What is the Best Way to Learn a Species?

Hello,

I was wondering, that I know I’m pretty new here and I do not want to step on the wrong toes, but what is the best way for someone to go about learning a specific species to the point that they know exactly what it’s? Not sure if this was the best place or the general forums.

I figured that a good percentage of people on the site (me included) just joined this for a hobby. But I like to help id things correctly.

What would be the best way to go about this? Sorry if this sounds worded weird.

Bookworm86.

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A good first step would be to look at as many pics as you can of that species (ones that you know are 100% ID’ed correctly). Then read some field guides/keys that actually lay out the defining characters in words :)

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And then go out and try to find and photograph as many as you can.

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I would add that you probably want to try and learn what species are commonly misidentified as your species, and how to tell them apart so you don’t make the same mistakes.

Personally though, I find it much more useful to be able to identify a family or genus by sight. You can always use guides or literature to make that last jump to species.

This also helps a lot with identifications on this site. If I can take an ID of “fish” and ID it as Chaetodontidae (butterflyfish), or even better, a Heniochus butterflyfish (or Bannerfish), it’s more likely to come to the attention of butterflyfish experts, who can refine the ID, even if I can’t do it myself.

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It depends on whether it is a common species or a rare species, and whether or not it can be identified via pictures alone.

Many common species of visually-oriented animals, like birds and butterflies, can be identified via pictures alone. Take a look at a lot of pictures, but also look for online field guides or identification guides which might tell you which species are commonly confused with that species and what the identifying characteristics are.

For some other species that aren’t as visual, including many reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates, you might need more specific information to ID them, including their known ranges or scale characteristics. Some of that information can be found on online field guides - check particularly to see if someone has created such a guide for your particular state. But not all of the information is necessarily there - especially for rare or recently described species, the best thing to do is to find the paper that defined the species and/or any papers giving identification keys which include that species. For reptiles it’s easiest to check the species page at http://www.reptile-database.org/ for relevant papers, for amphibians check http://research.amnh.org, you can also search researchgate.net, academia.edu, and Google Scholar.

Of course, the other thing you can always do is ask. Who is an expert on the species you are interested in? Ask them how they identify it.

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Did you have any particular species in mind? If you post the name here, maybe someone will give tips specific to that species.

I agree that learning the families can help a lot. If you are interested in plants start with these families: daisy (Asteraceae), orchid (Orchidaceae), legume (Fabaceae)

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I didn’t have any particular species in mind.

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I’d focus on a geographic area of interest and learn common and important species. Most of what is entered into iNat for plants is the 10% of species that are most common in a given area so if you learn those well you can help a lot and leave tricky ones for experts.

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If I can’t find a field guide, I would use Inaturalist to review other species of the same genus or family that have already been observed in the broader geographic area of interest (e.g., northern part of Europe). Then I would just go ahead and ID a few new (though not too many) observations of my species, adding “?” or “not sure” as comment. I would not be too afraid of making mistakes, since it is difficult to become an expert without making some. Getting corrected is a chance to learn and getting better.

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Ok, I think I will focus on the general areas that I visit frequently ;).

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I agree!

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I’d be happy to help you learn some plants, although it may be more or less helpful depending on where you are located.

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The easiest way to misidentify something is to identify to species-level in a group whose biodiversity you are not fully familiar with. Knowing the diagnostic criteria of one species doesn’t mean that there isn’t overlap with other taxa. Start at the highest taxonomic level that you are completely confident in and work your way down as far as possible. Never guess and never assume. An accurate family level ID is always preferable to a guess at species or genus.

And take the information in field guides and on here with a grain of salt. Both are often filled with erroneous or out of date information. If you want accuracy, consult the peer-reviewed literature or consult a taxonomist.

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The peer reviewed literature is often out of date too with the added bonus of often being massively expensive to access. And taxonomy always changes. I’d suggest newbies just skip the groups with up in the air or difficult taxonomy. You can always learn later as you gain experience

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Yes, in most groups (families, genera) of plants or animals there are some that are easy to identify, some that require effort, and some that are impossible. We can’t always expect a satisfactory outcome!

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(My remarks are with plants in mind, because my primary interest is botany.) When you have succeeded in identifying a plant using books, keys, etc. don’t stop there. Try to become familiar enough that you will recognize it when you only have a sample without fruits or flowers, or a poor photograph. Not always possible, but with experience it often is. It is good to walk the same trails in different seasons, so you can watch seedlings become mature plants, flowers become seeds, etc. Before long you are recognizing dry brown or gray leafless stems coming out of the snow!

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I strongly disagree with this in the context of this topic. One of the best ways to learn a species is to do a bit of research, make your best guess, and end up wrong. Spoiler: it happens to all of us. The community of IDers on iNaturalist is great about providing helpful ID tips when you ask, or listing some reference material so you can do your own studying.

So if you get it wrong and someone corrects you, don’t feel bad about it, don’t be afraid to ask them where you went wrong, and you’ll learn quite a bit.

There’s a lot more on identification etiquette here: Identification Etiquette on iNaturalist - Wiki

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Somewhere, there is an old, but still functioning ‘test your ID skills’ tool the site built. Maybe @charlie can remember where it and share the link. I remember him commenting on it.

The one caveat is that it could sometimes be frustrating when you ID something (correctly), but the observer had a different species in the photo in mind.

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In the context of iNat, I think this is dubious advice. Encouraging new and inexperienced users to be wrong only degrades the quality of this site. Ask questions first… find answers… then begin to identify. If you can’t find an answer, don’t make the identification at that taxonomic level. Keep searching the literature, keep consulting experts until you figure it out. Species-level is not the gold standard of being a naturalist. Accuracy is what should be the ultimate goal.

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I began to learn the species in my area that were of interest to me by obtaining field guides to the regional fauna and flora. Spent many hours studying those. Obviously getting out into the field and seeing animals and plants, and keeping notes on what you saw, are equally important, especially if you can team up with more experienced naturalists who can provide tips on identification. Mentors played a big role in my learning.

Much of my learning was in the days before the internet and smartphones, when you had to carry field guides and film cameras with you … those modern resources are huge additions to nature education.

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