What makes a sighting casual and other related questions?

There’s a little guide to this at the bottom of each observation and on the Help page:
https://www.inaturalist.org/pages/help#quality

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.
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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.

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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!

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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.

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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?

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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.

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plants I and others have planted: not wild
transplanted as whole plants: not wild
ones we have planted seeds of: not wild
seeds casually thrown down: not wild
volunteer plants that came up totally on their own: wild

This is what descriptions, tags, comments, and observation fields are for.

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This makes some sense, but…these distinctions are based on information that in most cases is not observable and in many cases is not even knowable.

This is one reason why I wish there were a field for “unknown” or “unsure”.

Leaving these unknown cases to arbitrary flagging by users who might have different guesses as to what the correct answer might be doesn’t seem like a good option.

And the point I have been trying to make for some time is that these unknown or unknowable cases can be a huge portion of total observations in some areas.

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I don’t think this is an adequate solution because, if I were a researcher trying to use the data, I wouldn’t be able to filter or refine it and instead would be manually reading through every record, which would be impractical.

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I suggest trying out observation fields with a particular goal in mind and starting a separate topic if you have questions about how to search and filter them.

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I’m pretty sure there is not currently any way to report this info the way I want beyond just as extra text, and unless it’s made into an official field, it won’t be reflected in the data. An overwhelming majority of users just leave that field blank anyway (it’s handled as part of the Data Quality Assessment) so there won’t really be any way for me to search it if the data isn’t there.

I was talking about this more in a forward-looking way, like “Here’s how I would ideally like things to be in the future, and here is why I think this is important and would be beneficial to me in the cases where I would be looking to use this for research.”

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The Ponderosa pine, it would be a personal judgement call if you don’t know whether or not someone planted it.
The birch trees, again, depends on if they look like they were planted (spaced equidistant apart, etc.) Or if they look like they took sprout naturally (often many trees right next to each other).
The Old blue spruce, if it was planted by a person EVER, is cultivated.
The tree in a median of a parking lot was likely planted by a human, so would be cultivated. If it were an obvious thing that WAS NOT PLANTED, just sprouted up on it’s own, it would be wild. You have to look at things like the other plants in the area, are they all about the same size (indication of cultivated)? Are they native to the area? Was it a native plant that was planted by a human? A native plant put there by a human is still cultivated.

But I agree with the poster that said most all forests are second-growth, and they still count as wild. In many cases it’s obvious that the loggers didn’t “plant” these trees, there’s way too many Cottonwood and Maple (easier to spread) trees. There’s also plenty of fruit trees along the old railroad tracks that are there from people eating fruit and tossing the pit or rind off the train, and they established themselves. I would count those as wild, because they weren’t planted there intentionally.

When it comes right down to it, there are very, very few areas in any country that have not been, at some point, altered by human contact with regards to both plants and animals. Consider: by the purest definition (not anthropogenically introduced) a volunteer corn plant “sown” by a seed dropped by a crow out in the wilderness still could not be called wild because corn itself is an anthropogenic creation. Here in Iowa there are “ditch lilies” (orange daylilies), “ditch weed” (hemp grade cannibis), “wild asparagus”, and “wild cotton” that are all naturalized introduced plant species from historical crops.

Further complications arrise from the research perspective from the fact that anything marked casual is not set forward for the community to confirm identification of. And just because I might be able to determine it was anthropogenically introduced doesn’t mean I know with any certainty WHAT IT IS.

Using animals to “check” the definition of “anthropogenically introduced,” what is a re-introduced population of wolves in Idaho where they were literally dropped off at? Is it truly wild? What about the pack that expanded out of the re-introduction are into Washington or Oregon? Are THEY wild?

I can see a very valid space for “unknown,” AND “introduced: wild.”

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  • established plants of old introduction = archaeophytes. Archeophytes are considered as true aliens by many researchers while, in other contexts, they have been equated to native species but this latter approach can be hardly agreed with.

  • plants that are well known as native in the whole country or in at least part of it but, at the same time, they are also cultivated and escaped from cultivation = “alien in”. In the case the presence in the wild of a species in a certain area is well known as the result of human activities (reforestations, gardening, etc…), this species is native where its presence is certainly due only to natural processes and alien where it has been introduced by humans.

  • plants or animals which are doubtfully native (or doubtfully alien) in a given area = cryptogenic.

Anyway, the issue of casual vs non-casual observations is not related to the native vs alien species.

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The rules are actually pretty clear. It doesn’t mean it’s easy to know what category something falls into. But the rules are clear. I think what we have here is someone who doesn’t like the rules which is a whole other issue, but one that’s pretty off topic from what this thread is supposed to be about.

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The rules may be clear, but the “what ifs” are endless. Many “what ifs” just generate another “what if” so until you can somehow solve the “what if” problem it will continue. Personally I don’t see how you solve the what if problem, and that’s sort of what makes interesting points of view.

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I may just be a stupid non-plant person, but I really dont see the value of having an ‘I don’t know’ option here. How does this add value beyond it being left incomplete ?

The default on the site is to assume wild, you are only supposed to mark it as cultivated if you believe there is clear evidence that it has been planted. If someone marks your sighting as cultivated, and you disagree that the evidence is there, vote the opposite.

You will never solve the ‘what if’s’. A long professional history of data management and IT work has taught me nothing if not that ‘my case is unique, and not handled by your rules/system etc’ is ubiquitous as a sentiment.

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I hope this doesn’t appear off topic or argumentative, as neither are my intent.

I feel a bit like it is forgotten somewhere in this conversation that a large number of iNat users, especially thanks to the mobile apps, are not scientists. They, themselves are casual observers that are simply wanting to find out, “what is this thing I found/see?” They may not even know there is a forum, or wish to participate in “the community” beyond contributing photos of what they see. And they very probably have NO CLUE if something fits the definition of “cultivated” unless it is in a garden/yard/landscsping or farm field.

To these people, “RG” is, quite literally, “I am confirming this is what you found.” It’s not a “badge,” it is the answer to their question. Because casual observations are not seen/bothered with by others, the community loses both potentially important observations the casual user might make and the user themselves that may, over time, LEARN about the purpose and process and become scientific-minded observers.

I know this because that was me. While I am a sciency person, my area is anthropology; I arrived at iNat wanting to know what the plants in my new yard were. I don’t know a good answer to the situation, but I do know that the way the system treats casual observations is the root of much of the grief over casual vs not.

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Well said.