How to refine observations stuck at a high taxonomic level

Modified on Wed, 22 May 2024 at 09:37 AM



Identifications on iNaturalist often work like a filter system. An observation originally identified as kingtom Plantae will get refined over time by members of the community until it's seen by someone who has the know-how to add a definitive ID based on the evidence provided. 

While not everyone may have the expertise to provide a genus or species level identification, many of us can help refine an observation's identification to make it more readily found by someone who does. For example, we may know something is a bird, or we may know that a flowering plant is in a certain family, and identify the observation to that taxonomic level.

Here are a few ways to refine observations' identifcations. Before you start, though, please familarize yourself with the Identify page (don't forget to use those keyboard shortcuts!) and remember to only add identifications at the level which you can independently confirm.

Add Identifications to "Unknown" Observations

One of the easiest ways to contribute identifications to iNaturalist is to identify observations that have no identifications at all. Without any identification, an observation sits in a taxonomic limbo and won't turn up in search results for those looking to identify observations of a certain taxon. Even adding an identification like Plantae or Insecta to the observation can help it be found by the right people. 

  1. Go to the Identify page on iNaturalist.

  2. Click on Filters, then click on this icon under Categories:

  3. This will change the Identify page's URL to (which you can bookmark) and show you all "Unknown" observations that are Needs ID on iNaturalist. ("Unknown" means that the observation has no identification or is a member of a non-iconic taxon like Bacteria or Viruses.)

  4. Optionally you can add more filters, like a Place filter, if you want to look at observations from a certain area. But you can also just leave it as is and help out people from around the world.

  5. Use the Identify page to go through the observations and add identifications at the taxononic level you're comfortable with. If you know something is a mammal, for example, you can add an ID of Mammalia. Once you do that, someone else looking to identify mammals will find it in their search results and can refine it further.

  6. If, for example, you know it's a mammal and that it's a rodent, you can add an identification of Rodentia, which is a finer identification. Then someone who's looking to identify just rodents will find it in their search.

  7. Keep going through observations and adding identifications to them.

Things to keep in mind when identifying "Unknown" observations

  • People who add no identifications to their observations before uploading them are often new users who don't know they can add an identification before uploading, and may wonder why you've added such a simple identification. Some may feel insulted or trolled by you, so it's often good to add a comment to your identification which explains why you've added it. Here are some good generic responses you can add (or modify to your liking) when making your identification. Use a text expander browser extension to make entering this kind of text quick and easy (see tutorial here). 

  • Some users add a "placeholder" text rather than an identification to their observation. Before adding your identification, it's best to copy that placeholder and paste it into the comment part of your identification (eg "Placeholder: rodent") to preserve it.

Refining Observations Stuck at a High Level Taxon

If you're familiar with a certain taxonomic group, one option would be to look only at observations stuck at a high taxonomic level in that group and try refine them. To do this, you would use the Rank filters on the Identify page. By choosing taxonomic levels for both High and Low, you can see observations that have an Observation Taxon with a certain taxonomic range. 

For example, here's how to search for observations that are stuck at class Arachnida

  1. Go to the Identify page and click on Filters.

  2. Under Rank, choose "Class" for both High and Low. This will restrict your results to observations that have an Observation Taxon at the class level.

  3. Go to the Search Species field and choose Arachnida. Now your results will show all observations with an Observation Taxon at class Arachnida.

  4. You can go through the observations and help refine them, where possible. There are often two different types of observations in these scenarios.

    One common type of observation has a single identification at a high taxonomic level - in this case class Arachnida. 

    You can then add a finer identification, say at the level of order, and therefore change its Observation Taxon. In this case, add an an identification of order Opiliones. You'll see that doing so will change the observation's Observation Taxon to Opiliones. Now, someone searching for Opiliones observations to identify will find it more easily.

    The second type of observation is a bit more complicated, but you can still do your part to help refine it. These stem from multiple identifications that only agree at a high taxonomic level, such as the one below.

    In this case, there's an identification of order Araneae and an identification of order Opiliones. Since they agree at class Arachnida, that's the Observation Taxon. What you can do here is still add a finer identification, such as order Opiliones. Each finer, correct identification can help tip the observation's Community Taxon in the right direction. So while you may not see immediate results, your correct, finer identification is a helpful contribution. You can also, in a comment, mention other knowedgeable users who can weigh in as well.

Thank you for helping out on iNaturalist!

Was this article helpful?

That’s Great!

Thank you for your feedback

Sorry! We couldn't be helpful

Thank you for your feedback

Let us know how can we improve this article!

Select atleast one of the reasons
CAPTCHA verification is required.

Feedback sent

We appreciate your effort and will try to fix the article