Too many photos - not enough taxonomy

I work ion a family of insects where at least 95% of the time I cannot get an ID below genus level on the basis of photography alone. Other than me writing a request to every post asking in hope for a specimen to be collected is there any smarter way of tagging this issue for the family as a whole?


Collecting specimens to be killed and preserved in a research collection/ museum as vouchers instead of —or along with —photos is not something the majority of iNatters will do. Probably both a philosophical as well as logistical obstacle. Unfortunately a lot of organisms simply can’t be IDed to species based on photos. As someone who comes from a collecting background myself, it was an adjustment for me to mainly do photography and realize that even some of my very good photos of insects can’t be IDed better than family or genus.


You could consider writing a journal post on the subject (what characteristics are needed for ID, procedures for collection, any relevant considerations regarding permits, what to do with the specimen, etc.) and include a link to it when you ID or review observations.


short answer is no.


however, you could use various tools / processes to help you add comments and IDs in a more automated way.


As perhaps the world’s leading authority on Lonchaeidae, thank you for your efforts!

Short answer: there is not. Although imho, such a feature would be very helpful for many taxa. It could even be done automatically based on the metrics ‘recognition’ and ‘completeness’ (see Mesaglio et al. 2023). Similar features have been proposed (e.g., here ) but not implemented.

More broadly, I think this issue is exacerbated by the lack of a place for ID information (like, “species ID from photos not possible without dissection”) to live on iNaturalist. ID information on iNaturalist is often lost in scattered comments, where it is not findable (one of the principles of FAIR data). This has been discussed for years (e.g., and, but I’m not aware of any solutions in the works. When ID information is not easily accessible to new learners (so they can themselves learn), expert IDers can get overwhelmed and experience burnout. Journal posts can be an okay workaround. Maybe integrating the platform (or similar) into iNat would help. Just some more context for your question, which touches on multiple topics!


I have a similar issue with the bamboos need ID. Honestly, I don’t bother even commenting most of the time. Telling these plants apart is tough, and unless you’re an expert, you won’t know what to take photos of (buds, nodes, culm leaves, etc.). We can’t expect everyone to be an expert in everything - I have tons of un-IDable photos of insects and even other plant species that I didn’t realize were impossible to ID when I took them.


I sometimes leave a comment if there’s someone who posts a lot of images of a particular taxon that requires dissection, to let them know that I’d be willing to help them out with IDs if they’re interested in collecting some specimens. To most people, it’s not really worth the effort to go through all the logistics of collecting specimens to get IDs, but some have taken me up on the offer. I don’t think most iNatters have a problem with the idea of taking specimens for ID as long as it’s done responsibly (like don’t collect something that’s protected/endangered obviously), but it just takes a lot of work for only a few species ticks. I usually figure since it’s commonplace to smash a thousand bugs on one’s windshield driving across the state to tick a rare bird off a life list when everyone already knows the bird is there, the idea of killing one bug in a freezer to get an ID on it under the microscope and add a completely new species to a local county list shouldn’t be that repugnant. So I don’t hesitate to ask “hey, would you want to collect some of these to get names on them?” And so far I’ve had generally positive interactions when offering to provide specimen-based ID help.

That being said, as seems to be the case with many identifiers, there are some species/genera that have just gotten so many unwarranted IDs where photos are insufficient for ID that I’ve just given up on them. Moths like Amphipoea americana, Clepsis peritana, and Coleophora cratipennella, which can’t be reliably distinguished from their relatives as adults without dissection simply have so many hundreds or thousands of observations of photos that it would take a monumental effort to go through and kick them all back to genus. Anyone pulling data on those species from iNat or GBIF is well aware of the problems with these species though, so I don’t see it as a big deal. No one who knows enough about the genus Clepsis to be publishing about them would go onto iNat and say “wow, look at all these Clepsis peritana records!” But they also probably have more pressing things to do than re-identify all of them as Clepsis sp. I’m sure all of us can name a few similar scenarios to this in whatever our area of expertise is. I don’t know what the best solution is, but the current status seems to be that there’s a small group of taxon-enthusiasts with inside knowledge about which species are a mess, and then the other 99% of us just keep submitting photos unaware of how unreliable our ID attempts are. It would be nice to have some sort of flag in these situations, but I imagine that would be a logistical nightmare to implement, as it would have to be on a taxon-by-taxon location-by-location basis.


The philosophy I have taken with difficult-to-ID groups is that iNat will never replace scientific collecting but it can help experts find places to go searching for something interesting.
iNat also has an ambassador role. If people are paying attention to the natural world, they’re more likely to make choices that benefit (or at least reduce harm to) the natural world. So even if an observation isn’t scientifically useful, that doesn’t mean it’s without value.


Under the theory of “What’s one more?” That’s a slippery slope.

And for many, those choices may manifest as “don’t purposely kill insects that aren’t doing any harm.” Which – in pretty much any context other than someone’s desire for a specimen – is a good choice.

When I saw the title of this thread, I honestly wondered if it was pushback, a response to the threads about “too much taxonomy,” as it were.

Here is a thought: the concept of niche competition suggests that, in a given ecosystem, no two sympatric species can occupy exactly the same niche; if they did, one would outcompete and eliminate the other. So if we think that two species “can only be told apart by dissection,” that’s probably just shorthand for saying that we don’t know enough yet about their ecological niches.


I definitely understand the frustration! I’m most deeply interested in a taxa that more often than not requires microscopic examination to ID beyond family (Collembola) and the low quality of many photos on iNat (understandable, since they are so small that photographing them requires substantial investment in macro photography equipment) makes the vast majority of Collembola observations completely unidentifiable.

Ultimately though, I think this circles back to the core conflict of iNat’s mission – how can iNaturalist balance being a citizen science project that even amateurs can usefully participate in, and being a resource for legitimate ecological data? I tend to lean on the side of citizen science project, personally, as maintaining the level of data rigor required for more granular, accurate, and scientifically useful identifications (mostly of invertebrates) would require both an enormous amount of time and energy from taxa professionals in identifying/making sure observations are ID-able, and completely bar many people with a budding interest in naturalism from being able to participate.

The other issue with suggesting that people take specimens – what are they supposed to do with them? The average person certainly does not have the knowledge, experience, or tools to properly take, prepare, dissect, and photograph the identifying characteristics of an insect specimen. It’s a bit of a catch-22, once you have the ability to

I think the one possible solution could be writing guides for multiple insect taxa explaining what features are most useful to photograph – for example, I know Eleodes identification usually requires a good view of the tibia and tarsi, so I try and get a good photo of the legs whenever I can. Ventral shots are useful for other insects, some require an ocelli count, antenna segment count, etc. It’s easier (and certainly better for not disturbing the environment) for someone to just flip a bug over to get a quick picture that might be able to at least get it to genus, than to ask them to kill and carefully dissect it to get it down to species every time.


It’s very common for two or more identical looking species to co-occur in the same place and time, without occupying the same exact niche. They could prey on different things, but occur in the same place and time, look identical, and only be told apart by internal morphology, or which chemical they secrete to attract a mate. Or maybe they look different in the UV (or other) spectrum. Or maybe 25% of their diet differs, and that’s enough to co-occur because they eat they are generalists, but the differences are all subtle behavioral cues not picked up in photos.

As for the “what’s one more” slippery slope fallacy, if someone doesn’t have a problem killing some insects by walking, driving or eating (how many insects are killed to make our food?), than it’s hard for me to understand them having a problem killing one intentionally. That’s just the slippery slope of “out of sight, out of mind” instead, which is far more insidious and dangerous in my mind.


Probably not directly. However, the description pages is from Wikipedia and you could edit the Wikipedia page (with the appropriate references used) to menton the ID requirements.


I usually figure since it’s commonplace to smash a thousand bugs on one’s windshield driving across the state to tick a rare bird off a life list when everyone already knows the bird is there, the idea of killing one bug in a freezer to get an ID on it under the microscope and add a completely new species to a local county list shouldn’t be that repugnant.

I agree with Jason Hernandez that this is a slippery assumption, to which I am tempted to respond with a slippery argument like “Ok but what if everyone started collecting every bug they encounter because it’s just one more”. In a reasonable world that will never be the case. On a philosophical level, perhaps what would deter an individual from deliberately killing an insect is their direct involvement in the act and the conscious decision that it requires, whereas they only indirectly and unconsciously smash thousands of bugs with their car.

Also, most people without the necessary dissection tools or experience will be tempted to give up on an observation that requires such things, based on my assumption that humans almost always take the path of least resistance.


That’s the slippery slope fallacy. It’s not really a slippery slope, because everyone won’t start killing every bug they encounter. It’s just asking a few people (because more than 99% of people don’t use iNat) to collect a few insects.


As someone who just the other day took and posted a photo of a specimen of the family you study, first of all - thank you for your ID! This is the first Lonchaeidae specimen I have ever seen or photographed. I take a lot of photos of insects because I find them fascinating, and over the past three years have learned that in many instances, this will get me nowhere more specific than a Genus level ID, if I am lucky. But as an amateur naturalist, even the Genus-level IDs have taught me so much. I can imagine how frustrating it must be on the other side, when a photo is simply not enough - even a very good photo. But I want to express my gratitude to experts such as yourself - you’ve so enriched my understanding of the natural world.

Incidentally the other day I did see an observation where a specimen was requested and collected (, of a European spider species that has recently been spotted on Vancouver Island as a newly invasive species. So I don’t think it’s a lost cause.


Mentor someone who shares your interest and has time - to work thru the obs on iNat for you. Craft a copypasta together (cannot be IDed … without dissection …). That will ripple out to others who share your interest. Eventually you will reach the few who are willing and able to collect relevant specimens for you.


I encounter the same problem when I attempt to identify some genera of plants (that usually do not move…) that are characterized by small parts and would need that users would take some time to make a number of good macro photos. On the contrary, what is usually available is just one photo that does not show all the necessary diagnostic characters and, additionally, may be often blurry. I would say that’s the way iNat is or the way many of its users are. I have written some journal posts with some instructions which have been followed by few users. I try to see the glass half-full.
I know that with insects, especially with some critical genera, it may be even much harder. as regards, I would say that if on the one hand is impossible to get a species level ID, on the other it would be desirable to discourage to try unrealible IDs when it is impossible for obvious reasons.


@spiphany has suggested doing a journal post on them, which is a great idea. However it may be even better to create a project and use the project journal to create such a post. I have done this for UK hoverflies. This makes it possible to create multiple posts on different aspects of the subject linked together. You can direct people to the project home page if you see someone starting to post Loncheidae several times. It also means that interested people can join the project and receive notifications of updates, and their observations of Loncheidae will carry a little tag that advertises the project to others and so forth.

Happy for you to message me if you want to talk about it more.

The majority of users who only take an ad hoc photo of a Locheid every so often will not take specimens, but get a few interested people and you may find a much high proportion of observations include specimens.


I mostly agree and in a lot of cases this is already happening. Many species of insects are identified not only based on morphology, but also based on the plant they were eating/pollinating/making galls in or whatever.
However, in many cases, it might be as hard or harder and also a lot more unreliable to identify the niche as/than identifying the species, even though we know the niche the species occupies. For example: Even though sawfly 1 is associated with plant A, there’s nothing stopping it from sitting on the leaf of a nearby specimen of plant B, which is associated with the identical-looking sawfly 2. Or what if the niche is a different location or time for depositing eggs? If it currently isn’t time for either species to lay eggs, you obviously won’t be able to use niche as a criterion for identification.


I’m surprised no one has mentioned checking “No…” for “Based on the evidence, can the Community Taxon still be confirmed or improved?” at the bottom of the page (desktop web version) under “Research Grade Qualification”. Doesn’t this at least solve the problem of the observations sitting perpetually in the “Needs ID” bin?

I get that maybe OP was more concerned with having too much volume of new observations to go through, but it still seems relevant.