Wednesday, June 10, 2015

How to Request an Identification Online

I am arguably a member of way too many groups on Facebook, but it appears that social media groups are now the place to go if you want an identification of that "thing" crawling across the kitchen floor, eating your tomatoes, biting your child, or otherwise causing consternation or curiosity. Here, then, is how to make a post and get an accurate answer. This primer also applies to any other online outlet for getting identifications.

  • Include an image.
  • You don't have to be a professional photographer. These days you can snap a quick pic with your smartphone and upload it instantly. It doesn't even have to be perfectly focused. Crop it if you can, so that there is as much detail as possible, before posting it.

  • Choose an appropriate group to post to.
  • So you are pretty sure it is a spider. Find a group that specializes on those arachnids. There are also lots of "bugs" groups that encompass just about anything without a backbone. There are garden groups where people often post images of suspected pests, but often it is the blind leading the blind and you may not get anywhere near the truth despite other members' good intentions.

  • I have seen many times someone from another country post an image and everyone responding assumes it is a species from the U.S. It works the other direction, too. Save responding parties time, energy, and embarrassment by posting the location where your image was taken or the creature was seen. Be as specific as you are comfortable with, but at minimum include nation, state or province, and county or district.

  • Include a size estimate.
  • Use coins or currency, keys, or cigarette lighters in an image to demonstrate scale, it often helps; or estimate, preferably in millimeters. Disregard sarcastic remarks about spiders making off with your cash, stealing your car keys, or setting fires with those lighters. A detailed description in general can also suffice in the absence of an image.

  • Be polite, not demanding.
  • Common courtesy goes a long way to endearing you to experts. Say "please" and "thank you." Be understanding that the people responding may be volunteering their time to assist you. Many professional entomologists in fact face reprimands from superiors for "wasting their time" on "trivial matters," despite the fact that job descriptions often cite "public outreach" as a priority.

  • Do not assume the *first* answer is the *right* answer.
  • Many members of various online groups are amateurs themselves, and the learning curve is steep in making identifications. Most real experts are also specialists, so they may not be able to identify every post in a given group. Their expertise may be limited to bees, for example. Wait for several replies, and do a little homework on each answer to see whether it fits or not. Remember that everyone could still be wrong!

Do share your "mystery bugs" with us through social media, photo-sharing websites, and other online outlets like Project Noah or i-Naturalist. We enjoy seeing your discoveries, and often enough they are valuable sightings. Take care and good luck!


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