Identifying invertebrates: downloadable keys


The previous post listed some identification keys that run online, as more-or-less interactive websites. This post includes some sites that have keys you can download (usually as pdf documents) and print out. See also my bookmarks on delicious.

Various groups
Some excellent materials, many produced by Brian Eversham, are available on the website for The Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire and Peterborough [link updated at October 2012]. These include keys to insect orders, grasshoppers and bush-crickets, water bugs, ants, beetle families, longhorn beetles and soldier beetles (plus other non-insect groups). NB that most of these are tailored to the Bedfordshire area, and do not necessarily include all UK species (the exception being the soldier-beetle one by Dr Mike Fitton, which does have all species).

Various resources, including an identification guide to grass moths (Pyralidae: Crambinae) compiled by Nick Asher, can be downloaded from the Berkshire Moth Group.

Some keys to selected groups of bees and ants are available from BWARS.

Dipterists Forum has produced some really good downloadable keyes, some of which are available only to DF members; these include a very well-illustrated key to Diptera families, a key to Scathophagidae (dung-flies and allies), both of these by Stuart Ball, and a version of Alan Stubbs key to hoverfly tribes illustrated with photos by Stuart Ball – Dipterists Forum is worth joining just for these, let alone all the other benefits!

Available to anyone is the set of draft keys to craneflies, by Alan Stubbs, and keys to stilt and stalk flies, by Darwyn Sumner.

The recently established Beetle News has included keys to various small groups of beetles in its first few editions, and they can be downloaded from the Amateur Entomologists’ Society.

Field Studies Council
This listing from the FSC includes many of their published keys, available to purchase, but also some older papers that are free to download, including Unwin’s key to Diptera families, and the now slightly out-of-date key to slugs by Cameron, Eversham and Jackson.

Identifying invertebrates: online keys


On Saturday 30 January, Roger Hawkins and I are running a workshop for the BENHS on using keys for insect identification. We’ll mostly be working with published hard-copy keys, but we’ll include some online keys as well. Below are some examples for various invertebrate groups.

I must admit that I don’t yet make much use of online keys. This is partly because I’m fortunate in having a good range of printed keys available to me, and I’m sure it’s also partly a case of ‘sticking with what I know’ rather than spending time learning the online ones (all keys require time spent on them to get familiar with their particular approach). However, I think there are still some problems with online keys, from the practical one of having to have a computer within easy view of your specimen or microscope, to more intrinsic issues about the ease of flicking through a book to compare different sections, as opposed to having to switch between different windows on a computer.

However, online keys are likely to become more widespread and will no doubt get better as time goes on, just as printed ones have (and continue to do so), and no doubt the two will be seen as complementary rather than an either/or choice.

See below for some online keys to try out. For a longer list (including plants and other groups as well as invertebrates) see my bookmarks on delicious, and let me know if there are any other good keys out there, or any thoughts you have on using online keys. A post on downloadable keys will follow.

Various groups
The most comprehensive set of online keys that I am aware of is the DELTA Intkey system. This requires you to download some software onto your computer, after which you can either download various individual keys, or run them from the web.

At the moment there is quite a wide range of keys available within this system, for various taxonomic groups (not just invertebrates) and different parts of the world, but for UK insect purposes they include:

Orders of insects, families of Coleoptera, families of Diptera, genera of Ephemeroptera, families of Hemiptera, families of Hymenoptera, families of Lepidoptera, genera of butterflies, genera of Geometridae, genera of Noctuidae, species of Phyllonorycter, species of Odonata, genera of Orthoptera, families of Trichoptera.

These are multi-access keys so that you can answer the set of questions in any sequence, and need only answer the ones you’re confident of – the system will endeavour to give you a best match of one or more names for your specimen. I’ve made most use of the family keys for Coleoptera and Diptera, but I have to admit they’ve not proved as helpful as I hoped, and I still tend to return to paper-based single-access (dichotomous) keys for backup. But it is always good to have additional keys available for comparison, and no doubt if I used them more I’d get more used to their idiosyncrasies and perhaps find them more helpful.

There are some draft online keys available on iSpot (part of OPAL), including a simple ‘key to minibeasts’ – this part of iSpot is still under development, and there’ll be more to come.

The Watford Coleoptera Group (click on “ID aids”) are making a range of identification aids available, some in the form of keys, some as notes on particular species or groups of species.

[added on 10 February 2010]
The Natural History Museum provides a very useful key to bumblebees.

These online keys to various families of Diptera are managed by Paul Beuk, who also runs the excellent You may need to register on to get full access to the keys. Some of these keys are online versions of existing printed keys, others are new (e.g. includes the best key I’m aware of for genus Sylvicola in family Anisopodidae).

Not a key, but some very helpful support for keys is provided by the Anatomical Atlas of Flies, from CSIRO in Australia. This is a truly excellent web implementation of a morphology diagram and glossary of names for parts of flies, using detailed close-ups of real insect specimens. But it needs a good broadband connection to work at any speed!

Mark van Veen’s Faunist is a Dutch site with keys to various families of Diptera, plus Odonata, Orthoptera and sea-shells. The latter three are in Dutch only, but most of the Diptera keys are in English. They are well-illustrated and easy to use, and I think cover most of the British species in the families included. Plenty of information about the species is given (but remember that this refers to the fauna in Holland, which will include additional species and different habitats/behaviours compared to the UK).

Some of these keys to robber-flies (Asilidae) by Fritz Geller-Grimm are applicable to the UK (others cover various parts of the world).

For those flies with larvae that produce leaf-mines (largely Agromyzidae, plus a few Anthomyiidae etc.) there are keys based on the foodplant on the excellent UK Fly Mines site.

Similarly, for leaf-mines of Lepidoptera try Barry Dickerson’s online key, on the British Leafminers website. This is largely based on volumes 1 and 2 of “The Moths and Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland”, but with some additions and revisions. A very useful resource (but be aware of all the non-lepidopterous insects that also make leaf-mines, most of which are listed, but not keyed, elsewhere on the site).

Butterfly Conservation/Moths Count provide a simple key to day-flying moths.

There is a good identification key to Irish dragonflies and damselflies, but it covers males only, and not all UK species are included.

The Conchological Society provide some online keys and other identification notes for various groups of snails and slugs.

This German website has a key to European spider families.

iSpot – helping people learn about wildlife


iSpot was launched last summer: “iSpot is the place to learn more about wildlife and to share your interest with a friendly community. Take a look at the latest spots, start your own album of observations, join a group and get help identifying what you have seen.”

iSpot has been developed by the Open University as part of the Open Air Laboratories project (OPAL), with funding from the Big Lottery Fund. I’ve been part of the team working on it for the last year or so.

Here’s an introduction to what iSpot is all about:

So far we have over 1,000 registered users on the site, including a healthy mix of beginners and more experienced naturalists, all busy helping each other identify what they’ve seen. One thing we’re trying to encourage on the site is for people to explain why a species is that particular species, not just give its name. Of course, not all species can be identified from photos or descriptions, and the site allows this to be shown clearly where necessary.

Several national and local recording schemes have representatives active on the site, and they are being ‘badged’ with a logo next to their user name so that every time they are active on the site a link is given back to their society’s website. If you’re involved with a recording scheme or society and would like to find out more about this please do contact iSpot.

Snail identification: new edition of FSC key


Robert Cameron’s excellent Key for the identification of Land Snails in the British Isles was published by the Field Studies Council in 2003, and a new edition came out towards the end of 2008. I was unable to resist getting the new one, despite being an infrequent recorder of snails who was quite happy with the old one! Was it worth it?

The new edition is not very different (e.g. 84 pages as opposed to the original’s 82, and this has only changed due to the inclusion of a few new references), but it does contain four additional species, some corrections and some updates to the nomenclature (scientific names), quite a few of which have changed. The four new species are:

  • Myosotella denticulata. This is very similar to M. myosotis, and they are both species of tidal standlines and edges of saltmarshes. Both key out at the same place, and Cameron doesn’t attempt to distinguish the two fully. Further information on separating these species is available in Roy Anderson’s 2008 checklist of UK non-marine Mollusca, which can be downloaded from the Conchological Society.
  • Balea heydeni. This has been split from the similar B. perversa, and it seems that the ‘new’ species B. heydeni is actually the commoner of the two in Britain and Ireland, so previous records of B. perversa will have to be classed as an aggregate of the two species unless they can be checked. Balea spp. can be found on trees and rocks (the first edition of the key rather intriguingly says that B. perversa [agg.] is often found in places with few other snails, but this descriptive text has been sacrificed for lack of space in the second edition).
  • Papillifera bidens. A Mediterranean species that has been introduced into Britain; the only confirmed records so far are from a National Trust property in Buckinghamshire. Superficially similar to other clausiliid snails but with a distinctive dark band and white spots running round the shell.
  • Cernuella aginnica. Another introduced species that has so far been found only in Kent, and is not thought to be widespread. It is very similar to the common C. virgata, and requires dissection to confirm (features described but not illustrated in the key).

The only one of these that people living away from the coast are likely to encounter is Balea heydeni, so if you already have the first edition you should be quite safe to continue using it. But if you’re keen to watch out for the latest introductions then the second edition is essential.

And if you don’t have the key at all I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in snails – it is a thorough and careful key, but very well laid out and easy for a beginner to get to grips with. I particularly like Robert Cameron’s introduction to using the key, which starts:

“Experience has shown that there are two extremes in reactions to keys. One is the expectation that a good key should lead simply to the right answer, even in the hands of a beginner. The other, sometimes expressed by experts, is that keys never work well, and that only face-to-face tuition by an expert works properly. The first view leads to frustration, or even despar. The second can have the effect of making identification an arcance professional preserve.”

Robert goes on to chart a middle course between these extremes, providing guidance on how to get the best out of using a key, and what limitations have to be borne in mind. He demonstrates this advice well in his own key.

New key to plants


The long-awaited new “Vegetative Key to the British Flora” (by John Poland and Eric Clement) is nearing completion. BSBI are now advertising a pre-publication offer: if you order before the 17th April it will cost £20 inclusive, whereafter it will cost £25 plus p&p.

You can download a flyer for the book from the BSBI website (see the top-right-hand corner of the site).

The authors claim that (with experience) you’ll be able to identify most plants within 60 seconds! (personally I’d be happy if I could get somewhere near identifying most plants within 60 hours …)

web resources for moth recorders


I’ve been invited by Moths Count to give a presentation at the English moth recorders conference (Birmingham, 31 January 2009) on how moth recorders are using the web. The presentation itself (with audio now available again) can be seen below, and below that are links to the sites mentioned in the presentation. This is by no means a complete set of useful moth websites, but it does pick out some that I think are really good examples, and especially useful to moth recorders (and if you want more here’s my full list of Lepidoptera-related links.)

Information and photos
Perhaps the most familiar site for information and photos of adult moths is UKmoths. For early stages, UKleps has an astonishing set of photos, covering the full life cycle for many species. British leafminers gives comprehensive information on that group of moths (and see also British insect miners, which covers non-Lepidopterous leaf-mines as well). For those moths that need dissection to be identified see the Lepidoptera dissection group.

Egroups and forums
The best-known and longest established egroups are on Yahoo: UKmoths, UKmicromoths, the migrant recorders network and UKleps. There are an increasing number of web-based wildlife discussion forums as well, many of which include moths. One of the most popular of these is Wild About Britain, with over 25,000 registered members. You can also discuss moths on Facebook via Moths aren’t scary they rock!!

Making identification easier
Ideas for improving identification resources on the web include making it easy to compare similar species; making it possible to annotate images online; and encouraging better labelling of photos and of the ‘determinations’ (identifications) associated with them (e.g. documenting who has identified them and when).

The Suffolk Moth Group has an excellent feature on its species pages, which allows you to compare similar species – you can compare photos, flight periods, habitats etc. (example species account). Kuvia ja havaintoja perhosista (moths in Finland) covers some moth species in detail (including carpets and pugs), and has a great feature where you can click on the moth photos and each opens up in its own window, making it easy to arrange and compare them side-by-side.

One of my current jobs is with the iSpot website, part of the OPAL project at the Open University. iSpot aims to connect beginner naturalists with a supportive community of experts and fellow enthusiasts. If you’re knowledgeable about moths or wildlife, can you spare some time to help others learn about what they’ve seen? And if you’re involved with a recording scheme or society then get in touch to find out how you can be ‘badged’ on iSpot, with links through to your own website.

Other resources
For maps and grid references (including 1940s maps and aerial photos) try the superb Where’s the Path (but you may need to catch it early in the morning as Ordnance Survey restrict the number of map views per day). The BSBI‘s Herbaria at Home project has a tool for checking which vice-county a grid reference of place name falls in.

For researching associations between plants and moths (and other insects) the Biological Records Centre has put its Database of Insects and their Foodplants online. And try the Suffolk Moth Group again for the Field Tips – month-by-month info on what moths (especially caterpillars) can be found where.

Predictive mothing
Several county websites have set up a “what’s flying tonight” feature, using the county records to show which species are most likely to be seen (as adults) on any date. See versions for Norfolk, Suffolk and Somerset (I find they are useful even if you live a long way from these counties).

New developments
One of the most innovative moth websites is Norfolk Moths. Species info, distribution maps, online recording and many other features, including Mobile Moths, which reformats all this mass of data so that it can be accessed via mobile devices such as iPhones and Blackberries. You can also follow Norfolk Moths on Twitter.

Don’t forget to turn the computer off and do some mothing sometimes as well!