The identifier gap

We have generalist identifiers – the ones who do triage on the unknowns, sorting them into categories like “beetles” or “conifers.”

We have specialist identifiers – the ones who can go through “beetles” and put them in genera or species.

What we seem to have fewer of are – not sure what term to use – eclectics? Cross-sectionals? By that I mean: the person who can go through your beetles and take them to genus or species often can’t do anything for your salamanders, your bivalves, or your Rosaceae (unless they know a host-specific beetle herbivore of one of your Rosaceae).

This surprised me when I first noticed it. The thread on Neurodiversity and iNaturalist!, now at 409 posts and still open after three-and-a-half years, indicates a high incidence of folks on the autism spectrum. I would expect a fairly large proportion of those to have nature as their “special interest” – as I do – and therefore to amass as much information about it as possible. It always felt natural to me to learn to recognize many species in many taxonomic groups. I would have expected, therefore, to encounter plenty of iNatters who, in a given geographic locale, can identify (at least some) beetles to species, (at least some) salamanders to species, (at least some) bivalves to species, and so on across the whole tree of life.

Why are there seemingly few of these? Why is it that we seem divided into the basic-triage generalists and the hyperspecialists? This seems inefficient. It adds an extra step. Say we have:

  • Two observations, both “Unknown” or at best “Insects.”
  • Step 1: a generalist sorts them, one into “Beetles,” the other into “True Bugs.”
  • Step 2: a beetle specialist finds the “Beetles” observation and identifies it as “Geotrupes”
    On a separate occasion, a Heteroptera specialist finds the “True Bugs” observation and identifies it as “Menecles insertus.”

It takes three people, and they are still at “Needs ID.” Now, if we had eclectic identifiers:

  • Two observations, both “Unknown” or at best “Insects.”
  • Step 1: an eclectic sorts them, one into “Geotrupes,” the other into “Menecles insertus.”

Only one person to get to the same point that took three people in the other scenario! Is there a reason why it doesn’t go this way?


I think part of this is because “eclectic” people are much less likely to wade through coarse IDs for just a few things they know. For example, I could definitely ID a good number of plants, birds, and mollusks. But I’m not going through unknowns looking for the few things I know, especially when there are other IDers out there who know plants or birds better than I do (and mollusks much less than I do). It’s just not efficient.


Half of all my coral like bryozoan IDs (such as gulf staghorn and lettuce bryozoan) are from wading through unknowns posted from coastal areas, the other half are by IDing observation incorrectly marked as sponges and corals. Almost none are already in the bryozoan taxon.

My usual IDing is only for marine mollusks but I also can ID birds but I never do because they’ll get IDed in minutes without my help.


i’m very motivated by what i’m interested in and my motivation immediately wanes when it’s something different. i go through all cat observations primarily and the observations from people i follow. my area of expertise is cats and handling them offline, so i’m very motivated to sort through those observations and start conversations about if a cat is a stray/feral/street cat or a pet, and seeing living situations of cats in different areas. i’ve tried during the cnc to put it on the back burner and pay more attention to the unknowns, but it really drags. i do about a page of them and i’m getting antsy and actually can’t sit still. with cats however, i’ll whip through a page in about 2 minutes, including leaving comments and votes where appropriate. (many indoor pets are at research grade, many feral and stray cats are casual) i’m just much more efficient when it’s something i actually am personally invested in. when it’s anything else, it’s really difficult for me to focus and keep going, and i even will make mistakes because i’m not thinking straight, and often will be thinking about my personal goals and interests that i could be focusing on instead of whatever else i am trying to do. i get frustrated quickly because of how slow i am as well, when i know im much more productive when doing something else, like going through the cat observations and starting conversations around those.


I think this is a real-life thing, not something iNaturalist can do anything about. Like you, I want to know about everything. However, life is short and many taxa take years to master. Over the decades, I have dabbled in many different groups of plants and animals and even lichens. By now, I know a lot about some of them but little or nothing about others. (I just mark most fungi “Reviewed.”) Unfortunately some of the groups I know (e.g. grasses and sedges) are often not photographed well enough for ID on iNaturalist. If I had another lifetime, I might look into moth diversity – such interesting patterns! But I don’t. I cannot even know all the plants of my region.

So, I don’t think it’s possible to make identifications efficient in the way you suggest. Some of us will skate along putting organisms into broad groups like “spiders” or “fungi”. Others will dive deep into a few taxa – usually taking advantage of observations that have been sorted coarsely by others. Some of us will do both, but with trade-offs about what we can accomplish. There’s just so much time and energy available.


Before joining iNaturalist I would have called those people… naturalists!

Working with plants, it always surprised me how often people asked me questions about birds, squirrels, pretty much anything outdoors. Why do they think knowing about plants also makes me know about non-plants?


There are probably people who are “eclectic” for a certain habitat or location- as I am for the sea shore. My problem is that I don’t live at the beach so the only thing I can take home are sea shells, which are almost exclusively mollusks. For me, I usually like to have seen a species in person to ID it.


Time! Identifications take a time commitment. As a retired ecologist in Texas, I have a pretty good handle on a wide variety of Texas species, especially in Central Texas where I’ve studied and worked for many decades. IF I tried to follow and monitor all the species I am familiar with and which I might be qualified to help on, there are just not enough hours in the day. As a result, just in my personal efforts, I follow one bird species and a few moth genera on which I’ve published profesional identification papers…and just keeping up with those takes anywhere from a half-hour to an hour per day. To supplement those efforts, I will occasionally wander through the “Needs ID” for my home county or for all birds in Texas, etc., and that can fill hours and hours more time.
I invite you to read through my (real) confessions related to this topic in an overview for my 10-year “iNat-iversary”. Balancing iNaturalist with all other activities of a day is a beautiful and welcome burden.


Maybe the gap you are seeing is a regional thing?

In central Europe, I see plenty of users who know the more common species across many different taxonomic groups in their region (often through their own observing activity) and whose IDs cover a rather eclectic set of organisms.

I don’t think it is accurate to divide IDers into generalists who never provide IDs more specific than order and specialists who don’t recognize anything outside their particular family of interest. I see lots of people who both have special interests – groups they are especially good at – and also do more general IDing outside these areas.


I can help narrow down almost anything in New Mexico (and similar neighboring states/ecoregions) at the coarse and intermediate levels after a few years of practice (>200K IDs), but I only specialize in a few groups of plants and insects. I tried helping Dicots in Africa once and gave up quickly, because it’s a whole different flora.


I’m wondering if lack of confidence could have something to do with it. In off-screen life, I feel I fit amply into this category and am pretty comfortable with it, at least in the geographic areas I frequent. But here in iNat, in the presence of potential greatness for just about every living thing out there :yum: :roll_eyes:, I find myself hesitating over even the simplest of IDs. So I remain down there sifting through Unknowns, remaining always way below my level of, let’s say high probability.

Just read it and, oh yes, there I am… that is SO me! Apart from the broken wrist bit :crossed_fingers: :crossed_fingers:.


I define myself as a second-tier identifier.
A lot of Unknowns (especially Africa)
Lots of plants - ditto.
And a learning curve from my notifications for Everything (in Africa)

If you will excuse me … CNC countdown to midnight tomorrow … waving at Graz which is HUNDREDS of species ahead of us!


If anything, in Diptera, I see it as the other way around.
We don´t have enough specialists.
We have enough generalists capable of pushing from class to order
We have less people capable of going from order to family.
And less people capable of going from family to species ( other than Syrphidae)

As my knowledge and interest is more order to family/genus, I feel I´m wasting my knowledge base and energy more if I´m active at higher levels. There are always plenty to ID at the level I work at.


Most of the time, I look at Needs ID observations for New England, not filtered for any particular taxa. I ignore the birds because there are enough birders (except I’ll sometimes add an ID to an Unknown observation of a bird). I identify the easy mammals - White-tailed Deer, Eastern Gray Squirrel, Eastern Chipmunk, etc. - but mostly ignore scat, tracks, and the confusing mammals like bats, Peromyscus, cottontails, and the like. I identify Eastern Newts and Eastern Red-backed Salamanders (except the lead phase of the latter), but mostly ignore the other salamanders. Sometimes I’ll ID some frogs, but not toads.

I identify lots of common, easy-to-ID plants. There are so many Red Trillium, Dwarf Ginseng, Marsh Marigold, and so on right now! But graminoids and oaks and willows and random fuzzy shrubs: nope.

I feel comfortable IDing about 3 lichens and one moss. I know just enough about lichens and bryophytes to know that most of the time, people’s observations aren’t sufficient for IDs at the species level (Frullania, anyone?).

I know virtually nothing about marine organisms. I can’t tell Green Algae from Red Algae from Brown Algae.

I make lots of moth observations, but I don’t yet feel comfortable confirming other people’s observations.

So I’m kind of a mid-level generalist. I wish I knew more, but even though I’m retired, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to make lots of observations (close to 50,000), make lots of IDs (over 200,000), run several iNat projects, AND learn, say, freshwater snails. Or even more local, common plants.


As a bit of an aspiring “jack-of-all-trades” myself, I agree with what a lot have said before me. It’s a bit layered…

I do think being a generalist is somewhat rarer in the population overall, and they tend to focus on specific regions, so places with more naturalists probably have a few more generalists as well (e.g., New England, as lynnharper said, or places like California, where I’ve encountered a few “eclectics”).

Then there’s a gap between what I can ID in person vs. what I feel confident IDing from the media others upload. Then there’s the time spent wading through the many observations that nearly require specialists (I’m looking at you inverts and fungi), time spent widening my knowledge, and time spent doing other things in like like working. Also, probably more factors that aren’t coming to mind right now.

So, in the end, my ID output is pretty modest – but that may not be the best expression of me as a naturalist. I suspect the same is true for many other generalists/eclectics.

Additionally, worth briefly mentioning that the sheer diversity of life means that even generalists who know how to ID a LOT of things will always have more they can’t, which may itself make things a bit misleading in terms of the apparent identifier gap :slightly_smiling_face:


I easily view myself as a generalist, focused on plants (which is as broad a group as any other and I hit taxa all over the place in it) but I can do some insects, some birds, larger mammals, some shoreline inverts, some frogs, some lichen, some moss, etc etc. But within that category there are still massive gaps and I am at times overly aware of them. I can dig through unknowns when I’m feeling spicy and drag some stuff from unknown to species level but there is always more that I do not know, and always will be, compared to what I do know. And I certainly get cold feet on somethings that, in person? I’d feel much more confident of I think, especially for things in my geographic area. But yeah, it takes time and thought. Sometimes I want to feel like being ‘maximally helpful’ so I’ll go through a spree of a single taxa, and sometimes I just want to challenge myself by going through unknowns or plants, etc. Really it depends on the mood of the day for me, just what I want to sift through. And there is always something to sift through, no lack of that. Even if I always only did the eclectic work so to speak, I’m just… one me basically.


I am a specialist IDer on here for sure with over 90% of my IDs for others being arachnids. That does not mean it is the only thing I can confidently ID, it is just what I quickly realized needs much more identifiers here with heaps and heaps of easily identifiable species left untouched. So this is what I dove into and got stuck on (especially since spiders ARE for sure a special pet subject of mine anyways).

But I actually feel rather confident in a lot of middle and northern european artropod species for example as well, mammals… even european plants somewhat and in the beginning when getting started here I IDed much broarder but locally restricted. Only half of the species I have IDed here on other peoples observations are spiders. But why waste my more needed special knowledge, when others are much better with plants or someone else can put unknowns into general categories? I would also hope that someone with special knowledge about flies (as a group I have very limited idea about) would use their time rather to check my fly content then sorting unkowns.

As someone said before me, it is mainly a matter of time management and locating your ressources to where your level of knowledge can have the biggest effect


You sound a lot like me when it comes to IDing

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I can identify some organisms in groups that I consider to be “out of my area of expertise” (I primarily focus on plants, and now, microscopic algae). One reason I don’t, and it seems this hasn’t been brought up in this thread before, is that I turned off notifications for agreeing IDs.

If I add an ID at species level, I won’t receive as many notifications because the downstream IDs are usually also species level. On the other hand, if I add an ID at family or genus level, I may get a notification for a downstream ID at species level. I’m trying to minimize the number of notifications I get, so in general I try to ID mostly at the species level.