I’ve recently fallen down the rabbit hole of looking at loads of observations shared to the First Known Photographs of Living Specimens project. This has me curious; how many more species are out there that we know exist, but that we’ve never photographed? I would imagine there are probably quite a few of them! Is there a website or something with more information on this, or maybe a convenient list of some of them somewhere? Where would you even begin trying to find info on these obscure species?
For many regions of the world, e.g. Central Africa, parts of South East Asia, you could pick just about any invertebrate taxon (excluding the most charismatic stuff like butterflies and Odonata) and I would be comfortable saying that well over 50% of every species in that group would be unphotographed.
From botaneek’s profile https://www.inaturalist.org/people/703316
as many as possible of the 1800 or so threatened or very localised plant species in this region (have posted over 1300 of these spp). A surprising number of these are incredibly poorly known (<3 observations or collections, many of these from more than 60yrs ago)
As a working botanist he has access to academic literature.
I like AfricanMoths for how many unidentifie and undescribed folders they have, though 50% for moths, at least bigger-sized is probably too much.
The counterpart to this is the multitude of species that have very good photos on iNat, but nobody seems able to assign a name between the tens of short descriptions of old… So you might have species AND photos, but few matches.
Pleurolucina hendersoni is a small Caribbean marine bivalve which has been found as dead empty shells, but never so far as a live clam.
Here are two observations of dead valves from the island of St. Eustatius:
Even a significant proportion of Central African butterflies have yet to be photographed in the wild. I have a good number of observations of butterfly species which, had I chosen to photograph instead of collect, would have qualified for the project in question. (The potential problem being that many of them would not have been specifically identifiable from those photos and could only be identified because I have a set specimen.)
I think the project is very interesting and shows the potential of citizen science… we just need to be careful to have an accurate and balanced opinion of iNaturalist and the individuals using it.
Take for example, the conclusions that have been drawn in recently published paper “‘First Known Photographs of Living Specimens’: the power of iNaturalist for recording rare tropical butterflies” (which is currently advertised on the project’s main page).
(For context, the following is written from the perspective of an 8yr resident of D.R.Congo)
Why is it that the authors presume that a species which has only recently been photographed alive is “rare”? It’s a huge assumption! Photographing butterflies in a way that allows for specific identification requires a certain quality of equipment, which hasn’t been around for more than a couple decades, and that most people can’t afford.
And what does “rare” even mean? The authors don’t define it.
Shortly after the paper’s publication I reviewed the 25 sub-saharan butterfly records included in the project at that time. Outside of this paper, only 3 of those species are considered to be rare (and many of the rest are quite common or widespread). And, regarding the 3 species which are actually considered rare: are they? Or are traditional sampling methods biased against recording their presence (they could be canopy species, for example).
Furthermore, is it a triumph of “citizen science” if the observers are mostly tourists, or non-residents, or scientists themselves?
Here’s the deal: the vast majority of Congolese don’t own a camera and wouldn’t have the means of buying one, they don’t have internet access, they don’t even have electricity, and then here comes Tom traipsing through the forest near their village snapping photos of butterflies they have flying around them everyday (well I collect with a net). Off he goes back to his house, uploads those pictures, and surprise! It’s a world first! Look at that rare Anthene ituria!
Well, no. That species is a frequent mudpuddler where it’s found, and if my Congolese friends had the luxury of free time to spend looking at butterflies, they’d tell you that.
I hope I’m not misunderstood (and there’s a lot of nuance that I’m not capturing). It’s great that we’re building a repository of the first images of species, but let’s not misunderstand or over-inflate the significance of those photos.
Bottom line: often it’s not the species which is rare, but rather the photographer.
There are lots of fish too that have not been photographed alive or are only known from preserved specimens. That’s because most were trawled or netted and thrown in alcohol and sat there for years until scientists described them. It’s been fun in the last decade to see some of these species actually photographed, but there are lots more that remain to be seen alive. This is true for many colorful reef fishes. I am still waiting for live photographs to be taken of many species of Lipogramma in the Caribbean.
It’s certainly a part of citizen science triumph, tourists will always stay major contributors for many places e.g. where no local residents live at all, it doesn’t make them any worse just because they don’t live there their whole lives, and if a common species finally gets first photo it’s definitely a reason for celebration and shouldn’t be overlooked just because situation could be better, it won’t change if nothing is done.
As one of the co-authors of the referenced paper, I won’t try to defend the use of the term “rare” in that work. All your points of commonness/rarity, access, and opportunity are quite valid. The purpose of the paper, or at least my participation as a co-author, was to point out the utility of the iNaturalist platform and it’s capacity to shed light on the very issues you point out. Perhaps in our enthusiasm to highlight the utility of iNaturalist to document true rarities, we sidestepped the broader geographic, social, and economic issues you mention.
There is a well-seasoned body of literature on the biases of collections and field sampling in general. iNaturalist, by popularizing the documentation of the natural world, is bringing those biases—in both a statistical and social sense—into the sunlight. It isn’t necessarily correcting those biases; that is beyond the capabilities of any such platform. But by bringing to the attention of the wider world the previous lack of documentation for certain species, I think the “First Known Photographs” project and iNaturalist in general play a crucial role. Conservation status—whether critical or secure—cannot be assessed without solid information made known to individuals, organizations, and governing entities with the means to effect some action. And by alerting all of us on iNaturalist that a butterfly’s first living photograph simply depicts a common species, perhaps commonly known to residents of an area, you are also advancing our knowledge base. Thank you.
strategy: upload living holotype photos
You might well add immigrants/expats to this list… The opinion, that conserving (and documenting) biodiversity is important, isn’t universaly shared by all people. While this idea is rather widespread in some western cultures, it is barely widespread in some others. One example from my own experience:
I was working as a director of a National Park in Haiti last year (for a Haitian NGO), so it certainly was my job to promote and forward conservation of species and habitats within the park.
The people living within and around the park understood what my work is about, and respected it. On the other hand, while talking to some people not living in the immediate area, I was (once openly, and several times indirectely) accused on “cultural imperialism”. Means i was told that by conserving species and habitats in Haiti, i am basically forcing foreign / not shared values on Haitians…
Cultural values certainly translate into iNat use: On one hand a not to small percentage of (mainly city dwelling) Haitians has access to phones, and is well aware of, and active on tick tock and facebook. On the other hand very few contributions on iNaturalist actually come from full time Haitian residents. I can tell this with certainty, as I know all 8 people with more than 50 iNat observations in that country …
Seems there is for now (and maybe for the future too) no other option as to live with the “Helicopter science” aspect of iNatting in certain areas.
When we included the phrase “rare tropical butterflies” in the title, the emphasis was on the species that are actually known to be rare, of which the ones we highlighted in the paper were just a handful of examples of such cases. For example Artipe dohertyi is known to be a rare butterfly- Parsons(1998) states that both Artipe in New Guinea are “very rarely encountered” (p. 408). Nicolaea in general are also known to be rare butterflies(“The genus Nicolaea Johnson, 1993, includes small species that are particularly inconspicuous in nature and rare in collections”- Diaz et al., 2021), and thus Nicolaea castinotus, of which we have also highlighted, can certainly be reasonably be expected to be a rare species as well. The fact that Arzecla straelena was known with certainty only from the holotype and that the related species calatia is also rare (as stated in the original description of straelena), means that this species can also be expected to be rare in nature. Olynthus fancia belongs to yet another genus with a reputation of being rare (Nicolay, 1982- “All are uncommon in collections
and one species is extraordinarily uncommon…”). Many of the Riodinids included in the project also are known to be rare, including the highlighted genus Machaya: (PDF) Description of new species and new records of Riodinids (Lepidoptera, Riodinidae) from Colombia (researchgate.net)
So we never presumed that all the species included in this project are rare- like you said, it is a huge assumption, hence why we shortlisted several noteworthy species that are known to be actually rare based on published evidence. There are no assumptions made. The “rare butterflies” part in the title is alluding to these particular ones only and i think most readers would not be misled by that. We also never made any such statements implying that all the records included are of rare species anywhere in our text
We are aware that the concept of “rarity” can only ever be apparent- because there is no way of knowing for sure exactly which species merely appear rare because of their arboreal or crepuscular habits (for example), versus species that are actually suffering from low population density (“true” rarity i guess). The closest we can get to knowing for sure is by sampling. But i would argue that a species that is infrequently encountered can be considered rare- because it’s the likelihood of stumbling upon it in nature that counts, and i believe that is what this project strives to emphasise; the serendipity of every one of these encounters
“Furthermore, is it a triumph of “citizen science” if the observers are mostly tourists, or non-residents, or scientists themselves?”
Why not? Regardless of how passionate or how much of a “connection” these people have with nature, these records would still not have been possible without them. And if they were scientists would we even call it citizen science?
“Look at that rare Anthene ituria”
No one said anything about Anthene ituria being rare
We are reading in these comments tensions that appears to be “outsider” versus “insider” and maybe “wealthy” versus “not wealthy.” We appreciated how @cabintom offered on-the-ground (insider) perspectives of visitors (outsiders) to Central Africa. We appreciated how @gcwarbler was open to the potential sidestepping in the paper of:
This kind of exchange and willingness to listen to each other meets our needs for learning, empathy, and compassion. This kind of exchange demonstrates that the published paper can stimulate conversation and doesn’t have to be the end of it. It makes this forum valuable to us. And when we read people being open to each other’s perspectives, we feel more trust in people.
I’d never heard of that project, it’s interesting. I notice it doesn’t include specimens, which is fine for the project admin to choose although will exclude many species since some can’t be identified otherwise.
Working against ‘Helicopter science’ as I go thru African Unknowns, I flag for curation where the observer offers a hopeful binomial - but it’s not on iNat yet. The local interest is active and needs to be supported and encouraged.
This is a project about first alive photos, so if you first photograph it and then collect and id, it’ll count as long as alive photo is added.
In some cases that may be possible, although bowl traps are often used for bee, wasp, fly, etc. specimen collection. Which typically means not seeing them and just finding them in the bowls whenever checking them. Sometimes I have used a net or jar though or taken photos first though too.
That’s why this project is so valuable, partially because photos weren’t an option before and for those taxa described in “old times”, but never met again, it’s clear why there’s no photo, then there’re groups where people are focused on collecting, it’s certainly a plus for describing new taxa, but not so much for having alive photos, plus there’re new species to science where no previously known photos exist (though sometimes they appear to not be the first ones!).
I’m very interested in checklists, first species records for iNat, first species records for all sources, new records per location, etc. So I agree these projects (or if anyone’s made fields for this) are a good idea. Although I’ve mostly suggested on a related feature request (iNat Firsts) that new records etc. be integrated into iNat as major features.