Tips from/for iNat identifyers

Would you mind sharing your tips for identification? I do not mean taxa specific, but tools and methods.

For instance, I sometimes need to understand if the place of the ob is mountain or not, and satellite view does not help a lot. I found this site where you can input the coordinates and get estimated elevation (it would a nice feat to add to iNat, but that would be a feature request).
Wonder if someone has similar tips to share.


If you turn on terrain in the map drop-down, at the right zoom levels, there are contour lines with the elevation.



thnks for the hint, worth while trying, Sometimes altitude value labels are not around, so a website might be handy

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You can get elevation and coordinates from Google Earth by moving the cursor to any location. It’s on the lower left of your screen. You can search by coordinates as well.


thanks this is better. For the one trying, keep in mind that you need to wait a little bit for the elevation info appear at the very right of the status bar (there must be some call to server going on)
@tiwane, I think that adding a call to the API and showing elevation in the location info would not be really difficult. Worths considering in my view, calls to Google maps API must already be going for the remaining part.
To get to the elevation from Google Earth from the Identification interface, you have to open the obs, view the map details, copy the coordinate, delete text… not that handy.

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If you click on Terrain, as said, and then use the “+” and “-” signs to zoom in or out on the contour map, it is usually possible to see the elevation labels on the contours. You may have to trace a labelled contour around to the observation location, as one might have to do on any map, but they are there.


The Identotron is an identification tool I was unaware of until @tonyrebelo taught me how to access this tool. I turn to the Identotron when I am working in a plant genera in which I have some knowledge but am unsure of which specific species might occur in the area of the observation.

  1. From the identification modal right click on the “View” observation icon in the right side of the modal to open the full observation in a new tab.
  2. From the full observation right-click on Compare to open the Identotron in a new tab. Note that clicking on Compare with the left mouse button opens a pop-up dialog box, not the Identotron. I had missed that the nature of the click changes the destination of the Compare link.
  3. The Identotron will, in this instance, show species in the genus which occur in that location. On the left one can expand the Place
    Screenshot 2020-01-06 at 17.36.18
    or change the Taxon
    Screenshot 2020-01-06 at 17.36.29

I did not realize this tool existed until Tony brought it to my attention. I must have missed a briefing somewhere along the line!

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Huh. When people said “identotron” I thought they were referring to the “suggestions” tab of the ID modal.


I mostly work with plants. I typically start by setting up a search in Identify (some combination of taxon, place, and maybe a lower bound on the rank if I’m looking to refine IDs for stuff that was already IDed to Order or Family level). I might set an observation date range for a species I know only flowers in certain months, or an ID date range if I just want to review the latest observations.

Once I have the Identify search set up, I’ll work through it page by page. If I expect to ID a high proportion of observations, I’ll probably view each observation and then navigate to the next. Where I’m working with higher level taxons, I’ll scan the page of thumbnails and just open up the ones that seem like I might be able to ID. I use the keyboard shortcuts quite a bit to agree with IDs, move between photos and between tabs and add phenology tags. I installed an image magnifier browser extension so I can zoom in on detail beyond what the iNat interface shows.

Beyond iNat itself, I use a few other resources, which I tend to keep open in a different browser or in Adobe Acrobat. If I’m working with a genus I know well, then I’ll mostly use a good key (such as the Jepson eFlora for California plants), a distribution reference (e.g. Calflora) and a photo library (e.g. Calphotos). If I have access to any taxonomic papers on the relevant genus or species, I’ll open those too.

When I stray into taxa I’m less familiar with, then I have a couple of techniques to see if I can home in on an ID. Obviously, a field guide is helpful in those cases where I have a relevant one for the area. Also, trying various options with the computer vision is a good way to bring up candidate IDs. Once I’ve set the Suggestions Source to “Visually Similar” I’ll browse through the 10 suggestions and look for anything that is a good visual match and shows a plausible nearby distribution. I might well narrow the suggestions by genus or family at this point to exclude implausible options and give me more relevant candidates.

At this point with a less familiar plant, I may have a good idea of a genus (or family). My next step may be to open the iNat taxon page for the genus, navigate to the photo browser, set Filter by Place to something sufficiently broad to catch a good range of nearby observations, and then choose the Taxonomic grouping for photos. This should give me maybe a half-dozen possible taxa that I can compare against the observation (keeping in mind that some of these photos may themselves be incorrectly IDed). My goal here is to narrow down the choices to 1-3 likely candidates.

If I’m not confident in the ID at this point, I would likely pull up a distribution map for each taxon (either in iNat or Calflora) and see whether range or elevation provides a clear distinction. With all of this, sometimes I’ll be confident enough to ID at species level. Other times, it’s clear that I can only ID at genus level or higher. I’ll add a comment if I think it might help the observer or other IDers make sense of my thinking, and then move on to the next observation.

One last point… If you use the Reviewed flag to prevent iNat from showing you stuff you already IDed, you need to be aware that you can skip observations as you navigate between pages. Say your search brought up 7 pages of observations and you IDed 5 out of 30 on page 1. If you then navigate directly to page 2, you will skip 5 observations in the process. This is because iNat is showing you observations 31-60 from those you haven’t reviewed and the 5 you IDed are now excluded from that. One way to avoid this is to refresh the page when you get done with IDs and then review the new observations that show up at the bottom. When you get to the point that you don’t ID any of the added observations you can use the page numbers to navigate to the next page.


One of the first things I do on iNaturalist when doing any sort of ID that I feel less than fully sure about, is to use the “Similar Species” feature on the iNat page for that species or taxon. I select a broad region (like northeast or mid-atlantic or something of the sort) so that I get a big enough sample size, but one tailored to the specific region, not worldwide because that often has too much noise. A then go through the entire list and make sure I know how to distinguish between the taxon I’m wanting to ID something as, and other potentially-confused taxa. If I can’t do this confidently, then I usually refrain from making the more specific ID and instead go with the more general ID.

I also ask for help a lot. I try to reach out to and get to know some of the more experienced users. For example, lately I’ve been trying to get better at birch (Betula sp.) identification, which I find devilishly hard. There are a few really knowledgeable users, and I’ve called them in a couple times, and I also have commented on various observations, asking them how they made certain ID’s. I use the “top identifiers” leaderboard to locate people who have identified a lot, and I check their ID’s and if they’re still active on the site, which they usually are, I ask them questions or for clarification. These “power users” have been incredibly helpful to me over and over again.

When I’m trying to learn a new taxon, when I start to feel confident, I like starting by going through “research grade” observations. I don’t want to mess around with the uncertain ones that just have a single ID and need more ID’s. I only move onto these when I feel even greater confidence.

I think a lot about range and habitat when doing ID’s. I notice that a lot of things might look plausible for an ID (and might be suggested by the AI) but are clearly out of range and/or in the wrong habitat. Knowing even a little bit about range and habitat, or even knowing nothing at all but merely knowing to check at all, and checking briefly before making an ID you are uncertain of, can go a long way. You can usually find a little about range and habitat for most species with a brief google search.

I also use iNaturalist to look at range. I check to see if a record is out of place. For example, if I see someone else’s ID, or am tempted to make my own ID, as a particular taxon, but I see it is a single, isolated point, then I start researching more. Basically, if something seems unusual or out of range, I demand greater rigor in ID. Part of this is because it’s a clue that the ID might be wrong, and part of this is because the implications for science and for the integrity of the data, if the ID is wrong, are greater. If you mis-ID a common species in the heart of its range, in the proper habitat, there is not going to be a lot of damage done. Yes, it’s not ideal, but it’s not going to change tracking of that species’ range or abundance very much. However, mis-IDing something at the edge of its range or somewhere where that species is rare, is more problematic for data integrity.

I know you don’t want to get too taxon-specific, but…I mostly ID plants and for them, whenever I have any range questions I consult BONAP. I’ve found it to be the most reliable source for range maps, more accurate than the USDA PLANTS database in many cases.

For plants, I also don’t just stop at ranges of wild plants: I also consider whether plants are widely used in landscaping. If it’s a plant I don’t know, usually a basic web search can turn up whether or not it’s sold or stocked at commercial nurseries, which is a strong clue about its use in landscaping. You can also use iNaturalist itself to determine which species are widely used in landscaping. Many species are common in landscaping outside their native range; for example, I see Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) planted in the coastal plain, southeast from its native range, frequently, and I also see it planted southwest of its native range in the midwest, such as in parts of IN, IL, or OH where it would not naturally occur. And red pine (Pinus resinosa) is sometimes planted in plantations outside its native range, but rarely planted in landscaping. Knowing these things is useful for ID…you can usually tell if something is in or near landscaping, or in or near a plantation, from an aerial photo.

If the location is obscured and I can’t use the aerial photo to discern much about habitat, and the habitat isn’t super clear from the photo, I’m more reluctant to make ID’s in cases where I feel uncertain.

For birds, I use eBird; they have curated range and frequency maps which far exceed what you can do with iNaturalist. I look up their bar charts, usually for a county or a set of several counties in a region in or around where the ID in question is. I use this to narrow down species to check against, and then exhaustively check these species in field guides. I make sure to look at the specific time of year, which eBird breaks roughly into 4 weeks per month. Some species might be common the first week of may but rare the fourth week, in a particular area, so making sure to look at the exact right time in the chart is critically important.

I also try to keep a skeptical mind. I try really hard, but I am still wrong frequently. I can spend hours in the field looking at stuff and reading books and going back and forth, and still make a lot of mistakes when I am trying to ID stuff based on photos.

And I continually remind myself that species are a social construct. Taxa are always changing and being reclassified, and many can hybridize. If I’m getting confused, I look up the potential for species to hybridize…in some cases, hybrids are predictable, but in other cases, like with birches and oaks, there can be almost a continuous cline of intergrades between certain species, and I try to remember this when making ID’s and say “This might be a hybrid or intergrade and I don’t really know.” in the cases when things conflict.


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