Introduction to Dichotomous Key Maker:
The identification of biological organisms can be greatly simplified using tools such as dichotomous keys. A dichotomous key maker is an organized set of couplets of mutually exclusive characteristics of biological organisms. You simply compare the characteristics of an unknown organism against an appropriate dichotomous key. These keys will begin with general characteristics and lead to couplets indicating progressively specific characteristics. If the organism falls into one category, you go to the next indicated couplet. By following the key and making the correct choices, you should be able to identify your specimen to the indicated taxonomic level.
Couplets can be organized in several forms. The couplets can be presented using numbers (numeric) or using letters (alphabetical). The couplets can be presented together or grouped by relationships. There is no apparent uniformity in presentation for dichotomous keys.
Sample keys to some common beans used in the kitchen:
Numeric key with couplets presented together. The major advantage of this method of presentation is that both characteristics in a couple can be evaluated and compared very easily.
|1a.||Bean round||Garbanzo bean|
|1b.||Bean elliptical or oblong||Go to 2|
|2a.||Bean white||White northern|
|2b.||Bean has dark pigments||Go to 3|
|3a.||Bean evenly pigmented||Go to 4|
|3b.||Bean pigmentation mottled||Pinto bean|
|4a.||Bean black||Black bean|
|4b.||Bean reddish-brown||Kidney bean|
Alphabetical key with couplets grouped by relationship. This key uses the same couplet choices as the key above. The choices within the first and succeeding couplets are separated to preserve the relationships between the characteristics.
|A.||Bean elliptical or oblong||Go to B|
|B. Bean has dark pigments||Go to C|
|C. Bean color is solid||Go to D|
|C. Bean color is mottled||Pinto bean|
|D. Bean is black||Black bean|
|D. Bean is reddish-brown||Kidney bean|
|B. Bean is white||White northern|
|A.||Bean is round||Garbanzo bean|
Rules for Using Dichotomous Keys:
When you follow a dichotomous key, your task becomes simpler if you adhere to a few simple rules of thumb:
- Read both choices in a couplet carefully. Although the first description may seem to fit your sample, the second may apply even better.
- Keep notes telling what sequence of identification steps you took. This will allow you to double-check your work later and indicate sources of mistakes, if they have been made.
- If you are unsure of which choice to make in a couplet, follow both forks (one at a time). After working through a couple of more couplets, it may become apparent that one fork does not fit your sample at all.
- Work with more than one sample if at all possible. This will allow you to tell whether the one you are looking at is typical or atypical. This is especially true when working with plants – examine more than one leaf, branch, cone, seed, flower,…etc.
- When you have keyed out an organism, do not take your effort as the final result. Double check your identification scheme, using your notes. Find a type specimen (if available) and compare your unknown to the type specimen. If a type specimen is unavailable, find a good description of the indicated taxonomic group and see if your unknown reflects this description.
- When reading a couplet, make sure you understand all of the terms used. The best keys will have a glossary of technical terms used in the key. If a glossary is unavailable, find a good reference work for the field (textbook, biological dictionary,…etc.) to help you understand the term.
- When a measurement is indicated, make sure that you take the measurement using a calibrated scale. Do not “eyeball” it or take a guess.
Using a container of beans, use one of the dichotomous keys above to identify the beans. Glue the beans to the card provided and label them with their common name. Indicate what steps you followed to arrive at your answer. Turn the card in to your instructor. Compare your answers to the instructor’s descriptions and type specimen.
Obtain samples of the snack chips provided. Develop a dichotomous key to identify the snacks. In your notebook, keep track of the characteristics you used to differentiate between the different snack families. What are the values of the characteristic for each snack food?
Use the dichotomous key to conifers provided below to identify conifers.
A Key to Selected North American Native and Introduced Conifers
|01a||Leaves needle-like||Go to 02|
|01b||Leaves flattened and scale-like||Go to 27|
|02a||Leaves are in clusters||Go to 03|
|02b||Leaves are borne singly||Go to 15|
|03a||Two to five leaves in a cluster||Go to 04 Genus Pinus|
|03b||More than five leaves in a cluster||Go to 14|
|04a||Leaves mostly 5 in a cluster||White Pine (Pinus strobus)|
|04b||Leaves 2 or 3 in a cluster||Go to 05|
|05a||Leaves mostly 3 in a cluster||Go to 06|
|05b||Leaves mostly 2 in a cluster||Go to 08|
|06a||Leaves twisted, less than 5 inches long||Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida)|
|06b||Leaves straight, more than 5 inches long||Go to 07|
|07a||Leaves 5-10 inches long, cones very thorny||Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda)|
|07b||Leaves mostly over 10 inches long, cones unthorned||Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris)|
|08a||Leaves mostly longer than 3 inches||Go to 09|
|08b||Leaves mostly shorter than 3 inches||Go to 11|
|09a||Leaves rigid, bark grayish||Black pine (Pinus nigra)|
|09b||Leaves narrower than 1.6mm; bark reddish brown or brown||Go to 10|
|10a||Cones thornless, twigs brown||Norway pine (Pinus resinosa)|
|10b||Cones thorny, twigs whitish||Shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata)|
|11a||Leaves mostly wider than 1.5 mm||Go to 12|
|11b||Leaves mostly narrower than 1.5 mm||Go to 13|
|12a||Leaves mostly longer than 35 mm||Mugho pine (Pinus mugo)|
|12b||Leaves mostly shorter than 35 mm||Jack pine (Pinus banksiana)|
|Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana)|
|13b||Twigs not whitened||Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris)|
|14a||Leaves deciduous, clusters of 20-40||Larch (Larix sp.)|
|14b||Leaves persistent, stiff, and four sided||True cedar (Cedrus sp.)|
|15a||Needles short and sharp||Giant Sequioa (Sequioadendron giganteum)|
|15b||Needles longer than 12 mm||Go to 16|
|16a||Tiny pegs on twigs||Go to 17|
|16b||No pegs on twigs||Go to 22|
|17a||Pegs square, needles sharp||Go to 18 Genus Picea|
|17b||Pegs round, needles flat and blunt||Hemlock (Tsuga sp.)|
|18a||Leaves dark green or yellow green||Go to 19|
|18b||Leaves blue-green||Go to 20|
|19a||Branchlets droop||Norway spruce (Picea abies)|
|19b||Branchlets do not droop||Red spruce (Picea rubens)|
|20a||Leaves at right angles to stems||Blue spruce (Picea pungens)|
Leaves point forward
|Go to 21|
|21a||Leaves about 12 mm long, seed cones 15-32 mm in length, crown narrow and pointed||Black spruce (Picea mariana)|
|21b||Leaves about 19 mm long, seed cones 50 mm in length, spire-like crown|
White spruce (Picea glauca)
|22a||Buds large and pointed||Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga sp.)|
|22b||Buds small and rounded||Go to 23|
|23a||Terminal buds round and clustered||True fir (Abies sp.)|
|23b||Terminal buds not clustered||Go to 24|
|24a||Needles white underneath||Go to 25|
|24b||Needles green underneath||Go to 26 Genus Taxus|
Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens)
|25b||Needles blunt||Hemlock (Tsuga sp.)|
|26a||Leaves 18 mm long or less with inconspicuous midrib||American Yew (Taxus canadensis)|
|26b||Leaves 25 mm long or more with conspicuous midrib||Japanese Yew (Taxus cuspidata)|
|27a||All leaves short and sharp||Giant Sequioa (Sequioadendron giganteum)|
|27b||Some leaves not sharp||Go to 28|
|28a||Cones round||Go to 29|
|28b||Cones not round||Go to 31|
|29a||Cones soft and leathery||Juniper (Juniperus sp.)|
|29b||Cones woody||Go to 30|
|30a||Cones under 12 mm in diameter||False cypress (Chamaecyparis)|
|30b||Cones over 12 mm in diameter||Cypress (Cuppressus)|
|31a||Cones resemble rosebuds||White cedar or arbor vitae (Thuja)|
|31b||Cones resemble duck bills||Incense cedar (Calocedrus)|
Conifers to Identify:
|1. Name:||2. Name:|
|3. Name:||4. Name:|
|5. Name:||6. Name:|
|7. Name:||8. Name:|
|9. Name:||10. Name:|
|11. Name:||12. Name:|
|13. Name:||14. Name:|
|15. Name:||16. Name:|
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