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E s s ay:

Sorting Arthropods for


Identification
When we asked Kefyn Catley how he thinks students should
go about identifying their arthropod specimens, he said,
"Thats the 64,000-dollar question."
Identifying arthropods is a challenge, even to Kefyn, who spends his days identifying Australian ground spiders at the American Museum of Natural History.
He also writes identification keys, which are used to classify specimens down
to the species level. This sort of work is called systematics.
"Systematics deals with species," Kefyn explained. "The unit we study is the
species, not populations or individual organisms." But identifying an organism
to species can be very difficult, he said, even for experienced scientists. Kefyn
thinks it is more realistic for students to group arthropods by order and try to
identify them further by families.
Kefyn recommends putting everything that has been collected into alcohol,
except butterflies and moths. Most will be dried and pinned later on, but softbodied specimens, such as spiders and caterpillars, must be kept in alcohol, he
told us. Then the sorting can begin.
Identification involves a series of steps, Kefyn explained. "Systematists begin
with the largest classificationthe phylum Arthropodaand keep narrowing it
downthrough subphylum, class, order, family, genus, until they get to species.
You may not get as far, but the procedure is the same," he said.
"Start by making a very gross first cut: separating things with wings from things
without wings. Next divide those into very basic groups: beetles, ants, flies,
wasps, for example," he said. Do not be surprised if you have a lot of beetles,
Kefyn mentioned as an aside, since beetles are the largest group of organisms
on the planet.
He advised using a picture key such as is found in many field guides or asking

copyright 2001

E s s ay:

S o r t i n g Ar t h r o p o d s f o r
Id e n t i f i c a t i o n

a local museum or naturalist to recommend a key to arthropods most likely to


be found in your area. When you use such a key, you will be sorting according
to appearance, or morphospecies.
"Basically, youre eyeballing your specimens, looking at the differences and
similarities. Sort your specimens according to shape, color, number of legs,
and any other differences you can discover, and see how many groupings
(what scientists call taxa) you come up with and how far you can take it," he
suggested.
"If you are able, for example, sort all the things that appear to be beetles. Next
separate the long, narrow beetles from the round beetles. Then take a closer
look at the long, narrow beetles and see characteristics that some share, like
the same type of antennae or the shape of their wing covers. This is the type of
process of elimination that scientists use all the time to group organisms. In
doing so, you may be sorting beetles into families, or even genera, without
knowing it. This first step can take place by just using your powers of observationyou dont even need a key," he said.
"Some students may want to specialize in a particular group," Kefyn suggested. "Some might want to tackle the bees, others might take on the ants. That
way youll end up with experts in the class who can share their knowledge
with others, which is what entomologists do all the time."

copyright 2001