Subspecies. How useful are they?

I’ve wonder this for a while. How valuable are subspecies on iNaturalist as a resource for scientists and other research? For me, when I upload my own observations, or when I’m identifying others observations, adding the subspecies to even a very common and easy to identify bird can lead to it not being identified even to species level, I suspect because most people aren’t as knowledgeable on subspecies and don’t want to agree/disagree with it. So because of this, I tend not to have any of my observations as subspecies unless it’s a well known subspecies (like Myrtle warbler or Western white admiral). But I was thinking, my observations would be much more valuable if they were ided down to subspecies, because it might help understanding subspecies ranges, morphology, or if there’s a potential split in the future. So then I should probably id all my own observations down to subspecies if possible (Chipping sparrows in the west become “Western Chipping Sparrow” and Chipping sparrows in the east become “Eastern Chipping Sparrow” etc.). But when I can only tell a Western Chipping Sparrow from an Eastern Chipping Sparrow by location, what’s the point? Does this still make the observation more useful to researchers and others who are potentially using it? And for subspecies that are basically pointless to put on an observation (in my opinion), like adding “American Common Merganser” or “Holarctic Mallard” to observations, or adding “Common Gadwall” to Gadwall observations even though the only other Gadwall subspecies is extinct. I’m not really good at putting my thoughts into words so I don’t know if i’m getting my questions and points across in a way people can understand so I will put them into note-form.

-Subspecies can make an observation more useful for research.
-But most people tend not to id observations that are a subspecies they don’t recognise (which for most people is the majority of them) even if it’s a species they do recognise
-For subspecies that look virtually the same and can only be told by geography, what’s the point? Is the data and information from this still useful?

I’m just curious what peoples thoughts are on this. Especially curators and others who understand how information from iNaturalist is used.

This recent/current thread has a lot of info/related posts:

The second post there has links to some previous posts that address a lot of the issues raised.


As an IDer, if I see an observation identified by the observer down to subspecies, I have not been adding an ID for exactly the reason given by the first post here: I don’t know enough to confirm or disconfirm the subspecies. But had the same photos been uploaded with a genus or species ID, I would have put down the species.

Now it could be that this is not ideal. I’m open to feedback. Personally, I have felt that when I’m posting observations, I would prefer to put down a more general ID in order to allow the community to weigh in with their own expertise, rather than load the deck too heavily and have people agree with my analysis, perhaps too uncritically. I’m more likely to put down only a genus on an observation, for example, where if I was id’ing, I might offer it down to species. Later on, if no one has offered a species ID, I would provide one, maybe even a subspecies at that point if it is appropriate.

I tend to think subspecies is best something to add after some initial agreement has been given at the species level. The exception for me is when I believe strongly that a particular subspecies should be a species (and might be a species according to different sources and authorities). In that case, I readily put the ID down to subspecies because in those cases, the species ID looks and feels wrong in some way.

(Note that since variety and subspecies operate similarly on iNat, I have been using those terms interchangeably. They might have some different meaning, but operationally, they are so similar it’s not worth it for me to take pains to include both terms in my verbiage.)


If the observation is identified to subspecies and I can ID to to species but not subspecies (and I have no reason to doubt the subspecies), I identify to species, using a non-disagreeing ID. It goes to subspecies. That’s OK with me.

Biologically, the importance of subspecies varies greatly. Some are taxa that could be treated as species. Some tend to swing back and forth between species and subspecies, as taxonomists change their minds. Others blend into each other so thoroughly that they’re meaningless over much of the species’ range. I try always to ID to species in the first case. For the seriously intergrading ones, I usually don’t bother.

What about subspecies or varieties that I can’t distinguish from photos except by range? I work mostly with plants, which don’t fly around much so I go ahead and name them to subspecies – if I remember the subspecies, which I often don’t.

As for what researchers want, well, they need accuracy. If they think that accuracy will extend to subspecific identifications, they may be disappointed. No matter how careful you and I may be, we know some others won’t be. For any project involving subspecies they will probably have to examine the observations carefully.


Welcome to my very first contribution to this forum. I sometimes throw a peep in here, like tonight, but I’m not an active forumer. This question, however, needs my two cents.

I am a practising insect taxonomist in my day job. At night I’m an iNat curator and keen identifier.

Subspecies may be misunderstood by many, and maligned by some, but they are of core importance to both my professional activities and to how I interpret and try to understand the miscellany of life.

My two cents …


It’s come up quite a bit, but generally, identifying to subspecies can be valuable if you can see the relevant features but not just based on location. For instance, imagine a milkweed species that has a fuzzy-leaf species and a smooth-leaf species. with the fuzzy leaf species living generally north of the smooth one. If you get good photos of the leaf fuzz, and know it’s a subspecies, there’s no real downside to identify it as subspecies, and there are upsides. If you identify it as the fuzzy-leaf species just because you are near the north end of its range, but can’t see the leaf fuzz, this is much less useful and potentially bad data, because you may be missing out on a northern population of the smooth leaved species.

People sometimes identify subspecies by location on iNat and it generally is a bad idea in my opinion (and that of many others). When it’s just ID by location i do not identify to subspecies and will not generally ‘agree’ with IDs from others doing so.


This is why I don’t normally use them. It becomes self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing. However, if there is a morphological difference that I can see, then I have been known to use subspecies. It should be said that Eastern Towhee and Spotted Towhee (formerly subspecies of Rufous-sided Towhee) can be told apart both visually and by voice. In my opinion, subspecies are useful to the extent that they can be told apart other than by range. For that matter – and the splitters will disagree – I find that species level distinctions are useful to the same extent.


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