Identifying by memory, keys, or other resources

How do you work through observations (your own and other users’)? Do you mostly rely on CV suggestions, past experience, field guides, or something else? Please answer for any level you want to share, from unknowns to subspecies.

I’m curious, because I’m a very visual person, so I try to learn and memorize the traits of species initially then go crazy and only check resources if I get stumped (or asked for clarification).


Like you I am a very visual person, and struggled going through keys (especially when the first question in the key is something not visible in my photos). The terminology can be hard to figure out, and the key might be buried in a 300 page thesis.

I usually use the CV to get it to the right family/tribe/genus, then try to peruse online photos using the “compare” function. If that yields only one likely suspect I’ll often select that, with a note that the ID is tentative if I’m not very knowledgeable about that taxa. Bugguide is a great resource for some range, habitat and ID info for some taxa. They often have links to keys, or will tell you how many taxa are in the US and Canada. If there are 100 members of a genus in the US alone I usually will not try to ID it to species unless I can be pretty sure of the ID, but it there’s only a few species and they look visibly different or have a good key it can be possible for a complete novice to ID an unknown insect just by comparing with their photos.


There’s a lot of good ideas in How do you expand your knowledge of different taxa?.

If you can check with a local plant, insect, bird, etc. group, they might suggest a good local resource. For example, in my area, these are very good. I only learned about the 3rd one from a local CNPS meeting in the last two weeks:

Since reading the above thread, I’ve also started looking at daily research grade observations in my area. This is a good way to learn new ones too.

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for birds and fishes, I find it pretty easy to narrow it down to family (or at least order). then I consult a field guide. however, for many indo-pacific reef fish I may not need to check the guide, especially for common or distinctive species I am already very familiar with

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I have a number of taxa that I’m familiar with and comfortable identifying from memory.
I have used an occasional guide for reference when trying to confirm ID or to explore new and interesting species, but I’m loathe to purchase reference material so I largely rely on whats publically available online or what I can access with my university institution login.

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For my favorite taxa, I have no shortage of resources. (See journal posts on my profile.) My question is for others, like how often do you check books or websites versus remember a certain bee or plant after seeing it once? Obviously, it’s easier to remember common species that we see every day, whether in person or online.

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I’ll admit after reading through a guide once, I sometimes check it in the field, but more often, the CV is good enough… I think the value that guides bring is exposure to a wider range of taxa, ones you may not necessarily choose to observe by default.

As to remembering, if I see something the first time that I’ve only seen in a guide or photo, I try to interact with it. Feel it, touch it, smell it, etc. The whole experience feels 10-20x stronger than seeing a photo that way. Maybe this is being hyper-focused when observing a lifer, I’m not sure, exactly. Not a great idea for bees unless you are Justin Schmidt or Coyote Peterson

I usually learn using field guides, and follow that up with field observations. My approach is comparative anatomy, e.g., “today I’m going to learn all the oak species in Pennsylvania,” identify the shared features that make an oak an oak vs any other tree, and then figure out 1-3 characteristics that make each species what it is.

If I know a species well enough, I can ID it just from memory, usually by picking out those features.

If I want to learn new species from iNat, or find myself saying “I know what that is, but I can’t remember its name,” I key it out. I tend to use keys a lot when foraging mushrooms.

What annoys me is when those darn taxonomists keep changing scientific names on me.

shakes fist at sky


I do most of my identifications from memory. Most observations I can’t identify right off I’ll just skip over. However, sometimes I consult the two shelves of field guides in my office (selected from the many more in the livingroom), or the many, many floras (technical works with identification keys), or good websites (e.g. Oregon Flora Project). Sometimes I google photos of possible species. Sometimes I consult the relevant taxon pages in iNaturalist. Sometimes I tag an identifiers who knows the taxa better than I do. For some observations, I e-mail recognized experts in the group, though I try not to overdo that and annoy them. If I don’t know what it is but the CV suggestion looks good (after I google it or visit the taxon page), I’ll use that.


I am pretty lazy, but I do like to know where to go when I want to dive deeper. To that end let me throw out a shameless plug. Please feel free to use and expand this wiki guide to ID guides:


For going through other’s observations: memory. I will rarely pull out keys for someone else, unless I know the user or they tagged me and I need to look something up further. I’ll use the CV if I know what it is but can’t remember what it is called to scroll through and find it; often works sometimes doesn’t and I have to pass or leave it higher level than I wished to.

For my own: I have actual book paper field guides which I find much easier to use than online ones. If I am super stumped I use the CV to figure family or maybe genus, and go from there since that is how most books are sorted anyway. However it takes so much time to sort through field guides, I don’t do this work for others. As I am working on IDing everything on about 50 acres right now, I have plenty to keep myself busy / my own knowledge expanding.

I see ID’ing what others post as sharing what I have learned, but I don’t have the time to learn for them.


Hi. I mainly go by my own knowledge, having learned to recognize certain species. I’ve recently begun memorizing ID traits like the differences between Common Ravens and American Crows. I try not to use CV for higher level IDs since if it’s incorrect, it can mean that the post isn’t correctly identified for months if not years (if ever).

If it’s my post, I rarely use CV for that same reason.

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There’re many things where see once and remember isn’t working, so amount of key checks depends greatly on what needs to be ided.

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In short, everything listed. For lichens, I rely on my own knowledge, and in areas where I am less familiar with the local lichens, I use keys and descriptions, meanwhile photos (not iNaturalist!) are only a supplementary source. For the others, it depends. If the organism is very familiar to me, then only visually, if it is only slightly familiar, I check keys, descriptions and photos (iNaturalist and elsewhere). Sometimes I use CV, but only to check the suggested species in other sources. If the organism is completely unfamiliar and in unfamiliar territory, and the CV suggestions don’t make sense, I leave it at the highest taxonomic level I am comfortable with. Which is often quite high :-) But these are for my OBs. For others, I mostly ID lichens and these depend upon photo quality and IDability of the lichen from a photo. For other organisms I ID to species level only these that I am very familiar with. The rest I sometimes ID to lower taxonomic rank to narrow the search for the IDers, or high taxonomic rank for the Unknowns to get them from a swamp.

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If it is something I have no clue about, then I get started by loosely thumbling through books, iNat, internet. When something similar catches my eye, I will research this, starting with my everyday search engine, and working my way up to real scientific papers (usually in that order). Then post a proposition on iNat. Get some answers (with any luck … or by persistent tagging). Take those answers and continue my research. Maybe post additional infos, get additional answers. And then, when I am confident in my ID and everything is said and done, someone else passes through and adds another chunk of knowledge, and the whole procedere starts anew.
It takes time, but in many cases the results are so much better than believing the first thing thrown up by autosuggest. And this time is well spent, because if you do it, you will get so much better at IDing by memory. Memorizing is enhanced by dealing with the details.

IDing by memory has some pitfalls to it: 1) Humans forget stuff. 2) Memory shifts over time. 3) Did you memorize this species only, or do you also remember all the other rare species that are totally similar, usually not to be found? 4) Are you aware of similar neobionts that might have arrived at your place recently? … So I tend to look up stuff in books for the umpteenth time rather than being wrong once.

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For the most of IDing for others it’s for sure memory. A lot of species I do know by heart by now, so sometimes I just go through the ID module and filter those species out.

I often start with a country I know from own experience (and also know if there are lookalikes). If I move on to new territory, I will check whether there are similar species. For spiders there are some nice ressources like (only Europe) or the world spider catalogue where one can easily find which species are occuring in certain countries and they provide also the literature these lists are based on. From there I will dive deeper. If I need help, clarification or information I will always use the scientific literature, as fieldguides are mostly not very useful in the spider realm… If I figuered out some characteristic for a certain species that is easy for me to recognize, I will extent my IDing of this species to the world and will for a while only ID that species to really let the new knowledge sink in. I will go by memory by then and only in cases of uncertainties I will consult the papers again (or sometimes I built some private files with only the most important characters and figures from those papers for easy access)

For IDing my own observations I can often get to family or even genus by memory and then try to figure out what species of this taxon have been already observed for this area, e.g. by using iNat. If I find something that looks similar, I will often quickly check, if it makes sense and then go for it, hoping some skilled IDers in this group will correct or confirm. … if they correct, I will try to figure out why and in some cases I use the new insights to also ID some of those to again let the new knowledge sink in

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For me the key aspect of IDing that is most difficult is knowing the other possibilities for an observation that I need to eliminate to be sure of the species. For groups where I know ranges from memory, I ID quite quickly. For other groups, I need to look up what the other potential options are. I’m usually not familiar with these from memory, so I check other members of genus and their ranges either via online resources or field guides - whichever is quickest. I find that the iNat CV often doesn’t help eliminate rare species as they may not be in the CV model at all.


This really differs by taxa. Birds I try to ID before going to iNat - if it’s in WP, I usually either know them by heart or it’s a species that I have been specifically looking for. In other places, I typically ID the birds with a book (or several) first, similarly with mammals - but those are often hard so I may leave them to genus sometimes. For reptiles and amphibians, I have a book for Europe, which is usually enough - outside of Europe I either look up resources or go by what people see in the area, relying on CV more. For all other groups, except maybe butterflies and Odonata in Europe, I go mainly by CV, as I have mostly no idea :)

For me, how much time and effort I put into an ID depends first of all on whether it is my own observation or somebody else’s. I can sit down for hours with a bunch of field guides and keys to try to figure out my own stuff before I even upload it. If I don’t even know where to start, I may use the CV demo page to get a rough idea first before digging deeper. I often check iNat’s suggestions as a way to make sure I’m not too far off. I’ve learned not to be too trusting of those though because they can be silly at times or I observed something that isn’t included yet in the CV database.

I don’t often have that same patience when I identify for others. Sometimes something will stick out at me and pique my curiosity and I just need to know what it is, so I put more effort into finding it. But more commonly I’m using “Identify” as a means to wind down after a busy day and mostly identify local unknowns from memory. It’s sort of like a virtual stroll through the neighborhood to see what I can recognize and make suggestions for. I don’t have any ambition to ever “clean up” the entire unknown queue. I’m certainly the “cherry-picking” type of identifier and if I don’t know it, I skip it.

Occasionally, I will focus on going through stuff stuck above family level due to disagreements to see if I can tip the balance on those, and even more occasionally I will go through a particular taxon I know well to clean out everything that doesn’t belong there. I’m more likely again to use and cite a key when I’m disagreeing on something than when I’m the first one putting an ID on it.


Low hanging fruit first - what I know and am confident of.

I am visual and iNat brings us photos (sometimes with supporting text) so CV is useful.

If the discussion says - this is that species because it has tiny black stipules - then I make sure the taxon photos include a good picture of ‘those tiny black stipules’ That process also helps me with a visual reminder for next time it comes up in Unknowns.

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