When Things "Click" For ID of Difficult Groups

Sometimes I struggle with IDing a certain group of species, for a long time, and then all of a sudden, it’s like my brain suddenly develops the ability to distinguish them. At first, I might know how to go through logically with a key, looking for certain characteristics, but I lack that automatic, instant ID where I can look at them and just know what it is at a glance.

I recently had this happen with lettuce species, Lactuca sp. I have always been able to tell apart L. serriola from the other ones, but I had trouble with the others because their leaf shapes and sometimes even flower color can be wildly variable. I would go out in the field and still have trouble. I especially had trouble with L. floridana and L. biennis when they weren’t blooming, but sometimes I even had trouble with blooms of various species, for example, near me there is a yellow-flowering population of L. biennis which really throws me for a loop because it looks similar to L. canadensis.

Recently, something “clicked” with lettuce ID and it’s like suddenly I’ve become a powerhouse of lettuce ID. I went through and ID’d a few hundred of them on iNat recently and I felt so much more confident than before. Suddenly, ones that looked so similar to me now look so different, and I’m able to articulate what I am looking at more easily too.

It reminds me of when I was first starting learning Russian and I couldn’t hear, let alone pronounce, the difference between “hard” and “soft” (palatilized) consonants. And then all of a sudden one day it just clicked and like, I could not only hear them but I could hear when I wasn’t pronouncing them right and from there it was a short and pretty easy path to be able to pronounce them.

One of the most exciting things about iNaturalist is that it has allowed me to expose myself to hundreds of photos of different plants in a really short period of time, and it has hugely increased the speed with which I reach this sort of thing.

It’s also a great tool to pair with going out in the field. Being in the field it takes more time to cover a lot of ground and see a lot of plants, but I can look at them more closely. I find that going back and forth between iNaturalist and the field, when possible, yields the best results ever. I spent last summer looking at tons and tons of lettuces and have been going out recently looking at the tiny rosettes of leaves of the same species over the winter, then coming back in and looking at pictures, and it made a huge difference!!!

Do you ever have this thing happen? Isn’t it really awesome?

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Only for the past 40 years :smile: And yes, it is!

And yes, even after 40 years, having the rich collection of images on iNaturalist to examine at leisure has allowed me to see new patterns that had not previously been apparent from either field work or study of preserved specimens.

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That’s fantastic!
And yes, a similar thing happens for me.

Thank you, by the way, for helping with Lactuca IDs; I started trying to ID all of needs-ID L. serriola when I first started on iNat, and I still haven’t finished the job …

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Yes, and I love when that happens!

Same kind of thing happens when I’m struggling with the ID of an individual, going back and forth between possibilities, and suddenly the ID falls in place with an almost-audible “CLICK”.

You do realize you are opening yourself up to Lactuca ID requests… (cough)

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I swear I had been trying to compose this same essay about my experience with identifying Smilax (Greenbriers), but you have saved me the trouble! I have spent the past several days working on the ID backlog for Smilax in the US. I have to do it state by state because each species has regional variation, something the keys don’t convey at all but that becomes really obvious with a few hundred IDs. Smilax rotundifolia in eastern Virginia, western NC, and central Massachusetts almost look like different species except that with iNaturalist, I know just how they grade into each other. And now I’m starting to get a feel for how the new shoots of each species look long before they differentiate into mature form, something that makes the coming of spring in the field that much more exciting.

“Isn’t it really awesome?” You bet.

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It’s never happened for a whole genus, but definitely for particular species - and when they click, they start popping out of the landscape at you.

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