Ways that users can start identifying easily

I started identifying every day, by filtering the state which I live in and the day before to give time for people to submit their observations. I then identified every observation that I could recognize and ended up with 12,000+ ids in about 2 months, which may seem mediocre to the major identifiers out there.
But what if a majority of users did that, it would most likely identify all the unknowns, and etc…


I would recommend for starters to ID common things. Dandelions and common reed are the first to come to mind because they often dominate regions and are fairly easy to recognize. People upload both of those species a lot, so they can pile up, and they’re “boring” to a lot of people since they’re so abundant and common, so they don’t always get IDed regularly. Taking the time to work through those can make a huge dent and most people can probably do that without much difficulty.


Well, you’ve just suggested that people start out in the deep mud of taxonomy. “Dandelion” covers several well accepted species and thousands of microspecies. They’re so much of a problem that I just mark them “Dandelion” (= Taraxacum) and in the Data Quality I click “No, it cannot be improved.” As for Common Reed, in North America at least there are three subspecies that some people recognize at the species level. So this can be easy (call them all Phragmites australis) or very difficult.

I’d say, either filter for your area or for a species or group (e.g. birds) that you know, and check those. Or maybe filter for both your area and your species. Pay attention to comments from other observers and learn more stuff.

Most of all, pay attention to what you’ve accomplished! That’s a help! Don’t worry about how many more observations there are to ID – that will always be true, but you have just helped some observers and made observations available for researchers. Great!


Personally, I keep a folder of links on my bookmarks that I go through, I started with:

  1. A species I was familiar with and comfortable identifying (examples: tulip poplar, turkeys, paper birch)
  2. Species stuck at ‘unknown’ in the area I live in https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/identify?iconic_taxa=unknown&photos=true&place_id=17&per_page=200
  3. A species group I was excited about getting better at differentiating in my area (I picked maple trees – specifically red vs sugar maple in my area) so I went to things identified as ‘maple’ but unknown species in my region
  4. A species group stuck at kingdom or family that I think I could get a little bit better (I picked things stuck at ‘plantae’ in my area and tried to get to genus or family, now I’ve tried to do something similar at things stuck at ‘common lichen’)

I think all of this is so personalizable, if you want to do spiders do spiders, or if you want to do birdsongs, or if you want to look at the mammals in your area, pick the thing that would make you excited as an identifier is my suggestion.

Edited to add: another fun thing to do is to use the similar species tab on the species page – sometimes this can give you a place to look for things commonly misidentified and something to aim to learn how to differentiate to go through the observations (differentiating viceroys from monarchs, or differentiating false milkweed bugs from large milkweed bugs)


I also have this set up for common data entry issues too – for example one for observations from before 1950 that catches a lot of incorrectly parsed or entered dates, another for observations at GPS point 0,0


Something that has been on my mind for a long time is having some place to capture and share the differentiating features of closely related or lookalike species. A lot of field guides with dichotomous keys rely on you being present next to the organism and being able to examine the easiest differentiating features (which often aren’t included in observations), or it being a particular time of year/stage (e.g. flower present). Looking through the technical descriptions on other websites is often not illuminating, since the important differentiating features are often not highlighted or even described. It has taken me a lot of work to track down such differentiating features for a relatively small number of plant species. But I find - once you know these features, it’s easy to speciate many observations!

Obviously in different geographies the range of potentially confusable species is also different, so I recognize such guides would have to be geographically specific. But wouldn’t it be neat if there was some sort of companion wiki where those of us who are not trained botanists or ecologists could share our (sometimes laboriously acquired) knowledge that would help others be able to identify, too? I.e. links off the “similar species” pages?


I think it’s a simple question with a complicated answer. I agree that for non-experts it’s probably best to stick to a local region, state, or even surrounding counties. Maybe starting with a group that are easily identifiable with not a huge number of possibilities if you have no prior experience, such as terrestrial mammals, or rodents, or just squirrels, or even just a single species. Really, it’s important to stick to what you’re confident in, wherever that may lie. Identification skills (in anything) are a skill like anything else and can be improved over time with effort.

The devil is kind of in the details here though. The easy groups tend to get the most attention. For example, I filter to all life in the three counties around me to ID things and even though I am the most experienced with birds I don’t bother since there are so many people that actively ID birds (well, and avoiding notifications for agreeing IDs on them, since many IDers in this group will add IDs to already RG observations). Plants are quite an undertaking, but they get much less attention on the site and in any given local area there are many that are easy to ID. There are a number of other groups on here that don’t get much attention too, that would help to have dedicated identifiers. Maybe it’s because they often aren’t photographed sufficiently for ID, but in my experience it seems there are very few identifiers of fungi and lichens on here.


Welcome to the forum!

Probably not best pracitice to do this all the time, but I like to make observations which compare two or more for reference later.

Some examples are:


Beware of iNat’s placeholder boobytrap.
Unfortunately iNat chooses to treat the placeholder text as temporary, and disappears it as soon as someone adds an ID.

I copypasta to a comment, if there is placeholder text. Maybe there was a tiny typo, or that species is not yet on iNat and needs to be flagged for curation.

Follow your notifications and iNat is a magical learning curve. CV is a useful tool, but you, still have to evaluate the ID as it appears under your name.


Start here: https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/useful-inaturalist-tasks-for-non-experts-wiki/35034/ and https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/in-need-of-your-mentorship-knowledge-coaching-new-members/33371

I definitely echo the advice to focus on your home county/state/province first and expand with more experience. For example, I have 45,000 identifications in New Mexico, or about 1/3 of my time on iNat.

The unknown ‘pile’ is a great place to practice sorting.

Next, you can pick a plant or animal group you’re interested in and review common species. Helianthus annus in North America - common sunflower - is a good one where you’ll learn what to look for in the flowers and leaves and which other species are commonly misidentified. Find resources like field guides or keys that you can cite if users have questions.


12,000 in two months! It took me 5 years to get that many.


I agree with a ton of whay you’re saying, but I also think that starting with the groups getting the most attention is fine for starting out. Eventually if people find they like IDing things, they seem to find their niche and groove!

And I think some of this depends on goals, like is your goal as an identifier to be better at identifying and differentiating the things you’re seeing around you? Is your goal to help with iNat data usability and quality? Is it to get more familiar with a taxa you think is awesome? Or is it something else? All those goals lend themselves to different activities I think, and all are valuable, in my opinion.


Ah, yes, I agree too! Sorry if it came off different, the second part of my post was in response to the end of OP’s message where they alluded to decreasing the number of needs IDs, but I wasn’t very clear about that. I agree that it can be beneficial for all the reasons you listed and more.


Check topics about unknowns and needs ids, that’s where it is discussed, right with your words.

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I didn’t see anyone mention it, but you can please start IDing your own observations! A lot of people just start uploading photos (some common, some don’t) and not giving even a general ID.

It helps the finding of groups/species by other people refining IDs and you can benefit as-well when IDers correct you and leave positive criticism (I’ve learned many species names like this).


I find those 12,000+ IDs very impressive! I keep trying to id myself from time to time but never get very far. I tried unknowns at first but it seems to mostly be blurry pictures of plants in my area (or something behind the plants?) so after staring at the picture for a few minutes I sometimes add “plant” or else just move on ignoring it - but it doesn’t seem very useful. And takes forever. So I switched to filtering for plants, but then always am disheartened by how hard it is (just like when iding my own observations) and end up spending a lot of time trying to key things out just to realize that the features required by the key are not in the picture and an actual expert is needed who knows about additional characteristics.


At least a third of all observation near my home are unknowns.

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I identify things that I know, for instance Water Oak, Groundsel Tree etc… and just about all birds.

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In my experience the best way to learn to ID is make observations. Go outside to a local wild area and find something that sparks your attention. Take some photos and learn how learn how to identify it. Learn what photos are needed for ids. Go back and get the ones you need. After posting the observation with luck you’ll also get assistance. The better the photos the better the chance of id. With more practice and more observations you get better at IDing those and then can take that knowledge at IDing other observations in your area. That will get you better at discriminating similar species. From there you can gradually spread your ID confident ID range with more practice. As long as you’re interested in learning more it’s not a grind at all.


When I ID I treat it like an SAT question. Is this one going to stump me? If so I move on to the next to perhaps come back to it. You’ll flow through a lot faster that way, although bashing your head here and there on a difficult to id observation can be good practice at times. There are plenty to go through. take your time. There’s no rush and we are all on our own journey. I like to think of the numbers of need IDs as less food on my plate that needs finishing and more like different episodes of a tv series I have left before it runs out.