Where can I find keys or flowcharts on how to ID things I find in the wild?

I am interested in learning how to ID things as well as possible on my own. Call it a personal curiosity.
For example, I found a black slug in my backyard. Is there a key out there that could help me ID it?
I own a field guide to trees that is very helpful, it breaks down your options by leaf type. I’d like something similar for all sorts life out there.
Insects…flowers…anything! But google is failing me here.

There are still some groups where you’ll have to delve into the scientific literature. Google scholar can help with that, when the articles aren’t pay-walled. There are books and on-line keys for quite a few groups, as well as sources like Bugguide.net that aren’t exactly either.

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Check this theme https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/current-or-general-favorite-field-guides/656
But the easiest way is google, e.g. google mollusc key guide for your area, or find iders for the group in your region and ask them if they use one and which is it.


Hi Sarah
There are plenty of nature guides that have keys to help you identify organisms.
You could start at the local library or a bookshop.

There are good keys online too, but they’re not always easy to find. They often deal with specific organisms or organisms in specific places. Try searching for “type of organism + dichotomous key” or “type of organism + identification + key”.


My own experience has been that each taxa “group” or area has it’s own set of resources that are the best. For example, your black slug might appear in a well researched and written book that covers slugs of your continent, or it might be an invasive that appears in a well documented and researched set of keys used by border control, or it might be a particularly fascinating species that has a wealth of papers covering all sorts of aspects such as dietary use of, medicinal use of, mating behaviours of, etc. Or it may just be an undescribed species that is part of no key or literature of any kind!

This has been a source of frustration for me too, as I would so appreciate a single starting point for all things. But I kind of found that with iNaturalist, to a degree. You post an observation and give it a low level ID (Class, Order, Family maybe…), and hopefully someone narrows down the ID for you. At each successive refinement, ask the identifier what makes it so, and in particular can they point you to good resources for learning these. It might not happen with this particular observation/species, and if that is the case, repeat the exercise with a different encountered species. Eventually one of them will lead to the recommendation of THE goldmine of information about that family/genus/species, or even a much wider range of taxa for an area, and it might come in the form of a website (for me World Spider Catalog opened up so much in Aranae for me) or key, or a specific book, or even a museum nearby that has all the type species that you can actually go and see first hand… Just remember to bookmark the url etc, there is nothing worse than losing or forgetting your way back to that wonderful resource!


this one can be nightmarish depending on the depth of your interest in a particular taxon and the breadth of your interest in a variety of taxa. I’ve got a bunch of guides for all kinds of things, so I’m more of the “breadth” sort. Getting deep into a particular group with keys and whatnot will require you to learn about the organisms’ anatomy and sometimes microscopic anatomy to be able to ID them. I’ve not gone that deep with anything. I have enough to learn without going that far.

Probably what I have the most of would be books about plants. I’ve got regional guides about nothing but grasses for different places I’ve lived or worked. Various regional guides and keys for wildflowers for the same reasons. It can be tough if you ever dabble in a few things that are outside your expertise.


As others have mentioned, using a key can be very difficult, especially for invertebrates. A lot of them (and I’m speaking mainly about insects) need a physical specimen and a microscope. I think other groups also benefit from a physical specimen and a microscope. For insects, Borror and DeLong appears to be available as a PDF (https://www.academia.edu/30669150/Borror_and_Delong_2005._Study_of_Insects). It’s a textbook, and offers keys to most families of insects and arachnids (use Ctrl-f to search for things - it’s a big download!). However, if you look at most of the keys, many of the features can only be seen with a microscope (dissecting). I identify mainly Canadian Noctuidae. Although I don’t use a key, I can recognise most of them to subfamily. I like a species description to guide me in features to watch for, so use Moth Photographers Group as a start. It’s got links to other sites - mostly Buguide and a few others - that you can access for descriptions. Moths are fairly easy, but there are groups that are not possible to ID without genital dissection.
As mentioned above, there is a discussion on this forum for field guides &etc which is worth looking at. And Google Scholar is great too, but many papers are paywall protected (I’ve seen paywall protected papers from the early 1900’s).
Again, as mentioned above, it is probably best to start with field guides to specific groups, get to know the group generally, and then use other resources (like iNat) to go further.

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Thank you everyone!

The link to the thread on field guides did lead me to a facebook group which then lead me to a really nice key on slugs. I followed the key with a jewelry microscope and I believe I made it far enough to species complex.

It was a ton of fun!

I understand for some taxa it can be nearly impossible to ID to species but I still like to try to get as far as I can.


I don’t really know much about insects and other invertebrates, so what I do is go for iNat’s suggestion (which is usually right), and then search of google scholar for animals in that group from my city. Usually there are checklists, or descriptions, or some other forms of literature, and then if I can’t find which one it might be, I google each one that is a possibility looking for photos. Then compare the photos to my observation and ID it as the insect genus or species I think it might be. That’s the whole point of iNat, in my opinion, going as far as you can and making mistakes, while other experts sometimes dimiss all your research and ID it back to family, or agree with you! It’s all part of the learning experience!

Almost forgot, comparing my observation to previous obs of the same group sometimes helps!


I’m a total amateur, but I have a grand vision I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the forum of an online master multi-access key. The concept would be fairly simple, just load every taxon into a database, and begin assigning diagnostic tags to each taxon. The problem with guidebooks is the limitation of physical space for data. A dichotomous key can be helpful, unless the identifier is not available for a particular question (like what the leaf looks like, but it’s winter!) and then you are stuck. What I describe would be comprehensive, and allow for much more robust inputs than a dichotomous key gives.

I mention it here, because it sounds like something that would fix your problem (and mine), and maybe if I talk about it someone on the forum will steal the idea and start building it. :)

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there are lots of lucid keys available, for various situations, and one day I’m sure they will all connect up into one massive master key.

There’re keys for plants at winter, try finding them, dichotomous key is the best method invented, if it mentions not enough characteristics it’s either not the best key or there’s actually no other visible differences.

I love that idea. Now someone just needs to make it happen!

Flora of North America:

The key for Poaceae is here:

Keep on being curious!


Not much use to Sarah Burkett in America, but for British and Irish entomologists, out of print Royal Ent. Soc handbooks can be downloaded from

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