Learning families vs learning genera?

I’m just an amateur naturalist, and lately I’ve been practicing species identification in the Picea genus in my region with the help of FNA, Flora Novae Angliae, and iNat observations. It’s been very fun doing so, but I don’t think I’d make much progress if I learned species-level identification for every genera I see. I found this to be an especially poor approach when dealing with nuanced wildflower genera like Sagittaria (Alismataceae) or Helianthus (Asteraceae).

I reckon most people probably learn species on a case-by-case basis or only for very common genera or only for genera they particularly like. For example, I like Phragmites, but it’s a bit difficult differentiating between P. americanus and P. australis and it’s definitely something I’m going to learn.

I’m curious about your thoughts and experiences. When do you prefer learning every species in a genus vs. every genus in a family?


I typically identify groups I can ID to species, so most of my higher level IDs follow something like, “well it must be one of these species, and the finest rank that includes them is this genus or that family.” So maybe I learned genus- and family-level characteristics sort of backwards by association.

I also typically learn every species of a particular group in a region, as opposed to, say, all genera of a certain family worldwide. It’s just harder to find comprehensive literature on a global scale.


I read somewhere that sunflowers are very varied in America. Hybrids can occur, and it will be a complex family or genus to look into if one is learning about all the sunflowers in the world. Outside of their native land, there are the garden varieties to look into only. I’ll use POWO or wikipedia for info or if I google on it, probably there are some websites.I’ll prefer to look into a genus or family if information is available in the internet. If a genus has only 4 species, that will be more tempting than a genus with 30 species.

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Like any little kid I memorised dinosaurs, before moving onto something different which was spiders. But the books I had then were really generalist to world species and not of much actual use to any specific area.

Now I mostly just try and know all the species of anything that I might encounter where I live. And when I travel, species especially within certain groups where I travel.

Like I am pretty confident on the many Metrosideros species we have in NZ, but I couldnt tell you much about the many species outside of NZ.


Yes, for sure also a dinosaur memorist here :wink: … as well as all different kind of dogs and later every mammal and bird we have in Germany (which thanks to the ice ages and mountain formations is a quite limited amount).

Only when diving into the world of critters I moved on to a more general approach of getting maybe family right as a start. Often species or even genus is not that easy, but it will help trying to figure out more on a specific observation when you are able to put it at least in a rough corner and move on from there. Also, characteristics for insect families or spider genuses and so on are often more pronounced and “learnable” while species determination is quite often almost impossible without diving deeper then just photographing them.

Generally I would say it is most helpful to get an overall sense of categories ( e.g genus level) and get deeper into certain taxa that are interesting to you


Do you mean you are learning the identifications purely from the book and then applying them to photos? That sounds a hard way of doing it. I suggest collecting a specimen, e.g. clip a twig off the tree, then then use the book’s identification key to get to a species name. That way, you first learn just the species in your area and you will find out which are the important characteristics. Then when you are familiar with the common ones in your area, you will start to notice when you come across a rarer one.


I learn the taxa around me in a continuous cycle: I see an organism, I take a picture, I ID it either through a rough-ish ID from iNat CV and then refine it by looking at ID guides, or if the CV fails me, then I key to family, genus etc. until it become impossible with the level of detail I have. When I see the organism again, I tend to remember it at least to genus or by its colloquial name. And over time, I get to know the common species in my area.

However, the occasional taxon that I particularly like, like birds, I tend to learn their higher taxa on a broader, more global scale, but not the specific species. For example, I may know that that is a new world warbler, but not which type of new world warbler, or I may know that’s a tern, but not which species of tern. (The myriad of birds of the world encyclopedias really helped with that ;)). Occasionally, if its a particularly distinct species, I tend to know it to species.

Same goes for most insect groups but to a lesser degree, so I know them to the UK or European level, like I may know that it is a type of blowfly, but I wouldn’t know which species of blowfly.

It really depends on the simplicity of the taxa too. Like birds are more well documented, so there are more field guides and whatnot, so most of the time, species ID is very easy, but with insects there are many groups that cannot be easily distinguished, or species that can only be told apart by minute details.

So overall, its mostly about preference. If you prefer one family over another, you may decide to learn the genuses in that family, for other taxa you may want to learn 1 or 2 genuses and leave the rest because the details are so limited for ID. :P Who knows, you may also want to look into the few handfuls of research in the ID of some obscure genuses and become the leading IDer of them genuses.


Learning plant families based on pattern recognition is fairly straight forward compared to learning genera or species. Even once you learn a genus, there are often two or more species that are hard to tell apart (at least here in the Southern Appalachians). I’ve found a lot of small books and field guides only have the most common species and often don’t even mention the existence of others.

So the pattern for me starting out with IDs on iNaturalist has generally been to go from confidently identifying to species based on my books to being corrected and realizing there is at least one other look-alike not mentioned in the books to cautiously only identifying at family/genus level to eventually learning how to tell the species in that genus apart and returning to doing species identifications. It’s a learning process. Some species have very distinct characteristics that make it easy to pick out that particular species from the rest, but in some families its hard to even tell the different genera apart (Asteraceae is one of those).


For plants, (at least in my area) I have identification keys that I occasionally use to get to genus or species, if I don’t know it.
In uni we basically learned to identify every major (angiosperm) plant family, so I can often identify that “intuitively” and then it’s just a matter of going through the dichotomous key of that family to identify more specifically.
Many of the species or genera I’ve previously identified on iNat, I can recognise as well, though, so I rarely use the book now.

For insects, I only really know a few random species, and for the rest I just identify to order, or family if I know it.

For everything else, I only know the “general knowledge” species.


I aspire to IDing everything to species. Ha! Not even close. I identify to the lowest level I know, and sometimes I learn that I don’t know by being corrected here on iNaturalist.

For me, taxonomic knowledge grew kind of organically. I started learning species in my area plus a some striking ones in books, on TV, etc. I delved deep into some groups that interested me (e.g. birds) and did notice some genera and other larger groups. I’ve dipped into some groups (e.g. insects) where I soon realized I’ll never even want to identify most to species, though I try with a few

Pay attention to how precisely your identification resources ID things. In North America, most recent field guides to birds, reptiles & amphibians, or mammals include all the species. You can use them to give species ID’s with confidence or you’ll know what you aren’t confident about and you can apply a higher category. There are SO many species of insects and plants that the guides aren’t precise. My insect guides often make this clear and can be used to ID to order, occasionally some lower levels. Guides to trees are often complete, for wild trees. Wildflower guides don’t make it as clear that they don’t have all the species, but they usually don’t. So when using wildflower guides, ID to genus or family even if the guide has only one species similar to the one you’re looking at, unless you have additional evidence to make the species ID. (Floras with ID keys usually do have all the species, but they’re more technical; you’re already using them, so you know.) Always, when in doubt, use a higher category.

For iNaturalist purposes, narrowing down the identification is always helpful, even if one can’t get it to species.


I’m in Germany, so because the country is a lot smaller and therefore more homogeneous in climate than the US, there are fewer overall species as well. (Also especially for trees, there’s pretty low diversity due to some interesting circumstances)
I use Rothmaler - Exkusionsflora von Deutschland for Tracheophyta. While it likely doesn’t include every species within that group, I have yet to come across one that wasn’t included.
I, personally, cannot ID the vast majority of plants to species, I just meant that that’s the tool I use to ID more precisely if I don’t know a plant.

For insects, there’s of course still no way to include everything in books, and many species cannot be determined by photo, so like I said, I can usually only ID to order unless it’s one of the few species I know.


And only later in life learned that the “kinds” of dinosaurs we learned as kids are actually genera.


The advice that I wish I got when I started with botany is to start out by learning the families, all of the families you may encounter and have a really rough idea where they fit into the tree of plant life. It sounds a little insane, but start going through the families on Go Botany and get to know them. For smaller families with one or two members its as simple as looking at pictures and recognizing “this weird looking flower is in Acoraceae” or “Sundews are Droseraceae”. For bigger families you’ll have to read a bit and probably go to sources outside the flora to find synapomorphies of the family (look up that word if you don’t know it). This for me becomes a fun thing because you see all of these wild plant forms, and realize that your conception of a grass, or dicot, or fern is wildly narrow and fails to account for some of the crazy diversity even in your local area. Now you won’t actually remember every family, but when they come up in keys or you’re stuck you will have solid foundations for where to go and what that means. It will feel like a lot of work for minimal reward but seriously puts in a ton of ground work for the future. If you find yourself in the general key of a flora often you’re not using it right (this is not a thing that is valuable for most users most of the time).

Once you have your families good enough that you recognize a decent portion of what you see to family go out and start keying. Key some hard groups but key some give-mes too. Don’t key (at first) if you can’t find everything the key talks about. Don’t skip the key because you think you know it, and use CV as an aid in checking how you did not a first pass. Keying is where I learned most of my species, and always had a good idea of what I was and wasn’t seeing. You quickly learn what you have and can pick them up without keys soon. Keys also help you focus on what is different in a genus which varies genus to genus. Once you recognize species by what distinguishes them you realize that a lot of the species pairs aren’t so intimidating (like native Phragmites which looks nothing like the invasive :) )

This method lets you get to a useful place in the flora without a general key, and gets you actually learning the differences between species. Pretty soon you get to know most of the plants you see. Even now I find myself checking keys to make sure I’m not falling into bad habits and traps. That method means the things I learn are families and specific species I know (and eventually you know enough species that you get to know a genus)


Yes! Anything to avoid using the general key! (Learn those plant families, or at least the major ones where you live.)

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Agreed! A good resource to learn the families for those just getting into plants would be “Botany in a Day” by Thomas Elpel. We use it in some of our non-majors classes where students need a bit of plant knowledge but not the same depth as bio majors taking say systematic botany.


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