Identifier Profile: @nathantaylor

This is the fourth in an ongoing monthly series of blog posts highlighting the amazing identifiers of iNaturalist.

Plants of Euphorbia Sect. Anisophyllum, often called “sandmats”, can be found throughout much of the world and of the over 53,000 verifiable observations of this taxon on iNat at this time, Nathan Taylor (@nathantaylor) has added identifications to 43,569 of them - by far iNat’s top identifier of the section. He’s also identified over 81,000 observations of all observations in the genus Euphorbia and has provided extensive resources for anyone looking to identify these plants (and others).

When his family moved from the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex to rural Lamesa in West Texas, Nathan Taylor at first started learning the lizards and snakes in the area. “I had initially wanted to become a herpetologist, a fascination that came out of looking at lizards such as frilled lizards in books and catching organisms like horned lizards (Phrynosoma cornutum) and southern prairie lizards (Sceloporus undulatus),” he says. “I even had a notebook documenting their head scale patterns of the iguanids to tell different individuals apart and gave many of the lizards names.”

But after moving to another property nearby, Nathan soon changed his focus to plants.

Everyone around me viewed the land of the region as a barren wasteland [and] even referred to as the "armpit of Texas" or worse. But that spring, after moving, the sandy hillsides were covered with wildflowers (especially spectacle pod, Dimorphocarpa candicans).  Given the clear disparity between what I was seeing and what other people's impressions of the land were, I had to identify every flower I could. So, I borrowed my dad's digital camera, got some field guides in the library and almost unknowingly spiraled into a broad understanding of the plants around me.  

Nathan’s interest in sandmats was due to his mentor at the time, Burr Williams, saying he didn’t identify sandmats to species. “I basically took that as a challenge,” says Nathan. “But, what kept me fascinated by Euphorbia was how difficult they are to identify and how frequently they were misidentified in herbaria.

Identification of Euphorbia is complicated. In my early days of learning the plants, I tried to key the Euphorbia species. I stumbled over concepts like stipules, seed ridges, and glandular appendages. When I started my Bachelor's Degree and continued in my Master's Degree, I started learning the species properly and eventually found misidentifications in the Sul Ross State University herbarium. Some later proved to be new species. It's this lack of understanding of how to ID the group that really drives me to continue studying it...

Every little detail tells its own tale about what makes Euphorbia unique and how the plants have been shaped over the many years of evolutionary adaptation. Today, I might be fascinated that Euphorbia is the only genus with CAM, C3, C4, and the intermediary C2 photosynthesis and that sandmats utilize three of those. Tomorrow, I might be fascinated by anisophylly and how that helps plants avoid self-shading in Euphorbia sect. Anisophyllum. These get me excited and, most importantly, help me get other people excited about the plants I study. Ultimately though, these are exciting little steps towards a deeper understanding of how to identify my organisms of interest.

Nathan was first introduced to iNat at a digitization conference, when a speaker discussed the Herps of Texas project. “I didn't think much of it at the time, he says.

I didn't even think it would apply to me since all the characteristics used in the key to distinguish species in Euphorbia sect. Anisophyllum species are so small and that was essentially the only thing I was interested in at the time. But, I created an account and added some observations for the fun of it. It wasn't until later that I realized, not only were people uploading observations of sandmats, but I could ID almost all of them from their photographs. At that point, I was hooked. Within a few years, I would have access to photos of plants in the field from all over the world to connect to what I learned from herbarium specimens.

Until recently, when he started in a PhD program Mark Fishbein's lab in the Plant Biology, Ecology, and Evolution department at Oklahoma State University, Nathan curated sandmats worldwide, Euphorbia in the United States, Crotons in Texas, and plants in the Llano Estacado region. He’s had to step away a  bit due to lack of time but notes that @trh_blue and @janeyair have been helping a lot with Euphorbia IDs on iNaturalist. 

When he does identification work, though, Nathan has several different workflows. If he wants to add basic, easy identifications he has some filters and URLs already set up, but if he wants to learn a new taxon or area, he uses a bunch of resources.

For instance, I have a spreadsheet that functions as an atlas for all the major continents. If I break it down to country, I can often limit the number of possible species to less than 20. From there it's a matter of looking up the type specimen on JSTOR Plants or other herbaria to see which is the best fit. For complex species, I may need to get a sense of the populational variability. For that, I usually turn to GBIF and filter by specimens.  I rarely use photos in the process because the rates of misidentification of photos are usually much higher than those of specimens because of the characteristics used in the keys.  You're not going to find it easy to distinguish Euphorbia glyptosperma and Euphorbia stictospora from a photo if the couplet you stumble on is seed shape regardless of how different they look in the field.

For sandmats, I use exclusively primary literature sources and many of them (my current database has over 100 taxonomic sources). For Euphorbia in general, I use Flora of North America, but there are several taxonomic uncertainties and a few points where I disagree. This generally comes from communication with other experts or my own understanding of the morphology. For any US IDs other than Euphorbia, I'll use any good local floras that are available but fall back on BONAP to limit my options if there isn't one. BONAP tends to overestimate the number of habitats and bioregions that species occur in even though it underestimates the counties. If you're familiar with these bioregions, you can get a sense for what possible species you should consider. From there, a combination of floras and/or monographs are used to figure out the differences.

In addition to identification work, Nathan uses iNat in a few other ways. 

The main one is finding new populations (sometimes even new species) of Euphorbia.  However, I also use it for recording data for herbarium specimens, recording identification notes, looking for places to find plants I haven't seen, and to get a sense for what species grow in a given area. It also can be a wonderful place to connect with other botanists to discuss interpretations of morphology and species limitations. For example, two prominent Euphorbia experts (@spurgeckr and @vicsteinmann) have come onto the site over the last couple of years, and I have greatly enjoyed discussing interpretations of the morphology and species.  This kind of discussion helps me to make better identifications in the future.

- Nathan’s created an extensive list of resources over the years, which is available here.

- Need help photographing a euphorb? Check out Nathan’s guide.

- The In Defense of Plants podcast featured Nathan in their episode Spurge is the Word.

- And you can see Nathan’s herping skills at work in the Southwest Texas iNat-a-thon video (he was known then as nathantaylor7583).

- Here are the most-faved Euphorbia observations on iNat!

- And Nathan was consulted for this Observation of the Week post about a tantalizing sandmat find by @nelson_wisnik.

- If you have suggestions for identifiers to profile, please message @tiwane (don't add them in the comments). Thanks!

Posted on September 07, 2021 05:56 PM by tiwane tiwane


Nathan's interest in sandmats is quite contagious- I find myself constantly on the lookout for them and for species in that group I haven't seen before. Never thought I'd be so excited about these plants, thanks for introducing me to their diversity! If the first couple I had posted weren't ID'd I doubt I would have paid much attention to the group.

Posted by rynaturalist over 1 year ago (Flag)

I agree with @rynaturalist's comments! Nathan's attention to my Euphorbia posts got the group sort of highlighted in my awareness, so I always make sure to photograph new-to-me species, and often not-new-to-me species, just to keep building the map out. I've really appreciated his contributions, commentary, ID tips, and mini lessons. I understand how time and attention can change, but I do miss his comments now. I'm grateful to @janeyair who seems to have stepped into that spot for my observations. Since I'm such a broad generalist, it's hard for me to keep specific details for many things in mind, and I very much appreciate the patience of those who lend their specialist knowledge.

Posted by ashley_bradford over 1 year ago (Flag)

Thanks Nathan, you're always helpful!

Posted by egordon88 over 1 year ago (Flag)

Nathan, thanks for all the ID help in the past. Unfortunately I have moved to an area with less Anisophyllum (only Euphorbia maculata has been reported here). So I won't bother you so much anymore. I am still looking for other Euphorbia's though: ,

Posted by jmeerman over 1 year ago (Flag)

You're the best, Nathan! The absolute best. So knowledgeable, so helpful, and never arrogant or condescending. Looking forward to seeing your future achievements. Thank you for bailing me out of many botanical ID mishaps. I owe you.

Posted by amzapp over 1 year ago (Flag)

Thank you Nathan ! For all your work and identifications in this complex and globally present genre.

Posted by vfarjalla over 1 year ago (Flag)

When I photograph any spurge, I think "here's one for Nathan". Thanks for all the IDs, man!

Posted by tadamcochran over 1 year ago (Flag)

So nice to finally "meet" you Nathan!

Nathan is not only amazingly knowledgeable, but also he has been extraordinarily generous and patient in helping others!

Nathan has caused me to be a lot more interested in spurges in general.

In the spring of 2020 I had to scramble to get home to NYC after the small Caribbean nation I was in suddenly closed all of their seaports and airports. I ended up going home via San Juan, Puerto Rico, and when we deplaned, which was way out in the middle of the airport somewhere, I noticed an unfamiliar spurge growing out of cracks in the concrete, so I bent down to photograph it. I was expecting some odd comments from the other passengers, but in the end they just ignored my antics. I knew that Nathan and @jaykeller would appreciate my making the effort to record this little plant, the Red Caustic-Creeper:

Posted by susanhewitt over 1 year ago (Flag)

Thank you so much for all of your work Nathan!

Posted by tylercannon over 1 year ago (Flag)

Thank you, Nathan!

Posted by erikamitchell over 1 year ago (Flag)

Nathan was a major influence in hooking me into iNaturalist, because of his patient help and his enthusiasm for this "difficult" group. I have come to love Euphorbia for their toughness and their tiny beauty. He's been great sharing his knowledge. I love @susanhewitt's story of cracks in the tarmac - I can so identify!

Posted by janetwright over 1 year ago (Flag)

Nathan is the freaking best. And isn't it cool when we look at a taxon and think of a person -- spurges and Nathan. Lucky to be your friend @nathantaylor !

Posted by sambiology over 1 year ago (Flag)

Like others have said, Nathan's contagious enthusiasm for this super cool but overlooked group of plants is why I now stop and look closer at the ground when I am out wandering in nature. When I see and photograph them, Nathan has always ID'd them for me. :-) Thanks, Nathan!

Posted by beschwar over 1 year ago (Flag)

Nathan, thank you for the thyme that leaved me spurged to look more at these tough little plants. Simply Euphorbic Work! 😀

Posted by e16 over 1 year ago (Flag)

Thanks Nathan for all your IDs. Like others, I have developed a new appreciation for sand mats as a result of your identifications. And I've found lots of interesting insects while photographing their flowers close up.

Posted by cae1 over 1 year ago (Flag)

Thank you so much for all the hard works!

Posted by pufferchung over 1 year ago (Flag)

I appreciate the help that Nathan has given me with many ids. I wish you well in your future studies and interests, whatever they may be.

Posted by nyoni-pete over 1 year ago (Flag)

Nathan is awesome! Like Sam, Ben, and Adam, I also think of Nathan every time I see anything Euphorbiaceae whether it is sandmat, a poinsettia or a croton and, sometimes, I make an observation just to honor him. He is a great guy!

Posted by connlindajo over 1 year ago (Flag)

Great profile and backstory. I've appreciated Nathan's expertise and patience correcting more than a few of my misidentifications :)

Posted by colincroft over 1 year ago (Flag)

You all are too kind. :-) Reading your comments has reminded me of the many wonderful observations I've seen over the years and the many wonderful discussions I've had with each of you. It makes me very happy to know that I've helped you all learn more about Euphorbias in one way or another. Thanks everyone!

Posted by nathantaylor over 1 year ago (Flag)

So great to have your patient and thorough assistance on iNat; keep calm and carry on all the great work you do!

Posted by franpfer over 1 year ago (Flag)

I always appreciate Nathan's IDs. He has done a great job sparking my interest in American Euphorbias. Thanks for all your hard work.

Posted by davidemartin over 1 year ago (Flag)

Thanks for this profile! Nathan's enthusiasm for ID-ing Euphorbs has got me looking at all of them in my travels. I was excited to find E. vallis-mortae in several spots along a remote road where I look for wildflowers - never would have noticed it or bothered to learn it otherwise.

Posted by dcoopercem over 1 year ago (Flag)

Great work, always useful! Thanks Nathan!

Posted by jmneiva over 1 year ago (Flag)

Agree with everyone - I'm always looking for these plants due to the IDs! Thank you Nathan and best of luck.

Posted by alligatorlizard over 1 year ago (Flag)

I can't admit that my current addiction to the genus went without being inspired by the aforementioned passion from Nathan. My first huge jump into the genus was on a trip to Arizona with an iNat meetup, where Nathan was present, and I later also saw him on a similar meetup in Texas. Those trips had so much Euphorbia diversity that it defied imagination. Now it's hard to say any trips I've made lately have gone without one or more Euphorbia on the target list. It's contagious!

Not to mention how helpful he has been and committed to IDing a group that's a little obscure and often neglected, even by practiced botanists.

Posted by silversea_starsong over 1 year ago (Flag)

Great Job Nathan
Amazing work also.
I still remember helping you find the Tumac a few years ago in Tucson

Posted by ck2az over 1 year ago (Flag)

Any time there is anything Euphorbia, Nathan is there with always helpful, friendly and expert assistance. Sharing is what iNat is all about and Nathan exemplifies it.

Posted by ronvanderhoff over 1 year ago (Flag)

Passion, focus, and scholarship...what a great combination Nathan brings to iNaturalist! Truly one of the "sparkplugs" of iNaturalist in Texas and far beyond. With great respect to my OC pal @silversea_starsong, sandmats aren't so much "obscure" as, well,...flat! But I too credit Nathan with having perked my interest and showing me that the tremendous diversity in Euphorbs--which seems so overwhelming at times--can be approached and tackled.

Posted by gcwarbler over 1 year ago (Flag)

for some reasons, he looks like Charles Darwin to me

Posted by aaryan_ over 1 year ago (Flag)

I also find Euphorbia to be mystifying.

Posted by bobasil over 1 year ago (Flag)

Nathan prompted me to just look a little harder and not make assumptions. And to really SEE species that are new to me and not just disregard them all as boring little weeds. Thanks, Nathan!

Posted by snakeinmypocket over 1 year ago (Flag)

Felicidades Nathan!!!

Posted by aztekium over 1 year ago (Flag)

Add a Comment

Sign In or Sign Up to add comments