When suggesting IDs--should they all be very confident, or is reasonably confident sometimes enough?

Greetings everyone;

I’m fairly new to iNaturalist and I’m really enjoying it–I’ve always loved animals, but it’s amazing how much lives right in my own backyard, unnoticed until I knew where to look!

That being said, due to my newness, I had a question about iNaturalist “etiquette.” Usually when I suggest an ID, I’m 99% confident it is whatever I’m suggesting (I’m pretty well versed in NYS Frogs & Toads). Sometimes, however, I come across an observation that I THINK might be something, but I’m not 100% sure on. In those cases, is it more helpful to suggest an ID or to leave it to the pros?

-> I’ve seen a few uploads of things like lichens and insects by highly experienced users who seem to know what they’re talking about when they ID them. I’m not 100% myself, but if it looks agreeable I’ll usually second it to help get it into viable data form. Is this good–helping making it useful to researchers, when it might not get a second agreeable ID otherwise for a long while–or bad, because I’m “certifying” something without actually being sure of it?
-> Another observation I saw recently I was fairly sure was a swallowtail caterpillar of some sort, so I put it under “butterflies.” Turns out it was a sawfly larva! Would it have been better to leave it alone or is it good to put out suggestions? In this one


Good questions! Personally I take to heart the phrase “suggest an identification.” If I’m the first one identifying an observation (one of mine or someone else’s), I feel OK submitting my best guess even if I’m not sure. Someone can always disagree. BUT, once an ID has been proposed, I would not suggest seconding it just because the first person sounds authoritative. Your confirming ID should have knowledge behind it. (There’s been a whole discussion on this topic, and most users appear to agree that it’s not good practice to second an ID just based on your faith in the person.) If you think you agree but aren’t sure, there are many ways you can check yourself before committing – including look at the taxon page or just do a google search for more images to compare. For your sawfly example, I think what you did is fine. It got the observation some attention, an eventual good ID, and best of all, you got to learn in the process.


Thanks for the response!

I should clarify a little on the blind faith thing, though. I will do my best to make sure everything is in order, but with some things, it’s just hard to be sure. For example, lichens. Someone uploads a lichen, says in the description “this is blahdeblah lichen because xyz.” They appear to have ample experience with the subject. I then look at images and, indeed, it looks like blahdeblah lichen–but I don’t actually KNOW. I am not a Master of Lichens, and there could very well be a close cousin of blahdeblah lichen with very small differences I’m not knowledgeable enough to be aware of. In that situation, do you still recommend not giving a second agreement?

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I’m sure there are good arguments both ways. Again personally, I am more likely to regret agreeing-beyond-my-knowledge than I am to regret not saying anything. You’re not shirking if you let it pass – just find a different one you can ID with confidence and you’ve made a contribution.


Sawfly larvae look a LOT like lepidoptera larvae, as I’ve learned on iNaturalist! I think there is value in changing “unknown” to “butterflies” even though a few of my “butterflies” will turn out to be sawflies. I’m pretty sure people who really know butterflies will change the name, and get a little bonus feeling of superiority when they do it.


A good standard to consider is ask yourself if you were shown the photo, told when and where it was taken, but given no other information, including no other information on what others may think it is, what would your ID be? Specifically what is the finest taxonomic thing you are certain it is,

That’s the level, to which you should ID. If your answer is a fungus, that should be your ID, if your answer is a genus Amanita mushroom, then that, if your answer is a Fly Agaric , then that.

If your answer is more precise than what is there already, then go ahead and enter it. Yes, you may get a few wrong, but you learn from that, and nothing wrong with that. If your answer is less precise than what is already there, then don’t blindly agree to it.

Don’t worry about some observations, either your own or from others not getting validated. That’s a fact of life on the site. Depending on geography and area of life, some things get fewer than 50% of their records to research grade.


I wouldn’t entirely agree here. I do think there’s value in identifying something you’re not 100% sure of - As long as you make it clear you’re not sure, and usually if it’s the best ID (ie, if you’re improving an existing ID)

My reasoning here is that if you are right, another expert on the taxon can easily confirm. But if you’re wrong, those same experts are also likely to know what species are commonly misidentified as their taxon, and can make corrections (often with a copy/paste comment as to their reasoning).

Either way, your initial tentative ID has the effect of pushing the observation towards being positively identified, rather than it being stuck with a loose ID, and disappearing into the system.

To illustrate this, I’ve occasionally learned something that has enabled me to differentiate two similar species. With this information, I can search on each species, and correct any IDs that have swung the wrong way - many which were originally based on an educated guess or “somewhat-informed” knowledge (sometimes they were even my own incorrect IDs :).


I agree with the general opinion, but every observation counts. As long one is able to stand by it, collect further evidence if necessary and open to discussions. Misidentifications help too, in a way. But its the input from the observer that makes the difference.
For example, consider famous actors Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg, they almost look like but if you notice Mark Wahlberg is left handed, you can distinguish them definitively.
Same goes with butterflies n moths, devil’s in the details :)

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Besides all the great responses you’ve gotten here, you would probably find this tutorial topic of interest:

Welcome to iNaturalist and thank you for contributing to the community!

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This to me is the magic mojo that makes iNat so successful…

Think of Identifications and comments as being part of a conversation around what something is. You could just sit in the background and listen to everyone else talk about it, or you can speak your mind and see what conversation it starts up. If you say “I think it is this”, and an expert comes along and say “no, it’s this other thing”, then there exists a learning opportunity. This of course only if you are going to be around to be a part of the conversation!

IDs are dynamic in iNaturalist, meaning they can change as information comes to light and more is learnt about the taxa and the evidence of the observation. You might call it something based on the photo, and then the observer comments that it flew away, so you know it can’t be that if it flew, so you re-assess your ID. I still get ID corrections from over 4 years ago when I joined!

If there is a likelihood that you will not be around for long, then I would suggest to be more conservative with your suggestions (ie only if fairly certain), but if you are going to be around for a long time and be able to change your IDs when you receive alerts, then you can be more liberal with the IDs. It’s always good to explain briefly why you do some things, such as “I think it is this”, “If this is wild, I can take away my captive/cultivated flag”, “I’m the author on this taxon, I’m pretty sure it’s right!” and so on. Equally, if you can’t understand why someone has made an ID or set a flag, feel free to challenge! Great way to learn…


I don’t think getting something to Research Grade is a good motivation to identify an observation to a specific level. I would ask yourself what you would ID the observation as regardless of what difference your ID will make for the RG/non-RG status of any observation. IDeally, Your ID will reflect your own independent voice and expertise.


I am more likely to add a tentative ID if I know it won’t become research grade, because then I’m leaving more chance for someone to come later and correct me. Because fewer people go around correcting research grade observations than needs ID observations, I’m a lot more reluctant to add an identification if I’m not confident and it would make the observation research grade.


Thank you all for your responses! I think I’ll take this to heart :)


Another test I use is what I call the I know/I think test. Which is basically to work my way down the tree of life applying either ‘I know’ or ‘I think’ before the ID.

So basically ‘I know it is a bird’, ‘I know it is a Sparrow’, ‘I think it is a Savannah Sparrow’, once you hit the first ‘I think’, back up to the last ‘I know’ and make that your ID. By all means add a comment saying the what you think, you’d be surprised how often you are right, and on other cases, you may get a good education opportunity, even engage in a discussion with someone who goes against your comment to ask how or why they reached the conclusion.


When I’m fairly certain of an ID but still have some doubts if I’m right, I will provide my tentative ID in a comment and not as a suggested ID. That helps prevent the submitter or another hitting Agree and making it RG right away. But the submitter is free to use my tentative ID if they wish and I’ll leave it to others to confirm it.


This is what I do at the species level IDs when I’m unsure, I might post a genus(or higher) level ID at the same time if I’m confident in that.

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I think a good distinction to make is “are you learning, or are you teaching”. If you are learning, add a comment saying “I think”. If you are teaching, then identify to the level you are comfortable with.

Different people have different learning and teaching comfort levels. For instance, you might be fine with being wrong, viewing it as an opportunity to learn. Other people feel humiliated by being “wrong”. Adjust your identification strategy accordingly, so that you either feel good about being wrong (I’ll never make that mistake again - now I know!) or you feel good about being right (At least I wasn’t the bozo who suggested that was Bnnanacus mucusa ssp muckia!)


Also FOMO… I misappropriate here to represent “Fear Of Mucking-up Observations”

I like your reasoning that by proposing an ID that is specific but not necessarily right, you can learn something. An example: One of my ID taxa is Smilax, the greenbriers. I can’t keep up with all the Smilax that are observed, so often I pick a particular species to ID: I call up all the Needs-ID Smilax rotundifolia, for instance, and “agree” all those that look right. But when I see one identified as Smilax rotundifolia that I know is Smilax glauca, I’ll not only correct it but say why. The observer learns something. If it had just been Smilax I wouldn’t have seen it, or if I did and ID’d it, I wouldn’t have said why. Your logic applies.