivated species. So I was wondering if it is relevant (scientifically speaking) to add those kind of observations, or if it does not add any value to the main goal of the site.

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You can search forum as this question is frequesntly brought up, it’s completely your decision to add or not to add those observations, if you want to find something that will push you to post those, it can be that cultivated plants are hosts to native animals, they can escape cultivation and become invasive, so tracing cultivated locations can be useful, or that captive animals are often active hunters in a local ecosystem. Main goal of the site is to connect you with nature, so if that is an ok part of it for you, why not? Minuses are that really it doesn’t add too much scientific knowledge or can be done only when there’s the need, but takes servers’ space (not much by 1, but accumulative effect of millions observations is clear), so more energy spent on that, also you can want to have our page dedicated only to wildlife, your species count won’t show all the cultivars you saw planted in a garden. Whatever you choose, make sure to mark those as cultivate/captive!

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In my opinion most cultivated observations aren’t particularly useful or relevant for anything. However, there are a few circumstances where I’ll post them:

  • When they’re interacting with the wild species, and I don’t know the identification of the cultivated species. For instance, if I find a cool insect eating an unknown plant in someone’s garden, I’ll upload the insect, then make a casual observation for the plant and post a link to it in the insect observation. That way it’s easy for people to see the host plant and possibly ID it from that, even though I don’t know what it is.

  • When it’s reproducing - if I find a planted tree that is propagating seedlings, I’ll do an observation for both and link them again - the seedlings are “wild” but seeing the adult plant will probably be required for identifying it.

  • When it’s a species with no iNat photos yet - sometimes for very rare species, there are no observations and thus no photos - it can be useful to take some good, high-quality photos of the identifying features from a captive specimen just to help other people with identification later on.

  • Sometimes just for personal use - when I see an interesting cultivated plant I want to remember the location of for some reason, maybe so I can come back to collect seeds or fruit later on. One of my hobbies is collecting cuttings from old fruit tree varieties and trying to propagate them, so I’ll sometimes record locations of abandoned homestead orchards and such so I can remember where they were when it’s the right season for cuttings.

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I strongly believe that observations of cultivated species are helpful, and that the current emphasis on wild vs captive/cultivated is appropriate.

I think we generally agree that iNat is focused on nature, or at least, what things would be like without sustained human intervention.

But iNat has the goal of (a) introducing people to the wild (b) monitoring the wild. At least, thinking of botany, the current approach is very helpful. This is because:

With respect to (a), gardens are a major way folks learn about native plants.
With respect to (b), many invasive species escape from gardens, and observations that help train computer vision on garden plants also help it find invasives in the wild.

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Depends on what’s being looked at. The Banana Natural Biodiversity Project has a majority of “casual” grade observations (realistically, nearly all of them should be) as most bananas encountered are cultivated, but it potentially adds a great deal of scientific knowledge.

Recording cultivated species can also provide important information for sources of existing, potential, or newly invasive or exoti species that escape into the local environment.

Cultivated species also often provide a more regular and better opportunity to record specific details of the organism that are otherwise difficult to capture in thr wild.

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If someone is willing to spend their time on documenting these, that’s their choice, I personally don’t see mapping banana cultivars as top of scientific needs, but it’s great people find use in those. I agree with @graysquirrel’s reasoning.

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@mathisb21 Welcome to the forum!
As @marina_gorbunova has said, the science value of any observation is not the main goal of iNat. I take numerous photos of the same species. Perhaps they will be of use over time, but I’ve learned bird calls, where they prefer to nest, when certain insects are around and about. It’s given me an appreciation of the long term cycles of the little area I observe, so for me it is of benefit.
I also identify, and with those observations I’m more aware of a larger scientific purpose, so am very careful with my ID’s.
As for cultivated plants, someone may find it useful to document what beets people are planting, or what grain varieties are grown on farms. Usefulness is in the eye of the beholder, much like beauty!

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I agree that the average photo of cultivated plants is less useful than most photos of wild things, but I think both have their value for observers and users of iNaturalist observations.

Like @graysquirrel I usually post the cultivated parent of a young, uncultivated plant, if I see it. This can help explain the history of that species in that place.

For many people, including students told to post to iNaturalist by their teachers, garden plants, street trees, and house plants are as “natural” as anything they know. I’m OK with their posting them. (I’d like to see cultivated/wild separated from “needs ID” so they could get ID’s faster.)

I sometimes mine iNaturalist for photos to use in programs to present in classes or elsewhere. I rarely care if the observation shows a wild or cultivated plant as long as it looks good and is accurately identified. Among the observations I use are those showing flower parts, and I’ve posted a number of such photos of cultivated and wild plants (collected in the project "Dissected Flowers). I appreciate the work of a colleague who travels a lot and posts pictures of bizarre species, often from gardens, species rarely posted otherwise on iNaturalist.

The diversity of cultivated and wild-collected species photo’d in markets is often educational, at least to me, and sometimes useful for understanding biogeography.

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Just FYI: per site staff, the MAIN goal of iNat is to connect people with nature.

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I would especially emphasize this one. Especially if what is normally considered a “foliage” plant can be brought into flower, that can help with understanding, for example, the range of variation in a botanical family. Aucuba japonica is a popular one for observing the Badnavirus that induces its “Gold Dust” foliage pattern; but what fascinates me more is close inspection of its flowers and fruits, and how they are both similar to and different from those of other Rubiaceae such as Coffee.

(Edit: Aucuba actually isn’t Rubiaceae, it is Garryaceae; but its flower and fruit structure reminded me enough of Coffee that I would have classified it as Rubiaceae.)

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They’re certainly valid to observe but the importance of them has different meanings for everybody.

I personally think they’re important because they help iNaturalist as a site accomplish what the site’s goal is: have people interact positively with nature. When I first started using iNaturalist, I explained it to my kids in a pretty simple way, and in more or less words I said that it is for documenting animals or plants at a certain place at a certain time. And that’s it. It was simple and easily digested, and they understood the main premise of the site right away. I think it’s also a pretty accurate, though extremely simplified, explanation of what the site is, too. I think whether plants (or animals) are captive or wild doesn’t make a difference because it’s still somebody documenting a plant (or animal) at a certain place at a certain time. I also think that all observations can spark one’s interest, so why limit the opportunities for one’s interest to be sparked? That’s a goal of the site, anyways. Any living thing at a place and a time can catch somebody’s eye so I think they should be able to share it with others, wild or not. And I think it’s great when people do that.

Personally, I’m just as game to see a really cool captive plant or a rare captive animal as I am to see a really cool wild plant or a rare wild animal. But I know not everybody feels that way.

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In all honesty the majority of scientific research doesn’t fall into the “top of scientific needs”.

Bananas are a particularly interesting subject of research as they are a fundamental aspect of the use of ethnolinguistics and tracking the movement of people through history, and as a result are linked with human genetic, ethnic, and archaeological studies.

Not to mention present day economic, food production, livelihoods, and deforestation issues, all of which have direct impacts on biodiversity and ecology.

Then there are the geopolitical aspects of bananas and banana trade, which are far greater and more impactful than people tend to realize.

And a lot more.

Obviously, bananas aren’t the only crop that has a relationship like this, but along with potatoes and maize it’s one of the most important in its use for tracking people and movement through time, as well as the wild/cultivated interface with with the crop itself and with other species/ecological issues.

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Bananas are the exception in what I called little value, I’m sure we all know what majority of cultivated observations really are, and making them takes time, often all the time user spends on iNat, that time could be spent looking at things that grew there without assistance. Global issues you mention mean we need to focus even more on what’s left of nature.

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They are always interacting with the wild species though, whether you observe it or not…
I mean… I usually only record obviously cultivated plants for the same reason…
But this week I also recorded some cultivated plants despite not being able to see insect or other interactions, simply as a record of where to find these host plants nearby for future reference.

In this sense, as someone who records insects mainly, I can’t see a time that a cultivated plant observation in a publicly accessible space is ever not of some use.

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But iNat is a learning curve for newbies. Who may have NO IDEA whether that Look A Plant! is wild or cultivated. Hopefully if the from my garden, street trees, planted at the park - all get mostly ignored for IDs - newbies will drift to social media which fits them better.

4.2 billion people live in cities. Most people’s engagement with nature will lean to captive / cultivated, except on their weekend hike. It is at least a first window into becoming aware of actual nature.

By 2050, with the urban population more than doubling its current size, nearly 7 of 10 people in the world will live in cities

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Adding to your point, some spaces exist in a sort of liminal place between tended garden/park and nature, especially in areas where natural spaces are rare to begin with.

For instance, in my area of Northern France which bears the scars of heavy industrialisation, a lot of “nature” has been reclaimed from coal mining. Places like spoil tips and lakes from collapsed mines have been turned to parks, preserves and everything in between. Telling wild from cultivated in those contexts would take not just knowledge of the local flora, but also insights on how the space is being actively managed.

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Welcome to the Forum, @mathisb21!

From my personal experience with iNat, I would echo much of what others have already said. And maybe some of my experience offers additional perspectives.

I garden almost exclusively with native plants. My focus is on creating habitat for insects and other arthropods. Although birds also enjoy my garden.

Following are some of the ways I use iNaturalist to document the ecology and natural history of my garden:

Phenology

When do plants germinate, emerge, bud, flower, fruit, senesce? Project BudBurst is a good example of a long-running scientific program that relies heavily on observations of cultivated plants to document change in climate over time. The relative timing of these changes in plants over the course of a year can establish predictions about when things might be flowering in surrounding wild areas. That can be important for planning other observation activities, such as hunting for oligolectic bees (which I’m planning to do this summer!).

Field Guide

Many plants are difficult or impossible to identify when not in flower (and even then!). In my garden, I can document known species at all stages of development, from first emergence to their winter aspect. I - and others - can use those to help identify unknown plants submitted “out of season”.

Interactions

  • What is visiting/found on flowers? (I’m the biggest user of the Interaction->visited flower of Observation Field, and a close second for number of species documented.)
  • What is feeding on the plants?
  • What is found on the plants, but maybe hunting for prey, e.g.: spiders, wasps?
  • What diseases do the plants exhibit?

For these, it can be helpful to document the cultivated plant as an Observation associated with many Observations of the target, wild organism. In some cases, it’s necessary to identify/diagnose the subject organism.

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Do you have an iNat project for your garden? I am planting hopefully.
https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/elephant-s-eye-on-false-bay

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Inaturalist is many things. For me these 3 stand out

  1. An education tool as a way to introduce people to nature (and taxonomy)

  2. A biodiversity documentation tool.

  3. A social tool to connect many wonderful people, with some core shared values, from across the world.

Training Tools

As has been pointed out, above, not everyone is aware of what is wild, and cultivated, and I am fairly certain there are a whole bunch of educated people who still cannot be certain as to how and when species have moved / evolved in a certain region or if they are wild or not. And then there is an broad category of plants that have moved from cultivated, to feral, to becoming localized.

Mapping Cultivated Biodiversity

Local Biodiversity (and biodiversity values) would include cultivated species. Ignoring them would provide an inaccurate picture.

As an example “India was believed to have been home to about 110,000 rice varieties” and most rice growing (eco)regions have a subset of these kinds of varieties.

Along with that there are many vegetables and fruits that have become localized, with local names. Some of these have even become an integral part of culture and traditional food, while and some even have scientific names that are misleading like the famous and well loved Tamarind / Tamarindus indica.

For some plants we aren’t even sure of this origins - they are just inferred like the Citrus

For these, knowing what is there in an area would be very relevant.

Having the information of cultivars (varieties) in the public domain is dicey but probably less so than being hidden behind paywalls and fraudulent patents. There are government initiatives to “document” diversity but these are not enough.

Widespread Presence

Other have written about the interactions of other species with cultivated plants. Other have also written about starting to learn from what is observable around us immediately. There are many places - city public gardens, roadside shade trees, apartment complexes, etc where the predominant species will / probably be cultivated plant, or possibly an exotic.

In gardens there is a bewildering number of plants and hybrids flowers. Some may have close relatives in the close by forest areas, and many more have very banal origins but insidious outcomes. Lantanafor example

Do we categorize them as pests / invasive and ignore the fact they were brought is as a “cultivated” garden flower . One species of he Lantana camara is among the worst invasives in Indian Forests.

Considering all this i think it is not just alright but good that people document what ever life is around them. Maybe with enough data we can track what is growing where, what has gone feral. If we were to focus only on wild and “native” we will probably in the long run miss a lot of data.

Lastly it will inform people about nature around them and that nature is not just what is wild but what is living, everyday and all the time around us.

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True! I should specify I meant specifically interacting with a wild species I wanted to observe.

With most insects and pollinators, I’d usually just add the species they were interacting with as an observation field, assuming I know what that species is. For example, Nectar / Pollen delivering plant or Eating. The only time I’d make an actual observation of the cultivated plant for that purpose is if I needed help identifying it as well.

But I certainly have no objections to other people adding whatever observations they find useful for their own purposes!

One of the difficulties with garden plants is that many hybrids no longer qualify as a “species”, because they’ve got such a wide mix of ancestry, in variable proportions. iNat taxonomy only supports 2-parent hybrids, so it can be hard to accurately document things. Not to say they should be ignored, but a lot of people will try to apply a species-level name to cultivars and it can create a lot of inaccurate data (and drown the observations of the “real” species in a sea of hybrids).

One example is the China Rose - most classic double-flowered tea roses get identified as this, even though they’re at best only slightly related, and some are not related at all.

This is a good point. Here in the US, as we’ve moved more into massive commercial-scale farming, a lot of crop diversity has been lost and previously widely-grown variants have gone extinct. Unfortunately there’s no good database that collects information on crop varieties, so we don’t even know most of what’s been lost. I’m not really sure iNat is set up to record this stuff effectively, though - I’d rather see a dedicated site just for those, with more flexibility for documenting complicated ancestries.

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