Connecting Students to Citizen Science and Curated Collections

Students Contributing to Our Understanding of Global Biodiversity

V. Identifying Specimens

While in the field, the collector should spend time identifying the plant. This is important. Often key characters for identification are observable on the plant in the field and lost once it is sampled. Good field notes and well-kept field notebooks help circumvent this challenge. If you are a new collector, it is good to spend field time identifying. It will help you learn about key features and identifying characteristics as you work through the taxonomic keys.

Once you return to the lab you can work with the specimen for a few hours before it starts to dry. You can still identify your collections once the specimens are dried, but many beginning students find it much easier to identify fresh plant specimens. Good collections are properly identified to species (and subspecies or variety if applicable). Specimens without correct identification are of limited use. Reminder!!!! The correct name, authority and family should be written into the field notebook once they are determined. It is also helpful to include information on how the plant was identified (e.g., the key, monograph or flora used, field guide, internet image search and whether the plant was verified by an authority).

Specimen identification is the most challenging part of this assignment. It seems daunting at first. How exactly do systematists identify an organism – either to find out its true scientific name and classification or to determine if it is a newly discovered plant/animal/bacteria/fungus altogether? Scientists use many techniques, including the following outlined by Simpson in Plant Systematics:

  1. Taxonomic keys, both dichotomous and polyclave.
  2. Written descriptions of organisms done by professionals and published in peer reviewed journals, monographs, floras, or field guides.
  3. Specimen comparison of dried preserved specimens in natural history collections with unidentified specimens.
  4. Image comparison using books, photographs, and even the internet.
  5. Expert determination with the help of someone who knows a lot about your type of organism.

Remember that you will need to turn in written documentation of how you identified your specimens (see example below), so read these identification sections carefully.

Example of identification notes