Using Inaturalist to educate yourself - what are your tricks?

I have found that when I am trying to find more information about a species, you can often find an expert’s opinion by finding observations of said species that have comments. Often these comments will contain information about how to identify these species or links to useful resources.

I was using this tactic and had the thought that there may be a lot of creative ways people are using the inat website to educate themselves. What are your tricks?


Help to identify unknowns. (The mountain is humungous!)
Follow your notifications. Learn who to ask, who to trust to know whereof they speak.

And learn what you didn’t know you didn’t know (Mantodea, not Mantidae for my knowledge)
And slowly learn what you do know.


I’m trying to learn plant species in a place with no available guidebooks in English. I searched iNaturalist for plants in this region, then went to the list of species, which gives me a list of plants that have already been recorded, in descending order of number of observations. I use this list as my study list. I start at the top, read all I can about the first species in the list, then try to find it in the wild and observe it myself. When I start to get confident with that species, then I use the identify tool and re-identify (confirm) the research grade observations of that species. When I get more comfortable, I identify the observations needing ID. And make more wild observations myself. And return to the list to find the next species I don’t know.

Your method of checking notes is also great. I keep a notebook of the species I have studied–I will start adding the notes from other observations to it.


The way I learn more about the life around me by using iNat is just by trying to observe and document as much as I see - plants, bird calls, fungi, slime molds, anything - even if I’ve already observed it before or I believe I have. I usually wait for an expert opinion on most of my observations, but with time, you can get more familiar with these organisms, and eventually more confident with your own observations based on location and morphology.
Also, you can try to use the “Identify” feature a lot to help yourself get more familiar with certain organisms. Want to get more familiar with your local birds? You can sort by location and clade to do so. It’s absolutely ok to consult or even rely on the computer vision for help with these, but in time, you will get better at self-ID.
I wish you luck with your endeavors.


A few tricks of mine:

On the website you can middle-click the “Compare” button, which will lead you to something called the Identotron:

Basically like a larger “Compare” interface. Occasionally what I’ll do when I get bamboozled is predict the family of said bamboozling plant and then look through the species. Basically an automatic, personified field guide. I will say that distributions on iNat aren’t always accurate, so I prefer to cross-reference them with BONAP and the USDA Plants database maps.

An easy way to figure out when you are most likely to see a plant: pull up the seasonality tab on the species profile!

And you can also check when it might be in flower or in fruit, by switching to Plant Phenology. Go to the gear icon and click “Hide No Annotation” to get a neat graph:

Good for hunting down plant locations i.e. plant geocaching - more on that here:

And if there isn’t enough annotations for a good graph, what you can do is fill them out yourself in the Identify modal! Keyboard shortcuts make this process much faster than it sounds. Plus, you’re also adding to the value of the data here. That’s a win for me.

And another way to find useful comments:

See that number? That’s a link. If you click it, it will take you to an observation page will contain all observations that have conflicting IDs of the two taxa. Another way you can find useful iNat conversations, and help some observations out as well…

Yes, this is all plant-related (I am a plant iNatter) but some of it may apply to other kingdoms too.


Take judicious chances and tag experts. By “judicious”, I mean that you have narrowed the ID down to a couple of options to high certainty, but have only medium confidence in distinguishing those options.

In that case, take a chance and explain your reasoning.

Tagging an expert having taken a chance increases the likelihood that you will get a quick explanation distinguishing the options. Without that chance, you might get an ID but it will likely be w/o explanation.

The benefit for an expert to providing an explanation is that s/he is training an IDer, which potentially reduces the workload.

The potential downside to this technique is that you might get a “me-too” agreement promoting a potential error to research grade. That’s why tagging an expert is an important part of the process!

Taking wild chances is not really profitable here - the error rate is too high and it mucks up the datasets. I’ve seen a couple of individuals who are too quick to guess and it’s a challenge to clean up after them.

But judicious chances are a good way to become a better IDer and more knowledgeable about your ecosystem.


Another note:

I’d say this is underated: interactions between curious users and more knowledgeable users, including experts. “Experts” can have a wide variety of meanings, but it is irrelevant to my following paragraphs so I will just say “knowledgeable users.”

That information in these exchanges is often more digestible than that of technical taxonomic keys and literature, and oftentimes those technical resources are mentioned or linked into those comments. Because of this, such conversations act as a bridge into learning those more technical aspects, bridging that gap between science and the public. I can attest to this myself, because it was through those sorts of conversations that I gradually picked up botanical terminology and became acclimated to using technical floras and dichotomous keys, from starting as a complete novice. They used to scare me, and maybe still do, but not so much anymore!

On the other hand, it is not often that identifiers get to share their knowledge to interested people. Many times that knowledge falls on deaf ears or goes unappreciated, and it just seems like throwing “pearls before swine.” Teaching something to someone else who is interested in learning that knowledge is a gift, not just for the asker but also the answerer.

So if existing observations don’t satiate you, feel free to tag someone who knows more than you, and make it clear that you aren’t just asking for ID help, but also that you want to learn from them. Be interested in learning that knowledge. That’ll be sure to make someone’s day. And be sure to say thank you when they provide, you can never go wrong with gratitude :wink:


If you find experts in a taxon you are interested in, you can also check their profiles and journal posts (it they exist). Some experts share links to the resources they use (or ones that they have created themselves) in those places.


One thing to consider: what people include under the “expert” label can vary. Say plant experts. Trained botanists and professors? But I know quite a few amateurs with extensive knowledge of the flora, perhaps comparable or exceeding those who make it a career. Amateur didn’t always have a negative connotation, and it doesn’t have to. To me, knowing who is an expert comes down to “knowing” your local iNaturalist community.

With people in the grey area like me, who aren’t really “experts” but also with a fair bit of knowledge: if someone asks you for knowledge/advice, it’s good to have a reference to back up with. That could be an observation with an expert’s comment, or a link to a flora or technical key. Perhaps the best thing you can do is kindly tag someone else who knows more than you. Connecting curious users with knowledgeable identifiers is a great thing and I can personally vouch for the results.

I do agree with this:

It definitely shows you have done some thinking about this before asking them—demonstrated interest. It isn’t always necessary, can depend on the person you would like to learn from. I asked in my observation notes about any guides for identifying the Callirhoe and got a response from an identifier. Didn’t even tag them. Curiosity and willingness to learn are important factors as well. But a “judicious” chance at the ID for sure will help a lot.


If I am uncertain I will copypasta a link to the taxon page, rather than adding an ID.
Then I can ask my @mention - Is it this?

And if you do ask for help - then get a reply - please respond by withdrawing or agreeing - unless you are a Proud Maverick with good reason. I do see some abandoned careful replies, which have been promptly ignored.

(A Thank you comment, will trigger a notification to each person who engaged with that obs. Rather not)

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Almost daily I do learn a lot from knowledgeable users who give me valuable comments or corrections to my IDs. By now, I keep a list of those iNaturalists who have the knowledge and kindness to hep, if I tag them. After a while one can spot multi-cklickers and “Top”_identifiers who are only adding their ID after a “valid” ID has been already given by the observer, wrong or right does not matter to them, only the count.
But this list of “Experts” is only 1 help tool to learn. All the valuable comments or IDs are put into a file for each genus/species and if found, other sources and references to learn. Looking up observations of iNaturalist photos also let me learn a lot. Being no expert, but having already got some experience with lepidoptera I do give IDs to others and learn a very lot from the ID-module. If I spot an interesting observation or an ambiguous ID I leave it on a separate tab on my browser, waiting for the outcome. Also very helpful proved to be a member of the forum and using the “compare” option and quite a lot more.


Honestly, I scout the ID leaderboard for a particular taxon. There may be one person IDing well beyond their expertise, but there are unlikely to be several.


If I see an unfamiliar, but distinctive, taxon in which many observations by many observers have the same identification, I begin to form a mental association between that appearance and that name. I can then browser search by that name to cross-check with outside sources.


I id fulgoridae; generally pyrops, saiva, datua, hariola, zanna and enchophora.

If someone disagrees, I would generally try to find differences between the taxon from my and disagreer’s id, that helps me learn how to id them better.


You might find it useful to “follow” the observation in such cases (this helps keep the number of open tabs or bookmarks in your browser manageable, particularly if it is a taxon where it can take a while before someone knowledgeable has a chance to look at the observation).

Some people also use the “favorite” button for this, which has the advantage that you can find the observation again if you want to check up on it. I will often use the follow option because it is a bit more discreet (other users don’t get notifications due to my idle curiousity, and no one will know when I later decide to unfollow).

Depending on the subject of interest, projects can also be a good way to learn more about specific taxa, as sometimes the project creators will put together lists of relevant links or helpful journal entries.


I tend to not take chances selecting a species. I’ll say what I think it is in the comments. That negates the aforementioned “down side” risk of having someone agree and have an incorrect ID. I will often say what I think it is in the comments and why then mention someone more knowledgeable on the species.


If you ever plan on visiting another country/state, iNaturalist is a valuable tool. If you go to the observations page and click on species, a list of common species appears and this can be filtered by taxa. You can gain experience identifying organisms in that region by starting to identify common species or species that you have experience with. Then, you can start branching out to other species. Eventually, you can get to a point where you’re comfortable with identification.

For example, I started identifying reptiles and amphibians in Arizona before visiting in August of last year. I started off with ‘easier’ species that weren’t likely to be confused with others, such as gopher snakes, Gila monsters, banded geckos, and long-nosed snakes. Once I was comfortable with them, I filled in the blanks and started identifying slightly tougher species, such as whiptails, phrynosomatids, rattlesnakes, and toads.

The downside with this is that it takes a good amount of identifications to be fully comfortable, I already have 3,000 observations in the state and there are still certain genera I have trouble with. As an upside, you meet more experienced identifiers and can learn how to tell more difficult species apart.


Thank you very much for your suggestion and hint.

Never thought to mean many, but already 1 can be sometimes annoying. I always hope to get an ID of iNaturalists who know what they are doing and not just nod blindly to an already present ID.

You can push for a second confirming ID by @mentioning, if you are not happy with the first two. If my ID was tentative, and a new to me original observer agrees, I will look for a trusted identifier to confirm or disagree with me.

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