What is an observation?

Subtle. I wouldn’t have noticed without your tip off, but since it’s your observation and you knew when you created it that it contains two different individuals, I’d say you either have to split it, or remove the photo of the male bird.

I agree with that statement, but not the one about the single bird changing trees. Good thing I’m a plant person, and we don’t have that problem!


I think you’ve missed the qualifiers above - the question seems to be is this “valid” in the sense that this is an acceptable observation to achieve Research Grade.

My rule of thumb for this sort of thing is that if it’s reasonable to assume the same individual is present throughout all of the photos, then it’s fine if other individuals are present in some or all photos. For example, Photo #1 is just Individual A, Photo #2 is Individual A and Individual B, and Photo #3 is Individual A and Individual C, then I think it’s fine for that to be a Research Grade observation for Individual A.

In @cmcheatle’s example, you could say this is fine because the male is technically in all of the photos (albeit blurred in the background), but I think the point they were trying to illustrate was the situation where Photo #1 is Individual A, Photo #2 is Individual B, and Photo #3 is both.

In Mirko’s defense, I added the qualifiers after he replied, as I was concerned about how he may have interpreted valid.

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Fair enough. If the purpose of the case is to call the rules -as written- into question, then perhaps the observation is not valid in that sense.

It certainly is valid in the sense of how I see people submit observations in practice. The observation would be accepted as RG without question by anybody not actively evaluating the rules.

I stand by my statement that there is no objective need to single out this observation for any purpose other than your own. Cases that could be considered edge, like this one, are certainly a much smaller problem that confirmation bias and the rampant uncritical acceptance of the AI. Those are not the topic of this thread, of course.

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This thread was actually spun out of this one https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/use-computer-vision-to-annotate-observations/3331/12 which was about having the AI do more work in terms of not just identiying species, but annotation level characteristics of the photos, and what do you when observations have more than 1 photo or individual. That is just a different form of tacit acceptance of the AI.

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I think in practice I generally make observations as if they are defined as “an encounter with a species at a particular time and location”, because I will include in one observation photos which I know are of multiple different individuals of the same species in one area (similar to @cmcheatle’s Yellow Warbler example).
I guess I could submit each photo separately, but it seemed a bit silly, sort of as an extension of the 200 ducks example.


wait, by this logic i can’t add a plant with both male and female flowers even if they are the same individual. That doesn’t make any sense. Most photos have multiple organisms visible anyway and maybe i am just misunderstanding something but i don’t see how the bird could be disqualified from RG because there’s another blurry bird in the background

I think it is because there are multiple photos. Photo 1 has bird A (with bird B blurry in the background), implying that bird A is the focus of the observation. Photo 2 has bird B with no bird A present. Now what? Which “individual organism” is the observation for?

It seems to be ambivalent. According to the rule stated in the opening post of this thread, it is invalid because it contains multiple individuals. However, there is another rule which states that “iNat observations record one taxon at one place and time”. So, since your observation only records one species, it is also valid.

The next question is: what exactly is an individual/taxon? Are composite organisms like lichen two species (and therefore two individuals), or one? How many individuals should be counted for modular/colonial organisms? There is obviously no clear-cut answer to these sorts of questions, so iNat’s “rules” seem to be unenforceable for the general case.

ah so the equivalent would be more than i take a photo of one trillium plant, walk 2 feet down the trail, take another photo of a different plant because it shows some other diagnostic feature or something and add them both to the same observation. I guess i see that as technically kind of fuzzy or in a grey area but certainly not worth worrying about. I’ve done it.


I do it too. But there is always the possibility, despite our belief that they are the same species, that they might turn out to be different species!

For what it’s worth, I think an observation is the recording of someone having noticed (encountered) another living thing. It is a place (in the observation view) to find out what that other living thing is, and to partake in discussions about it. Just as I could be walking through the bush with a friend, and point something out and ask if she knows what it is, and even though she doesn’t know the name, she might tell me that her Mother used to use it as a tonic for upset stomachs… so too in iNat we are walking through the bush with hundreds upon thousands of people, many of whom CAN tell us the name, and with the name we can learn even more about that thing. And we meet people that have a scientific interest in those type of living things, and sometimes our observations (or answers given to questions) help in forming a clearer scientific understanding of these things.

to me, the scientific data is just a bonus, a wonderful side effect derived from empowering people to record their encounters with the natural world. The gold for me is in being able to see the world through other peoples observations. Being introduced to the fauna and flora, of being able to learn about what they do and how they “fit” into the complex web of nature. When someone posts an observation, I see a window into the world they live in, of the things they value and deem worthy of being noticed by others.


If you had specified the sex as male it would be invalid as it’s not in all three photos. The sex was left open so it is an observation of the female bird. I have photos with insects and plants together. Should the insect be out of focus in one of the photos it doesn’t make it invalid as an insect observation IMO. Insect-plant is more different, IMO, than male-female.

I also have seen pictures with several different waterfowl. As long as the user can get close enough so that confusion doesn’t abound(Aves would be a bad start point), they are fine. The web app actually has a duplicate option for cases where multiple possible subjects are present in a photo.

I’m torn on this one if the bird is rare and not commonly seen I’ve been known to spilt of the observation as male and female but 90 percent of the I post them together and leave a comment

I think your survey wording was a bit biased ;) so:

Example: I take two photos of two different birds, one male/one female, at the same time and place.

In an ideal world, this would record:

  • Two observations: one of a male and one of a female
  • One observation: sex is not recorded

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I’m not keen on getting into technicalities like if gender is recorded etc, lots of people don’t do it, and then how do you deal with cases like for a significant percentage of species where gender can’t be visually differentiated? For example if my sample case had been Blue Jays?

I wanted to focus on the basic question - does an observation report one and only one individual?


I don’t think there should be any expectation that an observation represents a single organism. Indeed, what represents a single organism isn’t always even easy to tell in plants!

For plants I will often take photos of a few individuals within a small area, in order to get nice photos of several features (flower, fruits, leaves, and growth form), which you often can’t get from a single individual.

My general rule of thumb for combining multiple individual organisms would be:

  • If you aren’t confident individuals are of the same species, split

  • If you’ve traveled more than, say, 20 m (less strict for mobile organisms like butterflies and birds), split

  • If you’ve left the organism and come back, split

  • If there’s some unique feature between the individuals that is worth distinguishing, split

  • Otherwise, no problem with combining


It gets even murkier with fungi, where “the individual” is more often than not invisible, and many observers are unaware of it. A blanket rule of what is a “proper observation” doesn’t appear useful.

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I think @upupa-epops has the right idea: an observation is of a single species at a particular location and time. If it’s a single individual, then there’s no difference. If there are multiple species present, then the observation has to be of one of them, so one photo with two species would have to be duplicated to get IDs for both, and an observation with two photos which don’t show the same species must be split before it can be ID’d to species. If there are multiple individuals of the same species, then there’s no particular reason for the observation to be invalid. Indeed, having multiple individuals of the same species can aid ID, as in the example, where males and females look different. I know of several genuses where the females of a couple of species are nearly indistinguishable, and it’s very valuable to have a photo of a nearby male to help ID her.

Pushing the boundaries of this a bit, there are a couple of cases where I photographed too many individuals of a species I know well within a few minutes and a few meters of each other, so rather than post a dozen observations, I just merged them into one. I think these are valid observations. The only reason I’d split them would be if someone came along and pointed out that I’d mistakenly included an individual of the wrong species.

https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/16320228 (Monarch caterpillars)
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/22256455 (Chinese Mantis egg cases)

In the egg-case case (ha!), I don’t have a clue how many individuals are in each photograph. Presumably ~100 each.

Here is my take at the moment ;)

Possibly widening the breadth a little to encompass things such as scat, fur, feathers, other remains, tracks, and etc:
An observation is the evidence of the presence of life preferably recorded in the form of an image or sound with the specification of time and place.

A stimulus resulted in that record. That record can just be that unto itself or can have a purpose or give a result on its own or in combination with other records.

The stimulus is multifactorial and can be impulsive, planned, automated, reactive, academic, non-academic, and etc.

The purpose and/or result is/are also multifactorial with additional evidence of behavior/interaction, habitat, growth, individual, difference, scale, morphology, rerproduction, range, persistance, posture, gregariousness, group dynamic, visibility, blend/camouflage , diet, checklist, and etc.

Because of the multifactorial nature, observations are difficult to define from one person to the next and from one moment to the next.