In-depth Identification

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This Guest Blog post has been provided by Martin Godfrey - an active contributor and Bryophytes course tutor on the Biodiversity Fellowship programme in 2013.

In-depth ID

Most of what we taught during Biofell was field-based using up to date field guides and was really targeted at getting people doing recording with their chosen taxonomic group or groups.  Generally speaking the modern “match a picture” guides work fine for specimens which are well grown and typical however they can be positively misleading with poor or atypical specimens.

As an example a student recently sent me some samples of Sphagnum  moss for checking. In two of them her ID was badly adrift as she had been lead astray by a too-facile use of field guide keys.  In the first specimen she had based her ID on one character which would normally be pretty diagnostic for the species – however the plant actually looked nothing like what she thought it was.  The problem here was that her specimen had a very atypical growth form exhibiting something not normally seen in that species.  The second specimen was a very shabby little thing and she had gone for a “best fit” using only field characters.

The moral of the story is to use all available field characters in your ID and if it still doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t.  In this case you will need to resort to more technical keys to sort out your species or, as in the case of this student, ask for help.  The best skill you can develop is the curiosity to push your ID confirmation that bit further – that is the skill which finds new county, or national, records.

Martin Godfrey


Submitted by Nigel Jones (not verified) on

Couldn't agree more. I regularly review insect specimens I have identified in previous years and sometimes find that I really have not been critical enough. Even using RES keys, the lack of description, that older keys are guilty of, means that it is difficult to be 100% confident of a determination. In cases, where there is any doubt what so ever, one must compare the specimen with a reliably named one at a Museum or in an expert's collection. Just last night, I noticed three Shropshire records of a fly that I had made a few years ago. It is in fact a strictly coastal species, so I should have been far more circumspect. I suspect that I had hurried the ID and not taken in the fact that this was a coastal fly. As the years go by, I find I am more and more reluctant to definitively name a specimen until I have done more than just run it through a key.

You can almost never be too cautious!

The need for reliably named specimens is the key reason that anyone studying invertebrates will almost certainly need their own reference collection, or access to one held by someone else - usually at a museum.

Nigel Jones

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