Natural History Photographs

A cautionary note on identifications

The pages dedicated to animals, plants and fungi are organized systematically, which asks for the organisms on the photos to be identified in the first place. Sometimes this is easy and straightforward, as for instance with the Peacock (Aglais io). More often this is not so easy, for various reasons. Photos show the habitus of the depicted organism, but often obscure details relevant for an accurate and reliable identification. For instance, in identifying flies in the family of Anthomyiidae one needs to count the spines on the legs and distinguish the directions in which they point. Such details are often insufficiently showing on photos. Photos of plants often provide limited information about their size, and provide no information about the soil the plant was groing on - yet these may be relevant for proper identification. In fungi, details about spores that can only be seen under the microscope can be essential for reliable identification. In sum, photos often do not provide sufficient information for a completely reliable identification.

Despite the inherent limitations of photo-based identification, experts may still be able to tentatively identify many species from photos, relying on their extensive experience. But all experts agree that identification with absolute certainty from photos is often impossible. If the uncertainty about the identification is not just theoretical, I signal this by inserting the abbreviation cf. (short for the Latin: confer, meaning 'compare') in the scientific name, for instance as in Anthomyia cf. procellaris. This indicates that while the specimen closely resembles the species procellaris, the photo does not allow to fully exclude similar species within the genus. When these similar species are rather rare, the identification may still be quite reliable, but nevertheless there is residual uncertainty about it. When the species cannot be identified even tentatively, the genus name is followed by 'spec.', short for 'species' (sometimes further abbreviated to 'sp.'; plural 'spp.'). If even the genus placement isn't too certain, cf. is placed before the genus name, as for example in cf. Stereocaulon cumulatum. This indicates that while the specimen clearly resembles the indicated species, it might turn out to be something quite unrelated. And finally, if I have no clue even where to start looking for the identity of the organism, I indicate this by using the word 'unidentified'.

So why do I present such tentative identifications? Well, the tentative identifications are the best educated guesses available, which often enough will be fairly reliable, even if not certain. The alternative would be to not name the organisms on many photos, which would make the photos less accessible; for example, I would have hundreds of photos with unidentified lichens. For me, the doubts about certain identifications are more than compensated by the benefits of being able to present the photos in an accessible way.

By now I hope it has become clear that the user should be careful by making use of the identifications offered on this site. Some will be wrong, while others may be right though in fact alternatives are hard to exclude. And finally, personal biases make some groups far better represented than others. For instance, while there are many more grasses than orchids in Europe, the respective pages might suggest the opposite; but this is only because I like orchids more than grasses. This means that there may be many unshown species that are superficially similar to the ones shown.

So where does this bring us? Well, I would like to say: caveat emptor! Feel free to use the material on this site, but be aware that there may be mistakes in the identifications involved. Any possible risk of using information on this site is ultimately yours.