Why don't descriptions tend to include senses other than sight and sound?


Not accidentally, but deliberatly - and I still have regrets…

Why is that? I told the story here: https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/scents-and-odors/12553/25?u=carnifex

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Maybe I’m just unlucky, but my nose is frequently somewhat stuffy, especially outside! The strength of plant odors can also vary depending on the plant part, stage of development, etc. I have a field guide that included different needle scents for differentiating spruce species and neither I nor any of the students with me could smell anything in particular from the crushed needles we had at the time. Some were congested, some had gotten COVID and had a lost/reduced sense of smell.

In the eastern US, one plant smell that has turned out to be reliably noticeable and consistent is that sweet birch twigs smell minty. (Or technically, like wintergreen.)


In my experience, people don’t even add what is needed for an ID. I lost count of how many observations I’ve had to leave at Chamomiles, Yarrows, and Allies (Tribe Anthemideae) because the observer didn’t bother to mention whether it smelled good or bad. Anthemis cotula and Chamaemelum nobile look too similar for me to tell them apart without sniffing, but one sniff will definitely tell me which is which. One smells bad, the other smells good.

It should also be added that botanical keys have terms like scabrous, coriaceous, leathery, and so forth, which describe how the texture of a leaf feels. People seldom mention this in their observation notes either.


I think it might be the opposite @catchwords.

Yes, I have access to more specialist resourses, but the rainforest plant key I am referring to is (I think) specifically designed to work with specimens that do not have reproductive parts available (e.g. flowers and fruit… they’re usually missing) so I think that it add these other important characters like odour. So, in that sense it’s “less” specialist and it’s adding these descriptions to make up for the absence of other things like flowers and fruit. Maybe, I don’t really know their justification but that makes sense. In my first lecture on plant ID I got told to use all my senses (including taste, but that’s probably a bit dangerous most of the time)

Smell is key for me as I ID a lot of mushrooms and fragrances/odors are often key in some cases.

I find it funny how some smells are obvious to me, while when I let others smell them they often say all they smell is a mushroomy smell.

I also wish we had a smell recorder. I know of many places where I could record fox musk but since you can’t take a picture or do a sound recording of it.

Where is the Smell-O-Vision we were promised? ;) :upside_down_face:

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I almost never remember to include descriptions from other senses. Should the gray default text in the notes section include prompts for that? My only worry is it might encourage people to get close to or touch things they really shouldn’t.

Being sent a prank link to a terrible smell would be so much worse than getting rickrolled.

(and yes, I was very tempted to put a certain link in that line)


This feature is also mentioned here, frequently used in RG observations lacking notes, photos, or sounds.


I try to add descriptions to most of my observations but nearly always forget to mention aroma as well even when I’ve used the smell for my own ID :(

Edit: I just found an observation where I did mention smell and I wrote, in part, “Shrub c. 1 m tall. Crushed leaves aromatic (similar to Lantana smell).” I’m not actually sure how useful that is now unless someone knows what Lantana smells like, and I can’t describe the smell. Up above, one of my examples from the book is “petioles of fresh leaves smell like roast mutton when broken” and I’m not sure what roast mutton smells like either, so maybe the subjectivity as others have mentioned (with the exception maybe of common smells like lemon) is the problem

I agree.
Two grasses look the same. When tapped, one will snap back and the other sways.
Micro-serrated edges can be verified by light touch, same with direction of fine hair.
Crushed leaves of all Correa have a very specific scent, other plants with similar looking leaves don’t.
Some birds flick their tail when alighting, some others refold their wings. The main difference between some corvid taxa is the frequency of wingbeat and some specific sounds.
Until we can upload videos, the only way to convey these details is by describing them.
I think that observations are what you say and the photos or voice recordings are just supporting documentation.
What can be safely touched or tasted comes with practice and some reading of the continent’s survivor’s guides. When I visited New Zealand I ate berries that looked edible but never touched mushrooms.
Anyone interested in describing scents I would recommend background information on Fragrantica.
BTW I do not smell scat and I do not drink jasmine tea (for the same reason)

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That’s awesome! But that assumes people have access to other published guides. Many learners and/or generalists like me use the info and links on iNat to try to identify things: is there a way we can improve/enrich the descriptions we access this way - maybe rephrasing published info and give the references on Wikipedia?

Lets know if you do publish your lecture :-)

I have been luxuriating in an essay by Jay Griffiths about her experience of being in the Amazonian rainforest:
"Through the forest, which stings you, bites you, then strokes you with leaves soft as a kitten’s ears. One tree’s bark smelt of nutmeg, and the air was alive with smells, from honey-scented flowers to the zinging smell of sap and the sour smell of a mossy fetid pool. I could almost smell the sunlight. Palm fronds rattled in the hot, moist air, and the whole forest surged with life …
“Scented with story as it is with wild garlic, the woods may be a moment of beginning, the pause on the threshold before the journey, and then the woodlands may tell us an unending story.”

  • from ‘Nature is a Human Right’ edited by Ellen Miles.

Good points made

I think one reason is that humans have not yet been able to digitize and digitally distributed touch and smells (There was a time when perfume companies were insert perfumed paper / sachets etc in magazine etc) .

Second, I also think that the whole of knowledge will be impossible to “document”. People interpret their surrounding very differently - as individuals we may learn something and then develop on that or have some random thought connection that is not described anywhere.

One example I have is of the fragrance of some kinds of Elsholtzia - the fragrance in interpreted differently by people from different regions and cultures. But many south Indians say that the fragrance reminds them of a certain kind of spicy mango pickle which is a speciality of some south Indian states. This interpretation of the fragrance is not the same for others who have not tasted or eaten this pickle.

There are many examples like this.

Touch is harder - we are taught of being vary of touching unknown things and the further people go in the unknown (for them) the more reluctant they are. This i mostly true for people who don’t work hands on. While rough hands have less sensitivuty they are also probably better at reading surfaces because of experience.

Finally both these senses are really good, for me as a nature educator, to help people get core memories. People are less likely to forget about stinging nettles, astringent wild pear fruit, absolutely deliciously fragrant walnut leaves — and so on.

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The focus on smells and touch discussed here reveals the technical bias in computerized collection of recordable observable data for sight and sound.

But it also reveals the limitations in identification and technical infrastructures. For example, what about behaviour data?

It would be relatively easy now for observers to record and provide video files which for animals might provide solid (and potentially valuable from a research standpoint) behavioural evidence for identification, but…

How many IDers would be willing to scroll through countless hours of videos to nail a behavioural-based ID?

If we have problems with poor photo quality slowing down IDing in so many submissions, can you imagine the impact of that sloppiness if it was extended to video?

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Those must have been terrible times for people with chemical sensitivity or sensory processing difficulties related to smell.

If scent is ever digitized, then for accessibility reasons, there will have to be the equivalent of a “mute” button.

from what I recall there were two methods

  1. The perfumed material came in sachets to be opened before the fragrance was released
  2. The perfurmed material had to be rubbed to activate.

I am sure if we reach that stage this would be a consideration. Considering we have mute / off buttons for both video and audio currently

Magazines could smell strongly of those perfumes when they first arrived. I don’t know if it was because the manipulation during mailing rubbed the scent-saturated surfaces or what, but smelling the perfume wasn’t always optional.

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Maybe the Northern California Urtica is worse? I recently regretted touching this one and wouldn’t even think about trying this with it.

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