On the Pleasures of Using
One of the "Pictured Key" SeriesLet's say that a spaceship from Mars lands on a Pacific island so tiny that only five things are found on it -- a rock, an old rum bottle, a palm tree, a sea gull, and a shipwrecked man. Our Martian doesn't know what these things are. However, aboard the spaceship there's a computer more powerful than anything we have on Earth, and this computer has identification keys for everything. The Martian feeds a description of where he/she/it is, and here's the key the computer comes up with:

Key to Five Objects on Tiny Pacific Island

A Object nonliving........................... B
AA Object living............................. C
B Object massive, irregularly shaped, opaque,
composed of natural minerals.............. ROCK
BB Object slender, artificially shaped, made
of transparent glass.................... BOTTLE
C Object rooted, with green leaves........ TREE
CC Object not rooted, with legs, no leaves... D
D Object feathered, able to fly........... BIRD
DD Object featherless, unable to fly..... HUMAN

Once the Martian uses the key to identify what's what -- once the Martian "keys out" those things -- the items be can looked up in the Intergalactic Dictionary. Now, with this in mind, here's a wonderful piece of news:

Identification keys -- real ones -- exist for nearly everything that has caught the attention of naturalists for centuries!

Let that majestic piece of information sink in... Just about everything that naturalists deal with... !

Where do you find keys?

A few keys can be found on the Internet. Some of them are linked to on our using-the-Internet page.

In the nature section of the average small bookstore in the average mall in a medium-size city, you'll be able to find some field guides, but you may have to look hard for identification keys. Most people simply haven't developed enough interest in nature to wonder which of the 30,000 or so different North American beetle species occupy their backyards, so, relative to field guides, few identification keys are sold, and relatively few small to medium-size bookstores make an effort to stock many or any.

You may find some in very large bookstores, stores specializing in technical publications, and in university book stores. If you can gain access to a university science library you'll find thousands of identification keys, for keys are used by scientists who need to know exactly what species they are dealing with. If someone spends twenty years in the field researching the topic "Parasites Inhabiting Feathers of Migrating Birds on the North American East Coast," you can bet that the heart of the publication will be an identification key. Graduate students and college professors generate amazing numbers of such works...

To review a delicious miscellany of books with identification keys randomly encountered at Amazon.com, click here.

Good Keys & Bad Ones

Unfortunately, though identification keys have enormous potential, there can be problems with them. For example, there are good keys, and bad ones.

Let's say that you've worked through ten pages of a key trying to identify a certain tree and you come to this dichotomy:

Q  Fruits red.......... Hawthorn
QQ Fruits yellow....... Pear

And it's spring and you have flowers, but no fruits...

A good key would give you more choice than just fruit color. It might also, for instance, describe differences in flower anatomy and leaf shape.

Specialized & Technical Terms

Identification keys tend to use some rather specialized and technical terms/. For example, when you key out the common Black Oak from among the 27 oak species described in Gray's Manual of Botany, eighth edition, the following decisions must be made:

Stamens? Sessile stigmas as opposed to spreading styles? Cuneate or rounded or subtruncate leaf bases? Even when you think you understand all the words, as in "leaf lobes or teeth bristle-tipped, or entire," can you really visualize what's being talked about?

Unless you've had botany classes or already taught yourself a lot, of course not. And the first time any aspiring naturalist decides to tackle keys, it's the same way with them.


Happily, there's a way to not only dominate specialized and technical terms and concepts, but also to absolutely relish running into them. It's called "leapfrogging," and here's how it works:

If you're on the Internet and you run into a term like dorsifixed then just copy and paste the term into your browser's search window, type the word "define" before it and hit enter. Then you should have the definition right before your eyes. If you find such a term in a key in a book, most technical books have glossaries, so when you come to a term or concept you don't understand, simply look it up!

Let's say that in the oak key the first term you stumble over is "stigma." Gray's glossary defines a stigma as "that part of a pistil or style which receives the pollen... " "Pistil?" Now go look up "pistil." Gray's says that a pistil is the "seed-bearing organ of the flower, consisting of the ovary, stigma and style... " "Ovary?" Now look that up! You leapfrog -- from stigma to pistil and now to ovary. An ovary, we learn, is "the part of the pistil which contains the ovules." And then the "ovule" is "the body which after fertilization becomes the seed... "


Here's a definition in which you know all the terms. Fertilization is sex at the genetic level, and seed are seed. If ovules become seed, then the thing holding the ovules, the ovary, which is part of the pistil, must be the thing that eventually becomes the fruit -- the acorn, in an oak's case. So this stigma is the part in the flower, on the future acorn, that receives the pollen, so that fertilization can take place... (Often the process is much simpler than this -- for example, there may be a drawing with an arrow pointing at the stigma.)

Naturally there are shortcuts where you can avoid too much leapfrogging. There are books specifically produced to help you master technical terms -- the book  Plant Identification Terminology : An Illustrated Glossary, for example.

Why bother with keys?

comb on leg of Fire AntHere's the good thing about using identification keys:

Using identification keys thrusts our minds into realms that previously we may have never even known existed, and this feels good...

For example, one day a key led me to discover the amazing apparatus at the right, which I drew using a microscope. This is a kind of comb found on a leg of a Fire Ant. If you've ever watched ants raking their antennae through the insides of their bent legs, they were "combing" their antennae with such very-fine-toothed combs!

When I was discovering all this, thanks to a key drawing my attention to it, I found that my mind was refreshed with forms, textures, relationships, and processes. It was like taking a walk in a Wonderland which few people know about

In fact, some would say that keying out plants and animals is nothing less than a form of meditation. It focuses, it intensifies, it reveals, it calms, and it satisfies.

Meditation brings the seeker into harmony with the totality. Keying out, along with all forms of intense nature scrutiny, brings the seeker into harmony with the details of nature.