Lately, I’ve seen a few folks asking about ways non-experts can help out with iNaturalist tasks - so I figured I’d make a list of simple yet extremely useful things to be done.
(This is a wiki, so if you have items to add, feel free to edit the post.)
These are the observations that have been posted without any identification whatsoever. It is useful to put in a basic identification, even if it’s just “Plant” or “Animal” or “Fungi” - this helps more specialized identifiers to find the things they’re interested in looking at.
Identify Page for Unknowns
Be aware that some people may not understand how the site works, so be prepared for the occasional “Duh, I know it’s a plant!” comment - don’t let it discourage you if it happens. To avoid this sort of response, it can be a good idea to filter the unknowns to a date or date range at least a month ago. Those have been languishing long enough that the owner isn’t going to identify them without help.
Adding Annotations -
Here is a guide on how to do this. This is a very simple task, but a great majority of observations lack any annotations at all.
For plants, the “Plant phenology” is the most useful one, and usually very easy to tell.
Here’s what they mean and when they should be used:
-Flower budding: The plant has flower buds that are actively swelling, and will be opening soon. (Some plants, like pawpaws in the genus Asimina, form their flower buds the year before they flower, but these buds should not be counted for this annotation until they’re actively swelling and preparing to open)
-Flowering: Flowers are open, either newly, or mature.
-Fruiting: Fruit (which includes all kinds of seed-bearing things like seed pods like beans, acorns, walnuts, “normal” fruit like apples, ect! Is it where the seeds are found? It’s fruit!) is actively growing on the plant, and still attached to the plant. If all of the fruit has fallen, it is no longer fruiting. If half the fruit has fallen, and the other half is still on the plant, it IS fruiting.
-No Evidence of Flowering: The plant is not actively fruiting, nor flowering, nor does it have any swelling flower buds. This is usually the case for young seedlings, long-lived species that are too young to fruit yet, or plants that are dormant in winter, or for hot dry climates dormant in summer.
Many plants will have swelling flower buds, open flowers, and fruit forming all at the same time, and all should be marked if they apply. The only annotation for plant phenology that excludes all others is No Evidence of Flowering.
It’s best to ignore the “sex” annotation unless you’re really sure what you’re doing - plants are complicated, and it can be difficult to tell if and how this field applies to many of them. It should be noted that this annotation applies to the whole plant, not specific flowers.
Some species of plants have individuals that are considered male because their flowers only release pollen, and some individuals are considered female because their flowers accept pollen and produce fruit. But other species produce both male and female flowers, or flowers that transition from receiving to producing pollen.
Whether a plant should be marked as male or female depends on the species, and can usually only be known if it is actively flowering or if it has fruit on it.
If you do not know how the species you’re looking at works, leave the sex annotation blank.
Don’t forget to include the research-grade ones in your search as well.
Here’s a handy link for Plant observations that need phenology annotations.
If you want to add plant phenology observations for a specific species, you can also go to that species page, go to the Plant Phenology graph, and click the dropdown menue then select “add annotations for plant phenology”.
It is recommended that for plants, you set the filter to show only observations with photos. Unless the original observer left notes or is still active and willing to answer questions, you won’t be able to mark plant phenology for observations without photos, unless you’re going to mark them as no evidence of flowering.
For animals, Life Stage, Alive or Dead, and Evidence of Presence are all extremely useful fields to add. If you’re not completely sure on one, don’t be afraid to skip it and move on to the next - there’s plenty to choose from.
For animals, the Evidence of Presence usually comes with a few options, depending on what it is: Organism, Bone, Scat, Track, Feather, Molt, Gall, etc.
Using a domestic cat as an example, here’s how these are used:
Organism: It is a photo of the cat itself, whether in part (a trail camera showing just its face) or whole. This includes both live and dead animals. Roadkill on the side of the road that still mostly shows the fur (or scales if it’s a lizard or snake).
Bone: When most of what remains of a dead animal are the bones, or if it’s only observations of bones or a skull.
Scat: Where feces or urine from the animal are present.
Track: Encompasses a lot of things - Impressions in the ground/mud/snow from paw prints, or of the animal resting or scratching something. This also includes structures created by the animal - dens, dams, or holes dug by it. (As another example, you could observe a walnut or acorn that winds up in one of your plant pots as the track left by a squirrel, since the squirrel itself is not in the photo, but the acorn didn’t get in the plant pot by itself!)
Feather: If the observation is of a bird, and all that is observed are feathers, use this for evidence of presence. If it’s a dead animal with skeletal remains and some feathers, it can be marked as both bone and feather.
Molt: A shed skin, like a snake skin, a cicada shell, or similar things.
Gall: For galls found on plants, left by certain types of insects, mites or pathogens.
Correcting Captive / Cultivated Statuses
A lot of people upload observations of potted plants, pets, lawns, the vegetables in their lunch… you get the idea. Marking these as “Captive” when you come across them is very helpful.
On the other side of the coin, a lot of observations get marked as captive when they really should not be, and going through those and adding a thumbs up for “Wild” in the “Data Quality” tab of the identify page is very helpful.
Here’s a quick guide to captive vs wild: https://www.inaturalist.org/journal/graysquirrel/69126-is-it-captive-or-is-it-wild
If you feel ambitious, you can search through the captive observations of common domestic animals such as dogs, cats, rabbits, etc to look for ones that are obviously feral. When it’s unclear, you can leave a comment and ask the observer to clarify. In some cases, the observer has actually already stated in the description, but many people still mark these as captive in spite of this.
I have created a project for observations that have been incorrectly marked as captive: https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/ferals-waifs-and-strays-wild-observations-of-domesticated-species
If you find something you’re certain is wrongly marked captive, but needs more votes to counter it, you can add it to that project. You can also search for still-casual observations within that project and (assuming you agree) add a vote for wild.
Additionally, there are large numbers of fungi marked as casual that should not be, and the actually cultivated ones are fairly easy to distinguish. Captive-marked fungi
This project also focuses on animals that have escaped from captivity, and had lots of observations marked as captive that shouldn’t be. Here are the observations marked as captive in that project: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?captive=true&place_id=any&project_id=50675&verifiable=any
Adding Common Names
Many organisms on iNaturalist do not currently have common names listed, and it helps new users if the species they are observing has a common name to use.
Not all species have common names, and not all need them. However, if a species has a common name in use, it should be added. Look for species that have no common name listed, and if they have a name that you know and use, check that it follows the common name guidelines and add it. Ideally, don’t add common names that you are not familiar with, so that you can confirm that they are actually in widespread usage. Google the binomial to confirm a source for common names in use for that species, and list the source (or, better, sources) you found the name in the “notes” box. Do not make up your own common names! Only add them if you know that they are in current use, in communities that you are part of, in a book, or on websites of scientific or natural history societies, for example.
Assorted specific ID tasks:
Species that shouldn’t be at species level: These are some organisms that often get incorrectly identified to species level, but should stay at a higher level. (After you bump them back, don’t forget to hit the “identification cannot be improved” check box in the DQA section - this will enable them to become research-grade at genus or species complex level)
- China Rose - Most observations identified as Rosa chinensis, especially outside of China, are actually cultivated hybrids between many different species, and should only be identified to genus-level. You can search for China rose observations and bump them back to genus Rosa. More info can be found in the comment on this observation.
- Grape leaffolder/leafroller moth observations should be moved to "Complex Desmia Funeralis " if the observation does not contain a photo of the moth’s underside. These two species are identical from a top-down perspective.
- Grape/Shephard’s Plume moths are indistinguishable as adults without dissections and should be moved to Complex Geina periscelidactylus
- Rheumaptera undulata and R. prunivorata should be moved to Complex Rheumaptera undulata
- Grapevine Looper Moths should be moved to Complex Eulithis diversilineata
- Crocus Geometer Moths (Genus Xanthotype) are impossible to distinguish without dissection and should be left at Genus level
- Pug Moths (Genus Eupithecia) should also be left at Genus level
- Southern Emeralds and Wavy-lined emeralds are impossible to distinguish as caterpillars and should be given the ID “Complex Synchlora aerata”. However, adult moths of these two species can be positively identified.
Species that should be identified to species level and often aren’t:
Ginkgo Trees - Ginkgo biloba is a very unique tree that is the only species in its class. The species’ unique fan-shaped leaf differentiated from all other plants. Moving observations from a higher taxon down to species Ginkgo biloba is of great help! Here are the observations in Class Ginkgoopsida that still need identifications.
Also, the vast, vast majority of observations of this species are of cultivated trees. There is a small introduced population in the US (composed mostly of seedings and saplings) as well as a single wild grove in China. All other Ginkgo trees should be marked as captive. Unless there is any reason to believe the Ginkgo tree is wild, it is always best to assume captive (be sure to review the definition of captive in the “Correcting Captive / Cultivated Statuses” section above).
Nandina is another common cultivar that is fairly easy to recognize and has only one species, Nandina domestica. Genus-level observations should be identified to species-level, and many should be marked captive as well - though it can be invasive in some areas, so be careful not to mark those ones captive.
Low Growth Countries - If there is a place or a taxon you can help out for Low Growth Countries. Any of the above options would help. There are surprising gaps, like Scandinavia and a chunk of Europe?
Obvious Erroneous Locations - If you are looking at observations in the middle of the ocean, and you see obvious terrestrial habitat in the background or otherwise believe that the picture was taken on land, the mapped location may be incorrect. Check that the observation has not been obscured, and that it does not have a large circle of accuracy including land, and if neither of those apply, make a comment that the location is not accurate and vote “no” on “location is accurate.” Be sure to check back in case the observer corrects the location. You can do this by bookmarking the observation. Also, beware of terrestrial organisms which are hitching a ride on a boat or ship. The location at 0 degrees latitude and longitude – in the Gulf of Guinea – is a frequent repository of observations with erroneous locations.
There are many observations with no location at all. You can comment on these to alert the user, who may not be aware.
Local Observations - If you are already monitoring ‘today’s’ observation for your city. Branch out to the next geographical level to pick up small towns and rural areas which may be missing out on IDs.