Should curators have a critical point of view when changing iNat taxonomy?

And the perspective of many others would be:
If we could just roll back from the species level lumping i think we could find some balance, but the lumpers seem totally unable to compromise at all which is really frustrating.

Lumpers and splitters just think about things differently. Both feel they are constantly trying to clean up the messes the others created and both feel that the others are ruining the utility of the names. With the ever-increasing lines of evidence available, they are moving closer and closer to compromise as the new evidence may clarify the guesswork of the past, but the reality of life is that it is messy and often doesn’t fit into boxes or maybe does fit into boxes but there are multiple dimensions of stretchy overlapping boxes that are not all mutually exclusive.

Regarding cryptic taxa, I’d say most aren’t truly cryptic if you take the time to learn to distinguish them. The keys may completely suck but comparing supposed cryptic taxa side by side, they often look pretty different. I have encountered only one cryptic taxon issue in my work doing rare plant surveys. There was a rare taxon that supposedly could not be distinguished from a similar common taxon in the same area without using DNA. Following the splitter taxonomy, we said that plants we found could possibly be the rare taxon and they were protected from bulldozing. Following a lumper taxonomy, the rare taxon would be considered just part of the common taxon and would have been bulldozed. Was the cryptic rare plant a subspecies or species? That of course depended on which treatment we used.


That basically sums it up.


Can we summarize what has been written here on the topic of the thread? This could be helpful to make curation more effective.

I’d say because it’s not iNat doing anything, it’s individual curators (or groups of curators) making decisions based on iNat’s taxonomy guidelines and recommended external sources. Since taxonomists in general are doing a lot of splitting now, and iNat doesn’t want to create its own alternate taxonomy, that means following the taxonomists’ splitting (indirectly, if we’re using secondary sources). There aren’t formal external sources for a “field biologists’ taxonomy” for basically any taxa that I’m aware of.

I mean just with my reading about dandelions I know that there isn’t any worldwide lump-preferring taxonomy for the genus for us to use, which is why we have all those frustrating discussions about them. And that’s an example where most people would prefer lumping. I would prefer a more lumpy taxonomy for Taraxacum but I also believe we need to follow the iNat guidelines, which means following whatever worldwide external taxonomy is available instead of haphazardly patching something together based on my preferences (like in that XKCD comic strip).


I think in terms of your original post, the recommendations you made at the bottom are good.

There’s also been a bit of discussion about proposing some features into the website to somehow automatically ensure that there’s some accountability when taxon changes are made. But that would take a lot of discussion to clarify in more detail.

As things are now, we have to hope that curators are aware of the etiquette around taxon changes and follow it. The Curator Guide has this paragraph which matches the spirit of your recommendations:

Try to @ mention others to review your changes for potential errors and to discuss whether or not they’re appropriate. This is especially important if you’re changing a taxon based on a regional authority and it has observations outside that region. Curators have a lot of power to act unilaterally because sometimes it’s just hard or impossible to get others to vet your work, but we (the site staff) would prefer a more collaborative process whenever possible.

Is there anything else the guide should say related to this topic?


i mean that would be true if there was some balance between lumping and splitting but my belief is there isn’t and splitters are on a destructive rampage. Sure, you probably disagree with that and maybe there’s no objective line between splitting and lumping that will ever exist. I hope at least i’m being heard here that to me it’s a really extreme species-level splitter push.

sadly my view is that only appears true to splitters who are ‘getting their way’ and not to anyone else. I really can’t see why the subspecies thing isn’t a good compromise. It just feels like one group steamrolling another, and not like any form of negotiation or well considered solution. No, i don’t mean splitters are malicious but who isn’t gleeful when they get their way that way? I guess it will come around to more balance at some point but i personally think a lot of damage will be done in the mean time. But what else is new? i guess it’s a smaller issue than ecosystem collapse, climate change, etc, and just something else to try to live with. It really has reduced my use of this site a lot and will probably continue to do so to a greater extent, but i suppose to some people that isn’t a bad thing either.

Yes, of course, but the thing is no one has time to go that that level of specialization for every species that might possibly occur in a monitoring area. If it’s even possible to learn them all.

Yeah, i mean this is a common complaint but it’s getting really hard to preserve biodiversity at all and people latch on to these sorts of things as reasons to tear apart the protections even more. if i were dicator for life i’d preserve all these micropopulations, species level or not. But In the end my observations are the splitter stuff is just disconnecting people from conservation in general. Over time there are less and less protections for anything at all. Using cryptic species as a mechanism for conservation isn’t something i think is sustainable or successful in the long run. But i hope i’m wrong and i am glad it worked that time.

we aren’t. That used to be the policy but now it’s a free for all.

perhaps because splitters attack every effort to create one? but maybe that’s too cynical.

yeah… that’s really hard too and i don’t have a great answer other than i see a lot of problems with what is happening now.

I don’t know. it’s probably something else i need to walk away from because it’s a lost cause and for now what i see is the lumpers, and in the long term the ecosystems, lose this round too.

The Curator Guide still says the same thing as far as I can tell. But depends whether the issue here is with primary authors, or the secondary sources, or both.

My impression is the whole process is mostly bottom-up? Although I may well be ignorant about this. Taxonomists working on their little specialty groups decide on lumps and splits that make sense within their own context. And then since they’re the trusted specialists on those groups, people making broader level decisions higher up just go with whatever those specialists said. I can’t really think of any other way it could be done at a scale of tens or hundreds of thousands of species; no top down system would have the resources to test all of them.

As a contrast I think birds have more top-down taxonomy decision-making (like I referenced above) but they’re a much more manageable-sized group than plants or insects or fungi. Flora of North America maybe tries to do that? (from my limited understanding) but it’s restricted to North America so usefulness for iNat is limited (at 20k species that’s almost twice as many as birds worldwide, but only 7% of plants worldwide)


If you scroll back to the top - and click Top Replies - it is automagically whittled down to 20 posts for this thread. The short read version.

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There are also Requests pertaining to taxonomy curation issues:

(I’m in favor of both, to alleviate issues arising from overzealous/hasty/pedantic curation ops; until there is a technical way to revert disastrous moves mirrored blindly from POWO, any lossy op should require a comfortable delay - not just “24 hrs” - and mandate at least a second pair of eyes)


Pardon me but that’s not what I exactly meant. Actually, what usually happens here is not that curators make a change on the basis of a local authority but rather the exact opposite, that is they make changes on the basis of the backbone without considering the point of view of “local authorities”/experts/published papers. In this light, what I was asking for is the necessity to take into account also these latter points of view. This can be particularly fitting for endemics and taxa that are critical from a taxonomic point of view or in those cases in which, for some reasons, the relative backbone seems not to have taken into account the most authoritative and reliable literature.


Surely the solution to that is to contact the relative backbone and inform them. Rather than a deviations being made and months later the backbone picking up those data resulting in a deviation that does not deviate. With so much online and so many new journals, it is an impossible task for them to know everything immediately.
I think the first action should be to contact the relative backbone about an issue and if they choose not to make a change, then a deviation can be proposed stating that the relative backbone explicitly disagreed with the proposed change. This would be less work for everyone and more conversion of taxonomy globally.


Sounds like possibly more work for everyone.
Instead of keeping an eye on iNat’s curation moves only, it implies monitoring both iNat curators’ action and third-party taxonomic framework changes - in the hope of noticing (and report, and get corrected) any questionable change in the latter, fast enough so that no iNat curator has time to mirror that questionable change here…
Alterations at a 3rd-party framework (e.g. POWO for plants) are a thing, but they bear almost no consequences for the framework, they can be (and are) easily reverted, ten times a month if needed.
Meanwhile, iNat curators replicating such alterations with no safeguard or delay can produce huge, hard-to-revert consequences. (Cf. the Xanthium mess.)


Almost all of those are extremely in-the-weeds technical details required by the ICNafp – fixing gender terminations for species epithets (which is stupid and should be abolished), authorship where the author of the species is different from that of the paper, and citation of original articles for basionyms. Maybe the first should have been caught by a peer reviewer, but not necessarily; the genera in question have typical terminations so arguably both the authors and reviewers should have questioned them, but there are some where they are reversed (masculine words ending in -a and feminine ones ending in -us).

The problem with this is that it would totally exclude some significant taxonomic groups. Are we going to exclude all ~100 species of very distinct peacock spiders because they’re worked up by amateur scientists in non-peer-reviewed journals?

Ok, I feel like this exchange reveals a lot about why much of this thread consists of people talking past each other. “Taxonomists” aren’t a monolith, nor is anyone being “allowed” to do anything. Someone can just publish something – even with peer review it’s not that hard – and as long as it conforms to the codes of nomenclature, it’s out there. That doesn’t mean you have to accept it! The big problem with POWO, as I see it, is that it uncritically accepts any publication without evaluating the evidence behind it; and likewise, iNat uncritically accepts POWO.

This leads into a second implied issue here, which is the conflation of nomenclature and systematics. The codes of nomenclature solely govern what names have validity and priority etc. based on how and when they were published. They are neutral when it comes to subjective synonyms, i.e. whether two names should scientifically be considered two species or one.

The publication of names, synonymies, etc. are taxonomic hypotheses. You can read the paper, evaluate the evidence presented, and accept them or not. Many taxonomists, when they encounter a bad paper, simply ignore it and continue to use the previous systematic framework. There is a lot to be done and too few people and resources to do it. Even with things that are known problems – for example, when someone in my area published hundreds of spurious new species, sometimes describing one species from the flowers and one from the leaves of the same plant specimen – it took over 10 years for them to be resolved properly. I myself am working on a group that hasn’t been revised in over 100 years.


At some point, we reach a situation akin to arguing about the difference between a pit bull and a Staffordshire terrier. Assuming the 10th of a mm business wasn’t an exaggeration, surely every non-microscopic species has larger within-species variations than that? Are we going to erect a new species, say Sequoia microphylla, because the needles are 0.1mm shorther than those of Sequoia sempervirens? I’m not sure that I understand what you meant by the 0.1mm reference. Unless it was alluding to:

If this is the case, then it shouldn’t take measuring to less than 0.1mm.

Sounds like a good systematic review project.

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Well, my issue isn’t that we should only allow institution scientists to describe species, my issue is when one person or research group splits off a new species without anyone else reviewing it, and then it finding its way onto iNat. Or someone rushing changes onto iNat only to find out the paper was rejected or revised or the authors of the paper didn’t feel like it should actually result in taxonomic changes, and by then a bunch of issues have been created in the iNat data. This is a different issue from my issue with taxonomic splitting, it’s also true that changes sometimes happen on iNat before they should, and without much discussion beyond the curator who wants to make the change for whatever reason.


Two species may look completely different as a whole. The measurements between these two species may mostly overlap though, which makes it often very difficult to write a simple key to distinguish them. Often, the characters that are most distinct and do not overlap are small. Is it better to write a wishy-washy key with a bunch of larger characters that overlap or is it better to use smaller characters that mostly or completely differentiate the species? You could in fact have every single measured character overlap between species but the combination of them all makes them look completely different.

I think couplet 5 of this key was one of the greatest plant key WTF moments I have encountered. That is until I had to use it for a rare plant survey. Guess what? The pollen grains perfectly differentiated the species in question on my survey and, once I had keyed several, I could clearly identify them to species from several feet away. Overall, they looked pretty different but almost any other measure would overlap and not work well in a key. Having recently done a taxonomic treatment with a key, I have huge sympathy for anyone that ever has to write or use an identification key. I also have huge sympathy for any expert that tells you that they just look different and that is how to tell them apart.


To me it would be best, though, if such key couplets also included the syndrome of the other overlapping characteristics that give the taxa their unique field aspects. Not all things mentioned in a key couplet have to be mutually exclusive, if mentioned in explicit combinations. It makes for longer key couplets, but also for broader utility as an identification tool, which to me is always the first purpose of a key.

So my WTF for that key couplet still stands. :wink:


My WTF still stands too but it is a double-WTF as it actually works. My guess is that, in this case, no syndrome stood out that aligned with the solid character. I suspect that it was just a solid character that pulled a few taxa away from the greater mess and made the rest of the key somewhat easier regarding the remaining taxa.


If the writers of the key only wanted it to be usable by people with access to a compound microscope, then I would agree.

Couplet #3 here is an example of what I have in mind (and with species still considered cryptic by many!):