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Activity 06: Taxonomy and identification of species

Methods of species identification

Objective: Creating an exemplary identification key and discussing pros and cons of different methods for the identification of species.
Learning outcomes: Learners are able to identify species based on their morphological features and to create an identification key. Learners can name and evaluate pros and cons of different methods for the identification of species.
Previous knowledge: Learners should have completed the “Advanced Learning” or have a thorough understanding of biological taxonomy.
Duration: 50 min
Materials / Conditions: Internet access
Methods / Techniques: Research, comparison, schematic and abstract thinking, evaluation
Learning subject: Biodiversity / Module 3: Collection, Analysis and Preparation of Biodiversity Data / Level: Expert learning

One of the most important preconditions for collecting and processing biodiversity data is the knowledge of species. Still, even a qualified biologist is surely not capable of instantly recognizing and naming every single one of 1.8 million identified animal and plant species. Which methods and resources exist and what purposes can they be used for?

1. Gather information about form and function of a dichotomous key online. You can take a look at an example of such a key here:

2. Create your own dichotomous key for the species of birds listed below. Also, do some research on their systematic classification. ( Use the photographs from the ”Resources“ section to compare the species‘ characteristics..
Species: Grey-headed kingfisher (Halcyon leucocephala), Woodland kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis), Common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), Half-coralled kingfisher (Alcedo semitorquata), Giant kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima).

3. Research other methods for the identification of species on the internet.

4. Discuss pros and cons of the different methods. Also, evaluate the following quote on the topic of automatic identification of species.

”The spaceship lands. He steps out. He points it around. It says ‘friendly – unfriendly – edible – poisonous – safe – dangerous – living – inanimate’. On the next sweep it says ‘Quercus oleoides – Homo sapiens – Spondias mombin – Solanum nigrum – Crotalus durissus – Morpho peleides – serpentine’. This has been in my head since reading science fiction in ninth grade half a century ago.“
Janzen (2004)

Source:, zitiert nach:
Janzen, D. H. (2004). Now is the time. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. B 359: 731–732.


Alcedo atthis – Common kingfisher Author: Andreas Trepte, License: CC BY-SA 2.5

Alcedo semitorquata – Half-coralled kingfisher Author: Allan Drewitt, License: CC BY 2.0

Halcyon leucocephala – Grey-headed kingfisher Author: Azurfrog, License: CC BY-SA 4.0

Halcyon senegalensis – Woodland kingfisher Author: David Meeker, License: CC BY-SA 2.5

Megaceryle maxima – Giant kingfisher Author: Steve Garvie, License: CC BY-SA 2.0

Possible results / Results:
1. Own research

2. Example (other more abstract forms possible):
3. + 4. field guides and dichotomous keys: cheap, possible for everyone, trains accurate observation, accurate species identification is not always possible, wrong decisions using the dichotomous key can lead to completely different species
molecular-biological methods (genom sequencing): fast and accurate, shows genetic relationships between species, no further information (mode of life, characteristics) about the species, expensive equipment, only possible for qualified people
digital applications: automated species identification as described in the quote: risk of losing general knowledge about nature and species

Die Lerneinheit beruht auf einer Idee aus
Galland, B. (1982): Wir ordnen häufige Frühblüher. Unterricht Biologie 68: 25-27 und

Related activities:

Author: Louisa Bergmann and Samira Marschall
Aus dem Deutschen übersetzt von Jana Prokaka

en/learning/courses/subjects/s01/m03/expert-learning/a06.txt · Last modified: 2015/12/05 00:42 by kherrmann