Resources for IDing unknown specimen

Hi! Sorry if this has all been discussed before! But, I’m brand new to the community here, and as such, I have little knowledge about identifying flora and fauna - I guess more specifically things like plants and bugs.

What resources would you recommend to help make effective observations? Something other than hopelessly Googling and hoping for the best, haha. I know there’s some apps out there that can identify plants, but how accurate are they? Is there any specific recommendations?

Any advice is appreciated! Thank you!


I would approach it less on a case-by-case basis of Googling and studying for an identification and more lean into learning the ins and outs of an area.

Start with where you live – where you’ll probably be making most of your own observations – and look through the pages of observations there; filtering taxa like plants and insects, if you’d like. You’ll begin to get a lay of the land there, learning families and genuses after a while of this + your own explorations.

Then, soon enough, a good amount of this knowledge will become applicable to many other parts of the world, and you’ll have a working database of these things in your head that’s constantly getting challenged and refined. I’m not really sure how helpful this is, but this is largely how I’ve learned (also engaging more with the community and asking stupid questions).

There are many excellent field guides for all sorts of organisms depending on your area and what you’re interested in learning, but someone else will have to tell you which. Knowing your general location might also help. If you’ve still got questions, let me know; I love to help new naturalists! :)


But? You do know that iNat has its own Computer Vision which will offer suggestions?

Add a broad ID at a level where you are comfortable. For plants - if you cannot go to family - I suggest you follow some obs that interest you, and see how the ID unfolds. The same for bugs - Lepidoptera Orthoptera Odonata if you can - and follow notifications - till you work out which taxon fits your level of knowledge (MantOdea not MantIdae for me)

Always check distribution for the CV suggestions - go up the taxon levels, till you are comfortable with Seen There and ‘I can recognise That One because …’

Another way to learn something new is to work thru adding Annotations - to a taxon you are already reasonably confident of.

TL DR always follow your notifications. Please. If there is one wrong ID we need 3 more identifers to convince the Community ID algorithm. If 2 agree on the wrong ID … we need 5 (which we don’t always have :cry:

You can also look at Needs ID to taxon and location where you are confident - and could take them to RG.

PS cannot find an iNat profile for you. Do you use a different name there?

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Thanks for the suggestions! Thats a great point, and honestly sort of what I was doing with my first observation, except doing it over Google rather than through iNat. I’m still getting a lay of the land in terms of how the iOS app/desktop site work (except, I’m running both of them off of my phone - which has its own difficulties, haha)

Already I’ve been poking around areas near me on the explore page of the app, and checking out some local projects and seeing what other people have observed and been pretty surprised specifically by the wide variety of birds in my area! I’m excited to start adding in some observations of my own! :)


Thank you for the reply!

Yes, I noticed these auto-suggestions when logging my first (and only) observation so far, but unfortunately I still wasn’t certain if any of them were correct, and wasn’t sure how to proceed from there, hence coming over to the forums here!

I think part of my question here is also learning how the site works and how narrowing things down works. Shortly after I posted this, I did some more research into that observation (a spider) and figured it was probably a basic house spider, only to then realize there’s many subspecies of house spider, which I didn’t know before! I also didn’t realize the iNat observation system let you label so broadly, rather than just the very exact species, which will also be very helpful going forward.

As for my profile, it is the same username so I’m not sure why you aren’t able to search it? But regardless, here’s a link!

EDIT: Sorry, realize now why you couldn’t find it! In the forums here, it wouldn’t let me add the underscore at the end of the my username, which is where it is on my iNat profile! Maybe I’ll swap it on iNat to match?

(when we try to @mention people it is blooming difficult to remember _ or - before or after … and unfortunately iNat will let you @mention any random string - so you don’t discover until, much later, by mistake - she never answered my question because I didn’t tag her. Mine wanders to dianastruder with an extra R - that doesn’t notify the broken @mention, but iNat does bring me the comment)

Back to your spider. If you ID as spider, and watch the notifications. Then learn what you need to photograph. The eyes have it, which is way beyond my photo skills. But there are a few local spiders I can ID. And lots of lovely spider specialists @Ajott for example.

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As wonderful as iNat is - and I must confess I am thoroughly addicted - I still think that having an actual physical field guide book is the best way to learn how to identify something. (But that could be because I’m old and grew up using printed field guides, back in the days when there were no personal computers, much less the Internet, so take what I say with a grain of salt.)

So, decide what group of organisms interest you the most right now and buy or borrow a field group for that group. Then read it. Of course you won’t remember everything (I still don’t remember everything, half a century after buying my first field guide), but the information will start to sink in.

Then filter the iNat observations on the Explore page to your area and chosen group of organisms. Click on the button that shows you all the species in the observations, with the most commonly observed species first. (Don’t know how to filter? Feel free to ask here!) I bet if you go to the closest natural area, you will easily find those commonly observed species - well, if it’s the right time of year to see the blooms or migratory birds or whatever (you can filter by month, too, by the way).

Depending on where you live and what species you make observations of, the iNat suggestions for identification can be really good; you might as well try them first, especially if the suggestion says “we’re pretty sure this is XXXX.”

Then keep looking and asking questions and reading field guides and taking class if you can and, especially, keep getting outside and making observations of whatever you notice and can take a photo of. Then pay attention to your notifications; that’s where you learn if your ID was right or wrong.

You will NEVER know everything about every species, because there is simply too much to know. That can be frustrating (believe me, I know!), but it also means you can be fascinated by always discovering something new to you almost every time you go for a walk. Enjoy that fascination!


I’m also the type of person who generally prefers print > digital! Tried getting into eBooks and the like for a while but I could never get as into it as I could with a real physical book.

Referencing other observations in the community is something I’ll have to get digging into, too! As mentioned above I’m still learning how to navigate the finer details of the site, but I’m starting to suspect there may not be a lot of iNat users in my area, or at least, for observations immediately in the area around my home, it looks like only a handful of them have achieved Research Grade. Hopefully I can help work towards remedying this in the future!

But for now, I’m excited to keep learning more! :)


Thank you for all the advice! I appreciate the help, and looking forward to IDing more observations soon!

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I only read book books. My niece has tried to talk me into e-books but it does NOT appeal. There is a small row of field guides here.
Including 2 with authors active on iNat - which is some kind of wonder full!


Oh, that’s super cool! I’ll definitely look into that, and also see what’s available at my local library :)


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I wholeheartedly agree! Acquire books for the taxa you are most interested in, or are most likely to make observations of. Then get a range of books, if you can, relating to your location. Especially for the taxa that are large and complicated, with many genera, and many species in each (such as insects.)
The more broad guides (such as for a country or continent) can be really good overviews for learning about families or genera, while the local or regional ones can be more helpful for getting down to species level.

My big thing has always been wildflowers, so I have quite a collection of books, ranging from more general to more specific. I have field guides to wildflowers of North America, of Northeastern United States, of New England, and of Vermont and several other states.

Whatever type of guides you have, pore over them to learn what the important characteristics are that distinguish species. This can help you take better photos for IDing. For example, for wildflowers you may need to see the blossom (arrangement, size, number of petals) the stem (hairy or smooth) the sepals (size and position) the leaves (arrangement, veining, the undersides); and still you might not be able to ID below genus level. Who knew there were so many difficult-to-identify Asters in New England?

Guidebooks that describe the species, in addition to simply having photos or illustrations, are often the most helpful for distinguishing species that are similar. And counter-intuitively, books with illustrations can be more useful than books with photos, because a good scientific illustration will show all those distinguishing features that might not be visible in a photo.

As far as where to find guidebooks, in my experience you are unlikely to find many in a (public) library. If you still have independent bookstores in your area, they will often have, or can get, good field-guides for the region. And I have found excellent books at National and State Parks, and Non-profit Nature Centers. Garden centers and stores that sell bird-feeders and birdseed sometimes have decent guides to birds, flowers, butterflies, even bees.

When I travel, my favorite souvenir is often a guidebook or two, even if I may never return to that place. But why, I wonder, did I buy Fishes of Hawaii all those decades ago? I didn’t even go snorkeling…


Random example from today.
iNat is living field guide
Real time if you are lucky.
With taxon specialists ditto.

Bug with long legs = crane fly. Not.
This is 4 legs crane fly, but the front pair are preying mantis.
Hold still Lunch, while I suck you to a dry husk.

And I found one obs on the Cape Peninsula. Included in the CNC list.
Subfamily ID from 2 taxon specialists!

With that info you can go back to your printed field guide and read about assassin bugs.


Find some checklists and field guides

Just because I get notifications that two people disagree with me doesn’t mean I assume they are right. If I can’t see why they’re right, I may be persuaded by a comment along the lines of ‘I can recognize That One because …’ Without any comments, I’ll need to be able to see why they’re right.

YES! This is why I find it so frustrating that wildflower guides outside the Peterson series are so obsessed with pretty photographs. No wonder people lump complex genera into the one most common species – that’s all their photo-based field guides allow.


No - I am with you on the Convince Me that it is A not B.

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One additional suggestion: Sometimes I am nearly confident I can ID one species, but there is one lookalike that I can’t reliably tell apart. In such cases I have often just picked out a research grade observation that I would feel unsure about and that has been IDed by a seemingly competent IDer and asked them about it. I learned a lot that way!


One more thing: I am less impressed by “it isn’t” than by “it is.” Meaning that if someone only bumps back the ID without suggesting an alternative, I probably won’t change mine.

There is one observation for which I suggested Gobies. Since then, maybe 6 or 7 people have added disagreeing IDs of “ray-finned fishes.” I’m not maverick, or even pre-maverick, because Gobies is encompassed within ray-finned fishes; I will never go maverick until someone suggests an ID that excludes Gobies. I see no reason to withdraw until then.


For a some good plant ID tutorials/recommendations, check out CPBBD’s tutorial playlist on YouTube:

Warning: Some might find his speech to be crass, though I find him refreshing.

I’ve never used field guides. However, as soon as I decided plant identification was interesting and that I wanted to learn more, I already knew I wanted to go all the way. If that’s not you when it come to plants, then field guides might be the best first step. Otherwise, if you want to get serious, learning to use a flora is what I’d recommend.

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