As a qualified biologist, teacher and amateur naturalist I am acutely aware of the importance of accuracy in identification.

I use a variety of sources to get an accurate identification on all the animals and plants that I photograph.

  • Books.  Most popular wildlife guides are limited as to how many species they can realistically include, but are a great first port of call.  However I had an error pointed out to me a while back (in the Collins Complete British Insects - Michael Chinery) where a photograph is incorrect, and there may be more.  Collins Field Guides are superb, but can be hard to use from a photo.
  • Magazines & Leaflets.  Mini guides often feature in natural history magazines. They are usually seasonal which can make identification easier.  Many magazines, especially BBC Wildlife, also give away surprisingly good leaflet guides.
  • The Internet.  Web sites can be variable as they mostly rely on the ID skills of the photographer, but many are excellent and peer checked.  There are several sites that have experts on hand to ID photographs.  I have found a large number of experts use Flickr and follow my Photostream, offering advice and IDs as needed.
  • Identification Keys.  Keys are awesome, and are the ultimate way to get an accurate ID.  Sadly they can be hard to obtain and are often very expensive in both interactive or hardcopy versions.  Many that I have (primarily for spiders and beetles) require a dead or captive specimen and microscopic examination of (for example) genitalia, which is far from practical in the field or from a photo.  I do not capture or kill my subjects. Ever.
  • FSC Guides.  I can heartily recommend the FSC (Field Studies Council) guides, a series of illustrated, laminated keys and identification charts.  Some are simple and designed for kids (such as the wonderful 'Bugs on Bushes' key), but others are detailed and comprehensive (Such as 'British Grasshoppers and Allied Insects'). There are also ranges of guides and keys for use by schools and some excellent ones for environmental/ecological professionals.  All can be bought online direct from the FSC and many places such as the Eden Project, garden centres, museums etc. sell them too.
    • Experience. 90% of my photographs are taken in my garden, which generally makes identification easier.  Over the years I am learning what lives in my garden and thus I can narrow down species more easily.  I can also make some educated guesses based on adults recorded in previous years to help find IDs on nymphs and larvae.
    By using as many sources as possible I can check and double check my ID.  Obviously many species are hard to distinguish.  Where there is any uncertainty I simply use the common name.  I gave up trying to identify most fly species years ago, and micro moths are equally impossible. Young invertebrates can look distinctly different from the adults too; baby shield bugs were a particular difficulty I had a few years ago.

    I don't believe that you have to identify to the species level to appreciate invertebrates and begin to study them.  I am a naturalist, but I think that some people become obsessed with figures, numbers, lists and details and thus miss the point that simply enjoying what you see is also a valid approach, in no way a 'lesser' form of appreciation.  Its just different. And equally important.  There is arrogance in saying that unless you do it 'properly' you are doing it wrong.

    The key (no pun intended) is simply getting people to notice and enjoy the smaller creatures (that tend to be misunderstood, disliked and even reviled) with whom we share our world.  You can get considerable enjoyment and appreciation for invertebrates without knowing what precise species they are, especially if that identification requires killing a specimen, just for your records.  If your goal is useful scientific study then yes I agree, it is necessary.  But just for personal gratification? No. Not in my opinion.  I would rather be unable to make an accurate identification and enjoy the appearance and behaviour of the animal than kill it just so I know exactly what it is.  The idea that potentially thousands of new invertebrate fans could appear, and then be killing almost everything they find for the sake of ID leaves me horrified and cold.  Its not some sentimental thing. It just seems utterly unnecessary.  Just that people are finally appreciating these animals is enough for me.  Lets leave the obsessive identifying to those who need to for research, and let the rest of us ID what we can but accept that we cant ID them all.  They aren't Pokemon.  

    I welcome any feedback on IDs, and have received loads of advice and help from wonderful Flickr users over the years.  So if I have any wrong, or you can help with any I don't know, please comment or email me and I'll credit you in the post!