What makes a sighting casual and other related questions?

I ask this after several instances I’ve had with iNat and I’m not sure how to resolve, learn or react to it. Thought this would be a good place to ask.

What makes a sighting casual. For animals, I think that’s pretty simple. If it is owned by somebody like a dog or macaw, it’s easy to distinguish what is captive. I think the fine line is an exotic duck pond or escapees.

I’ve had a little more trouble distinguish what I would call cultivated though with plants. For example, I have my yard. In my backyard is a young ponderosa pine, a native species to my town. I’m assuming its cultivated but it’s a native species, right? Still counts? And what about my birch trees. Well they grow by the canal so I’m assuming they’re naturally there. The old Blue Spruce? It’s cultivated but established so therefore, a countable tree. However my garden of rose bushes and irises I count as cultivated as I have to tend to them all the time. What’s the extent of the whole cultivated casual mark. If I take a pic of a little maple growing in the median of Wal-Mart’s parking lot, is it not going to be research graded?

My final question and it goes back to animals. Last week, I took a pic of a gopher snake I removed off the road after being ran over by the driver in front of me. The pic shows the snake in the grass and guess what, someone said captive/cultivated (I don’t know who it was) and not my sighting is marked casual. How can it be captive from a dozen miles away from the closest human settlement? Plus, it means not a lot or if even people are going to see that sighting and fix the mistake. Any suggestions?


Well… I would put the snake as wild, myself…

It can be difficult, as there are a lot of grey areas when it comes to captive/cultivated. It is handled in iNat democratically, ie we each get a vote and it is the majority view of all who apply their votes. In the DQA section at the bottom of the observation is a list of things you can set, such as “invalid date” or “location inaccurate”, and these “votes” will impact on whether the observation qualifies as Research Grade. To be honest, don’t even worry about whether it is RG or Casual… as both types are used by data users. There has been a bit of discussion around renaming the categories.

If you aren’t happy with what someone has put on your observation, particularly with regards to DQAs and IDs, then the best course of action is to start a dialog with them! They will either explain their reasons, or will realise yours and change their DQA/ID. I call these situations “learning opportunities”… it’s just a question of who will be doing the learning :)

One last point, here in the forum we can’t easily see what you are seeing, so it helps to include links to observations etc so that we can take a look.


Last week, I took a pic of a gopher snake I removed off the road after being ran over by the driver in front of me. The pic shows the snake in the grass and guess what, someone said captive/cultivated (I don’t know who it was) and not my sighting is marked casual.

Is this the observation you mean? It’s marked Casual because there is no observation date specified, which you can see at the bottom on the right:

The below items are needed to achieve Research Grade:

  • Date specified
  • Has ID supported by two or more

The question about plants is well discussed here, you can find multiple threads by searching for cultivated etc, if I were not on my mobile I would do the search for you.

The iNat rule is straightforward, but not universally supported. If a plant was planted by a human, regardless of if it was last week or 200 years ago, it is cultivated. If it is the naturally occurring offspring of a human planted individual it is wild. The challenge is understanding which your individual is, and different folks have different standards for the burden of proof.

The criteria is not how it is surviving, rather how it got there.


I hope iNat will eventually change these categories of captive and cultivated. While I totally understand cmcheatle’s definition of cultivated, it doesn’t mean I can get my brain to figure the logic.

I have little tomato plants that pop up all over the yard. Probably because some bird or squirrel has dragged off a ripe fruit. But in my mind, all of these tomato plants have come from tomatoes that I planted, which hardly makes them wild(in my opinion). In my yard “wild” is “what the heck is that and how did it get there?”

Now “cultivated” seems to be treated with some indifference to researchers, I guess. But personally I see them as holding interesting data all on their own. Many of my cultivated plants are not meant to grow in my location and yet they are thriving quite well with no intervention from me.

I think the bottomline comes down to the true purpose of iNat. If it is to get people out and observe and take pictures of the things around you then casual or wild, really shouldn’t matter, but that is just my opinion.


I personally view the logic behind the current definition as: “is the organism able to reproduce in this location without human intervention?”

For plants, in theory the official iNaturalist standard is whether the tree is “planted”.

I find this standard is problematic for several reasons:

  • It’s buried deep in the documentation and is not presented in a clear or unambiguous way to all users. I actively searched for an extensive definition and full explanation for weeks without fully finding it.
  • It’s not expanded in the documentation with extensive examples about how to handle border cases (what if people plant seeds but the seeds germinate on their own? what if a plant comes up on its own but you transplant it a short distance? what if you casually throw down seeds but don’t actually plant them, and they then germinate and get established?)
  • It is not at all clear how to handle situations where you don’t know or it isn’t clear whether or not a plant is planted. (what if you plant seeds but it is not clear whether a particular plant is from seeds you planted vs. seeds distributed by natural processes? what if the tree is at the border of an overgrown area where wild forest has overtaken landscaping and it’s not clear whether a particular tree was originally planted or not? what if you find a very old, long-lived species where the history of the site is unknown, as is common for example with oaks in residential neighborhoods that may have been planted long ago but also could pre-date houses. also note that many trees in residential neighborhoods are volunteers but that people tend to keep trees that come up in places that make them LOOK planted, and you can’t always tell whether something was planted by looking at it)

Yet another unrelated problem is that iNat seems to assume things “wild by default” and rely on the DQA for reporting things not wild. Often, the original observer is the one who has access to the most information because they were the only one who was on the site…so a user coming through after the fact is going to only be going off the photograph…they’re going to be even less knowledgeable than the original observer about whether or not the plant in question was planted.

Basically…there are several problems here. One is that the criterion is ill-defined. A second one is that it’s often unobservable and unknowable. Yet the field allows no gray area.

I’m one of the people who thinks the current way of handling it is inadequate, and I feel strongly about this. As far as I’m concerned, with the status quo the data is as good as useless and if I were doing a study based on the data I would throw out that field in my research and, if necessary, use other criteria (like possibly location and species) to determine whether or not something were wild or not.

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i can’t really ever figure out people who continue to complain that iNat is useless or the data is useless but continue using it. Why would you waste time on something you think is useless? Didn’t you create some other website that does something similar to iNat (which presumably you like how it works… i would hope) anyway? I guess i just don’t get the point of these repeated posts about this.

The current system is imperfect but the only real issue I see is that cultivated plants are dumped into casual instead of some parallel version of ‘research grade’. Other than that… it’s dirty, messy data because it’s a huge project for people of any level of expertise. The data is always going to be messy. Clarifying for edge cases could help more, seeing as the question always comes up, but dramatic reform to how this works (like making people select wild manually or creating a bunch of grey area options within the existing functionality) is not going to happen given the inertia the site has, and honestly, probably shouldn’t. I see that you are trying something more complex on your site, and it will be interesting to see if that works out well, and maybe if it does someday iNat will move in that direction. But it also may just be too complex for all but the most devoted users most concerned about grades of ‘wildness’… Meanwhile it’s probably more useful for you to keep working on that, rather than continually making these repetitive posts here and trying to ‘rally’ new users to… i don’t know what… like inaturalist less? use your site instead? I guess i don’t understand what you are trying to do here and probably others don’t either.


Repetitive posts? It says - this is the first time …

that post was supposed to be replying to Cazort’s post. It seems like maybe i didn’t do that right. I apologize for how somehow i continue to constantly be confused by how this site works despite how much i use it…

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To add to this great explanation, you can always see which users have applied votes in the DQA section by clicking the little number in parentheses next to each option. That only appears when there are votes.

In this case, it looks like the DQA for your Gopher Snake has no votes and the cause of the “casual” designation is the lack of observation date information.

It is an annoying quirk of how discourse works, in that if you reply to a post and your reply appears immediately after theirs (ie no-one else has replied yet), then it doesn’t put the reply indicator at the top right of your post. @charlie likely did everything right.

@cazort 's views on data usefulness have been expressed before :) and for the most part, I think he has some valid points. And yes, he probably has some bias in his viewpoints, and yes, there may be a natural tendency to be very impressed with his own approach regarding a lot of these issues.

The problem as I see it, is we have a lot of new forum users coming on board, and they inevitably ask the same questions, which are questions WE asked when we first signed up, oh so long ago… so yes, we do keep seeing the same answers trotted out, because we still have our different opinions on a lot of these unresolved issues. Perhaps it might help if those of us that do find ourselves re-answering the same questions that we know will be contentious, to add a rider to our replies, something along the lines of “these are my opinions, and I know others have different views”.

On the casual/cultivated, I’m a fan of keeping it simple, but the system as it is not ideal. Maybe we get rid of casual/cultivated and let the scientists go through and determine for themselves when they use the data? Or maybe we just treat as any indication that a human has been involved in this getting here to where it is, mark it “INTERFERED WITH”… if it’s a seedling beside an obviously planted one, then there would be indication that it got there with the help of a human… would work for me!


Ok, so it wasn’t just me being incompetent, it also didn’t add the reply thing for that reason.

I think answering the same questions is inevitable, but having the same arguments with the same people over the same stuff again and again is not very useful. I know i’ve been a repeat offender of that too, but it’s something I am trying to avoid. But when someone keeps railing on about how awful the site and data is and how much they can’t stand it, but they keep using it, it seems more likely they are trying to ruin it for others than that they are actually trying to help or be a part of the community.

There’s a little guide to this at the bottom of each observation and on the Help page:

It explains the difference between the terms “Casual”, “Needs ID”, “Research Grade”, and “verifiable”.

The Data Quality Assessment is a summary of an observation’s accuracy, completeness, and suitability for sharing with data partners. The building block of iNaturalist is the verifiable observation. A verifiable observation is an observation that:

  • has a date
  • is georeferenced (i.e. has lat/lon coordinates)
  • has photos or sounds
  • isn’t of a captive or cultivated organism

Verifiable observations are labeled “Needs ID” until they either attain Research Grade status, or are voted to Casual via the Data Quality Assessment.

Observations become “Research Grade” when

  • the community agrees on species-level ID or lower , i.e. when more than 2/3 of identifiers agree on a taxon

Observations will revert to “Casual” if the conditions for Verifiable aren’t met or

  • the community agrees the date doesn’t look accurate
  • the community agrees the location doesn’t look accurate (e.g. monkeys in the middle of the ocean, captive/collected organisms observed inside a building but unlikely to have been found there naturally, etc.)
  • the community agrees the organism isn’t wild/naturalized (e.g. captive or cultivated by humans or intelligent space aliens)
  • the community agrees the observation doesn’t present evidence of an organism , e.g. images of landscapes, water features, rocks, etc.
  • the community agrees the observation doesn’t present recent (~100 years) evidence of the organism (e.g. fossils, but tracks, scat, and dead leaves are ok)
  • the community agrees the observation no longer needs an ID and the community ID is above family
  • the observer has opted out of the community ID and the community ID taxon is not an ancestor or descendant of the taxon associated with the observer’s ID

And of course there are even more caveats and exceptions:

  • “Research Grade” observations will become “Needs ID” if the community ID shifts above the species-level
  • “Research Grade” observations will become “Needs ID” if the community votes that it needs more IDs
  • Observations can be “Research Grade” at the genus level if the community agrees on a genus-level ID and votes that the observation does not need more IDs
  • The system will vote that the observation is not wild/naturalized if there are at least 10 other observations of a genus or lower in the smallest county-, state-, or country-equivalent place that contains this observation and 80% or more of those observations have been marked as not wild/naturalized.

Paragraph 18 of the Help page referenced by @bouteloua addresses the cultivated issue, and has examples.

I suppose my question would be, does it matter if the observation obtains Research Grade? Research Grade is not an award (although it does look like one, so I understand, and the term itself is problematic - which has been discussed elsewhere), it’s simply a label that is applied to an observation when it meets certain criteria.

If an observation reaches RG status, that’s great, but in my opinion it shouldn’t be the main goal of posting an observation to iNat. Post observations that interest you, that excite you, that you want to share and talk about with others. Mark them appropriately to the best of your abilities, and understand that iNat’s focus (and thus the community’s likely focus) is on wild organisms.

I can’t stress this enough. iNat is a community first, so talk to other people about their reasoning rather than assume (although assume good intentions, of course). People often have a good reason or have made a mistake and are happy to correct it. Remember, iNat is a community first and foremost. I like to think about every observation as the start of a discussion, and the IDs and comments further that discussion.

I’m not convinced adding a bunch of edge cases to the FAQ (which, I agree, is a bit hard to find) will help things. In the end, those cases will be always judgement calls and I think having a discussion about the particular case on the observation would be best. And in the end, anyone who wants to use the data can make their own judgement or reach out to the observer. It’s never going to be perfect, especially on a platform that, as Charlie says, covers the gamut of amateur to expert around the world.


I agree. As soon as you illustrate one set of edge cases, all that happens is the edge moves, and you need to illustrate a whole bunch more new edge cases. Same story for adding other categories besides wild/cultivated… all it does is add complexity without solving the problem, because we will always find exceptions or grey areas. As far as I can see it, adding a third option “this is a grey area” would be the only option that has a net gain, but even then, the current situation of just vote one way or the other and let the system sort it out is actually perfectly fine!


I handle wild vs cultivated pretty straightforward: if it was planted with intent (in a yard, garden, border, etc), it’s cultivated (after all, that’s what the word means). If it has appeared on its own with no human intent, whether it arrived in the area by anthropogenic means or not, it’s wild.
In my area, there are some “grey areas” that I treat as wild although they were planted with intent: those are any area that the USDA has paid a farmer to plant or a conservation society has planted native prairie grasses & flowers for habitat restoration. I consider them not cultivated because after initial seeding, they are left alone to do as they will and should in their native environment.
Equally, were I still in the PNW, I would treat re-planted forests (which is virtually ALL of them, since the area has been logged for centuries) as wild.


Omitting discussion of edge cases in the documentation doesn’t make sense to me.

If the edge cases are not discussed in a FAQ or official documentation, there will be nothing for even the most conscientious users (such as myself, I would definitely read these FAQS in detail) to refer to, reference, or use as a guideline or standard in these cases.

What will likely happen under your recommendation (to resolve it by discussion, without official clarification in the documentation) is that the consensus reached will be left to the whims of the particular user(s) engaged in the discussion. And, from conversing about these topics repeatedly in the forums here, I have seen that there are a range of different views on how people would handle this. There could thus be wildly different conclusions in the data for different observations.

In my experience these edge cases are very common and actually make up a huge portion of the plants I and others report, because many iNat reports of plants are either from small wild areas adjacent to parks and gardens, or plants in parks, gardens, or landscaping themselves. Like, as a concrete example, the semi-wild area directly adjacent to my apartment complex is a mix of plants I and others have planted / transplanted as whole plants, ones we have planted seeds of and/or casually thrown down of, and volunteer plants that came up totally on their own. In many cases it is impossible to know what is what just by looking at a particular plant.

If I were a researcher using the data, I wouldn’t like this. I can think of a long list of reasons why the “wildness” of an organism would be relevant to scientific study…for example, studying the degree to which an organism is able to germinate or survive in a particular region and/or in various habitats.

These “semi-wild” habitats have come to dominate the landscape in a huge portion of the country, as urbanization, suburbanization, and agriculture have taken up more and mroe of the land. I think these issues are only going to become more important over time.

And I don’t see what would be lost by adding discussion of edge cases to the FAQ or official documentation.

This question has come up repeatedly in the iNat forums, see here, here, here, and here, and it bewilders me the resistance to addressing these questions. Isn’t a FAQ for addressing questions that are asked frequently?


This blurb you wrote brings up some really important issues.

“Should” do well and “will” do well is not the same.

I work frequently with ecological restoration projects. I’ve seen my own through start to finish, worked on my own ongoing ones, consulted on ones carried out mostly by others, and visited and helped maintain earlier projects carried out by others.

I see a consistent pattern that when people do ecological restoration in an area, some of the plants they try to establish do get established, whereas others struggle and die out.

There is often a lot of useful information contained in this process.

For example, there is a meadow near my apartment complex that is mowed once a year. I’ve planted Rudbeckia hirta in it, and I saw it bloom spectacularly and produce abundant seed. But when I’ve tried seeding the same species into it, it often doesn’t germinate. The plants that produced abundant seed have spread out of the meadow and into other areas, but they don’t seem to persist in the meadow, either not germinating or for some reason getting out-competed by other vegetation when they do. I also have seen Conoclinium coelestinum survive and even thrive for a couple years, only to die or get out-competed. Other plants, like various Solidago sp, Bidens sp, or Verbesinia alternifolia, have become dominant and spread.

There can also be “sink” populations where…if there is a nearby seed source, the plant will be found in the area, but it won’t flower and seed all that well, so over time it will die out. Source and sink populations are really common in ecology because seed volume can be an important factor in competition, and seed production can be wildly different on different sites.

There is really useful information in knowing which plants are planted or possibly planted vs. which ones were seeded or possibly seeded vs. which ones are true wild plants.

One of the reasons I would want to contribute to iNaturalist is to help scientists, people doing ecological restoration, and people track these things.

The way iNat works currently, it lacks the ability to report or accurately track these things enough for me to answer some of the key questions that would be most relevant to me in my work.

I think ecological restoration is critically important and I don’t see why we wouldn’t at least want to make it possible for people to report their observations with more detail in such a way that would make it possible for people to gain this sort of information.