Tech Tip Tuesday: Dichotomous Keys and Other Identification Resources

I always find that in the summer it’s impossible to imagine the landscape in the winter and vice versa. Yesterday’s walk in the woods really drove this point home. Although spring’s lingering cold is a not too distant memory, it’s still hard to picture the days when I was worried about the vernal pools near my house freezing solid. Now, my afternoon forest explorations come scented with deep green foliage, the loud buzz of deerflies a persistent presence just one step behind. I try to remind myself that this is what I have dreamed of all winter long when the air feels like a hot, clammy towel draped across my neck.

The wildlife also takes pause in the heat, reemerging when the air cools and the sky begins to darken. Last week I was awakened late in the night by tapping and shuffling on my back deck. A porcupine had made its way onto the porch and was investigating the potted plants before lumbering back into the darkness. I hope that you’re all finding ways to stay cool and enjoy the natural wonders that summer has to offer.

This Week on Tech Tip Tuesday

If you’re escaping the heat by sheltering indoors, don’t worry, you can still enjoy iNaturalist. There are always plenty of observations needing identifications and you don’t need to be an expert to help out! I have explained before how you can simply add “animal” or “plant” to help an unknown observation move forward or help identify super common species that you already know. Either is a great way to contribute valuable information!

If you’re looking to challenge yourself and improve your skills as a naturalist, it may be time to learn identification skills through other sources. While iNaturalist is a great tool for helping to identify a species, it probably won’t help you learn identifying characteristics, unless you ask other identifiers what criteria they use. Field guides and other virtual manuals are great tools for learning a taxa’s identifying features. Field guide diversity is vast—you can find ones for specific regions and taxa, ones with color or black and white pictures, and ones with varying levels of written descriptions. Whatever your learning style and area of interest, there is a field guide for you!

While field guides are great tools for learning how to identify a species, they are by no means the only option available. Another resource commonly used by biologists is the dichotomous key. Dichotomous keys help you make an identification by providing a series of “either-or” choices that lead you toward a family, genus, or species. The choices usually start off broad and become more specific as you proceed, helping to narrow down the possible identifications. You can find a deeper explanation and example of dichotomous keys here.

If you look around, you can find dichotomous keys for many taxa. For starters, you can check out the keys on Go Botany, the Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification, or Discover Life. When using a dichotomous key, it’s always good practice to verify the identification in a field guide to make sure that the answer is correct.

If you’re looking for an extra challenge, you can also create your own dichotomous key as you study different field guides and other identification resources, both as a way to reinforce your knowledge and to create a tool to use for future identifications. You can find a basic set of instructions for creating your own key here.

I recommend checking out the resource list on the Vermont Atlas of Life website. There is also a link to the list on the right-hand side of the VAL iNaturalist homepage. If you don’t see your favorite resource on the list, please let us know. We’re always looking for new additions!

TTT Task of the Week

This week, I want you to pick a species that is fairly common but that you may not feel comfortable identifying. Try to learn the species’ identifying characteristics (maybe even make a dichotomous key that will help others identify it). Once you feel confident in your knowledge, help identify observations of it on iNaturalist. By taking part in this activity, you will both learn something new and help verify observations that can later be used in conservation projects.

That’s all for this week! Thank you for helping us map Vermont’s biodiversity, stay safe, and happy observing!

Posted by emilyanderson2 emilyanderson2, June 23, 2020 21:11

Comments

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Thanks for your great Blogs !!! I’m thoroughly enjoying reading them
and hope that you gather them in a hard print-form in the near future
(I’m somewhat of a traditionalist........).

“Stay Well and Be Kind” ( Jacinda Arden - PM of NZ).
Janet Schwarz
Monkton, VT (Bristol mailing address.....)

Posted by janetschwarzvt 5 months ago (Flag)

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