Species ID errors in difficult taxa?

In the European Adelidae (Microlepidoptera) there are currently two groups whose species can only be separated by DNA barcoding: Nemophora degeerella / scopolii / deceptoriella and Nematopogon adansoniella / prolai / garganellus (from Italy). iNat offers a good solution here: in the list of proposed species, "Complex Nemophora degeerella” or “Complex Nematopogon adansoniella” appear as options. This identification (ID) is more accurate than the indication of only the genus and makes it clear that determination of the species by photograph is not possible in these cases.

I am happy with this solution. In this way, false reports are reduced. Since the distribution of the species is still largely unexplored, the actual areas of the respective species would ideally not be blurred if used consistently. However, this is not guaranteed even with the current solution, since far too often Nemophora degeerella or Nematopogon adansoniella is proposed without in-depth knowledge and then research degree is achieved by negligent confirmation.

I therefore wish that the automatic ID would already draw attention to the problem. Perhaps with these species complexes, an ID at species level can only be made possible after a second precise query?


While I agree that morphological evidence should definitely take precedence over range, in many taxa (such as many insects) it is physically impossible to identify without range from regular photos. There are just too many.


I did not know that and changed my observations of these moths to the complex now… Two were even at research grade.

Thanks for making me aware


This question is important to me. I’ve gone to a lot of effort to participate, but wonder if the data (mine is mostly photos of birds) go anywhere. I find myself getting really frustrated when people who are much less experienced make ID errors, and I have to delete data that are not research grade. But does research grade really mean anything? And are these photos ever used? Also, where are the rules for not using range to separate similar species? Should we upload poor photos? Do numbers matter? Should we repeat images of individuals in flocks? I just deleted a number of IDs with spoilers in them today, and I’m wondering about the system and who it works for. I guess I’m going a bit beyond. But I’ve been wondering the same thing about a couple of Empidonax flycatchers that should really only be IDable by call. I want to help nature, and it’s not transparent how we should best do that here. Thanks for listening!

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If so, is it worth uploading? Not a rhetorical question. Just deleted a bunch of observations where incorrect IDs bumped to genus or above.

You should not delete observations just because you don’t agree with the identifications that other users have posted. In many/most cases, these will work themselves out in time as other users chime in. You can also leave comments asking users to explain their ID/explaining your identification to start a discussion. You can tag other expert users asking them to chime in (though this should be done with discretion, and not spamming other users).

I would suggest not getting hung up on Research Grade. Even non-RG observations are accessible to others (just not via GBIF). In some cases, observations don’t reach RG for years.

As far as any specific observation being used, that’s hard to know, but iNat data have certainly been used in publications. You can check out non-exhaustive lists:


You can read the help page https://www.inaturalist.org/pages/help that has many answers to your questions.


I suspect empids, especially, need multiple photos and still may be inadequate. Migration and post-breeding dispersal create special problems for birds. Recorded calls are great but rarely occur outside of expected territories. I use Merlin when I can because the data can still be used, even if not on iNat.


People often don’t like observations of very common species that cannot be taken beyond genus. I know I would love my Halysidota tessellaris to be just that but there is another species (H. harrisii) that is indistinguishable as an adult. So 99% of images will have no collection/dissection and should be kept at genus. However some species pairs are now under “species complex” ID’s that can narrow the genus down to a pair of species, and this at least finer than genus level only.

I think bouncing any H. tessellaris that isn’t a dissected adult or a caterpillar to genus is necessary but there are a ton of observations of this moth and it’s hard to keep up on.


Researchers need identifiable photos with accurate locations or dates. That’s all. We all like good quality photos better than poor ones, but as long as it’s identifiable, it’s useful. So post what you have.

What’s identifiable? Often we don’t know! So we do our best and let the IDers for a particular group work on it.

Research Grade means something, but less than it sounds like. If the group is hard to work with, even photos correctly identified by experts may languish as “needs ID” for years (e.g. some of my Festuca photos). And some things get to RG without good ID’s. Researchers really do use iNaturalist data. If they’re smart, they review the data they download before analyzing it!

I figure that identifying things from photos is hard enough that we should use all the clues we have, importantly including geography. I’m happier – more confident – when I can use morphology AND geography, but if geography is all I have, I use it. Some people get all huffy about that. Oh, well.

Technically, iNaturalist allows you to upload a photo of, say, a flock of birds many times, once for each individual bird. However, please don’t! It wastes the identifier’s time and wastes yours, too.

You do not need to remove an observation that has what you consider an incorrect ID added. You can just leave it, for more identifications to accumulate. Even better, explain why you consider your ID correct. (I have a file of comments I use frequently, so adding them can be fast.) Additional people who come along will read that, perhaps learn something, perhaps agree with your ID, eventually getting your observation to RG.

iNaturalist is so big that it can be frustrating to work with, but I hope you find it satisfying despite a certain amount of sloppiness, which is inevitable in citizen science projects.


I thought of an experiment. Photograph a dandelion, including all the possible traits that some people think define microspecies, and see if anyone actually ventures to identify the microspecies, or if they all just leave it as “Section Taraxacum,” with a didactic comment that there are a lot of microspecies. It is very easy to look smart by disputing a common ID; less so to offer something of substance.

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I really don’t think it’s about “looking smart”, it’s about people who want to create accurate data. Personally, I get very annoyed by people IDing things to species level when there definitely isn’t enough info to support it - a single top-down view of a blurry dandelion, for example. I don’t even pretend to know how to ID dandelion microspecies, but I can definitely say there is not enough info in that observation to support the ID.

Now, if that photo is accompanied by a note detailing the various features the observer checked, and referencing how they support that particular ID, that would be a different matter. Or if there are a lot of photos showing minute details. But let’s be honest, that’s virtually never the case.


Depending on what reference material observers are using, they might only think that Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is their only option. I know I misidentified it down to species before I knew better…


I used to think it was the only one as well! So much for the “easy” plants, hah.


Well, not everyone agrees with microspecies concept at all too.


I’m not entirely sure what a microspecies is in this case. I know there’s subspecies (ssp) and variety (var), but I’m not sure if @jasonhernandez74 means something like Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) vs Remarkable Dandelion (Taraxacum insigne)?

I know there are a lot of people just breezing through and clicking “agree”, which is needed and useful, but there are also a lot of people (me included) that do not like subspecies so they try and keep their ID’s to species only. I don’t know why they would push your dandelion to “section” when you have posted all the criteria for your ID, but some people don’t bother to look at comments or even notice if there are multiple photos of the organism

Dandelion reproduction is a combination of asexual seed set (which produces clones) and sexual seed set, including reproduction involving pollen from a second species that (usually) produces its own seed asexually. As with the European Blackberry Complex, this leads to a confusing pattern of variation. What should be treated as species in this mess? A widespread clone looks like a species. If an individual within it produces some seeds sexually, they may become a new widespread clone – should we call this a new species or a new genetic individual within a more variable species? And what is the origin of this other variant over here, and does that matter? Can variant N hybridize with variant R, if they meet, and does that matter?

Some people prefer to gather the variations into large, variable species (mostly Taraxacum officinale and T. erythrospermum). Others to assign each variation to a different species (a microspecies). That idea seems consistent (though difficult to apply), but are there really 2000 species of dandelions in Europe?

Just to add to the fun, some of the traits used to identify dandelion microspecies (e.g. leaf shape) vary seasonally, so only early season plants are readily identified – to the extent you can say any dandelion species is readily identified.

So, I personally have given up on dandelion “species” ID on iNaturalist. I label them “Taraxacum” and click “No, it can’t be improved” for data quality. Also, I collect early season dandelions in my area to send to a dandelion expert who identifies them to microspecies. I dutifully label them and donate them to the herbarium near me, where curators are amused at best.


I’m not surprised to find dandelions being the subject of discussion again, haha! Yes, those are tricky, and so are a lot of other plants where there are multiple species that look very similar (e.g. Erythronium umbilicatum in my area and E. americanum).

Based on my own experience, in cases like this where there are fairly recent splits and field guides commonly only list one species and ignore the existence of the others there will be lots of errors in the IDs due to lack of knowledge/awareness. When I first started out, I was blissfully unaware of the existence of E. umbilicatum and consequently ID’ing all trout lilies I photographed as E. americanum. I have since learned there are two species that are difficult to tell apart unless some specific details are visible, and based on range maps all the ones in my area should be E. umbilicatum instead. I now know which details to photograph to clarify ID whenever I see them, but a lot of other people are still at the “blissfully unaware” stage of this learning curve and a lot of iNat observations consequently are missing the details needed to clearly identify the species based on morphology.

Errors may be present even in herbarium records (see the note here: https://auth1.dpr.ncparks.gov/flora/species_account.php?id=3458), though those can often be corrected by reexamining the physical specimens. Certainly a researcher working with these would have to take extra care to confirm everything. I doubt it will ever get sorted out on iNat level.


Does not the Taraxacum officinale species concept encompass all those microspecies?

In which case, I wouldn’t call it a misidentification; more a difference of opinion as to species concept.

I’ll say it again: if reproductivley isolated, asexually reproducing lineages merit species status, then every banana cultivar is its own species.