Classification and Identification
Lab Investigation

  • to learn some of the history involved in taxonomy or systematics
  • to learn the difference between classification and identification
  • to learn about various types of keys scientists use to identify organisms
  • to gain practice in the use of at least two different types of keys to identify leaves and mythical creatures

    TAXONOMY or SYSTEMATICS is a branch of biology which deals with the naming, describing and classifying of organisms. A good classification system will contain a workable classification which is easy to use. Normally a taxonomic system will begin by dividing groups of organisms on the basis of their most general characteristics and continue to work toward more specific characteristics which will separate the different species.

    Within the taxonomic system each species must have a name which is universally recognized and the same name must not be used for two different species of organisms. This second requirement was resolved by Carl von Linne', better known as Linnaeus, with his system of binomial nomenclature. Each organism is named by two technical names. These names are in Latin, Greek or are latinized and are used uniformly all over the world. The first word always identifies the genus to which the organism belongs and is capitalized. The second word designates the species or trivial name and is not capitalized. Both names are underlined separately, e.g. Escherichia coli.

    Many types of evidence are used in the development of a classification system. They may include biochemical, structural (morphological), cytological, physiological, or ecological evidence. The vast majority of identification keys rely primarily on structural clues although other types may be included.
    * Schemes for classification have always been of great importance in biology. They are vital as means of communication among biologists, but also are functional as tools for developing generalizations, making predictions, and guiding experimentation.

    Early biologists grouped all living organisms into two huge kingdoms: one for plants and one for animals. When microscopic organisms were discovered, taxonomists tried to make all of them "fit" into either the plant or animal kingdoms. When this didn't seem to work, a third kingdom was invented for bacteria and other microscopic organisms. Traditions developed over many decades, with taxonomic "lumpers" favoring a two­kingdom scheme and "splitters" espousing three kingdoms.

    During the last few decades, advances in cytological techniques and in general understanding of evolutionary biology have raised serious questions about the traditional two­ or three kingdom schemes. In 1969, Dr. R.H. Whittaker, proposed a five­ kingdom classification scheme that has been widely accepted by professional biologists. (see Science, 163: 150-160, 1969) Whittaker suggested the following kingdoms: MONERA, PROTISTA, ANIMALIA, FUNGI and PLANTAE.

    The major insight upon which the five-kingdom classification is based is the recognition that the differences between prokaryotes and eukaryotes are probably the most profound in the living world. This distinction was questioned most recently by Dr. Carl Woese of the University of Illinois. (Woese, Carl R., Kandler, Otto and Mark L Wheelis. Towards a natural system of organisms: Proposal for the domains Archaea, Bacteria, and Eucarya, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol.87, pp. 4576-4579, June 1990)

    The five-kingdom system is far superior to the traditional plant/animal one for anatomical, evolutionary, and even educational reasons.It far more closely represents the current living world and reflects the changes of organisms through time. Whittaker first introduced it because it suited his descriptions of ecosystems. Margulis has expanded upon it based on the concepts of the origins of eukaryotic cells organelles by symbiosis as embodied in her Serial Endosymbiotic Theory. The theory is built around the idea that the first eukaryotic cells arose from symbiotic combinations of prokaryotes. At least three types of eukaryotic cellular organelles - mitochondria, plastids, and cilia - may have developed when smaller prokaryotic cells took up permanent residence inside larger eukaryotic cells. The smaller prokaryote gradually became functionally and structurally specialized and evolved into the familiar compartmentalized organelles of the eukaryotes. This theory is quite consistent with the acceptance of the Whittaker five-kingdom system.

    Details concerning the relationship of the modified Whittaker five-kingdom scheme to concepts of the origins of eukaryotic cells by symbiosis are described in Symbiosis in Cell Evolution (Margulis 1981). In that work, recent advances in the interpretation of the early fossil record of organisms lead to the conclusion that the first billion years of Earth history were dominated by members of the MONERA Kingdom. Members of the PROTOCTISTA (formerly PROTISTA) and FUNGI Kingdoms have a poor fossil record, but it is clear that they emerged long after bacterial communities were well established. Members of the ANIMAL Kingdom probably appeared more than 680 million years ago and members of the PLANT Kingdom possibly not until about 450 million years ago. Although an understanding of the relatively late appearance of eukaryotes requires a multi-factored explanation, it is clear that the origin and evolution of mitotic cell division and major cell organelles preceded the appearance of FUNGI, ANIMALS, and PLANTS. It is thought that these organelles and cell functions appeared and evolved in the various groups of protoctists - organisms that today still show profound variations of themes that are relatively constant in the three kingdoms of large multicellular organisms.

    Though all the problems of cell evolution and taxonomy have not been solved, it still may be said that the five-kingdom classification is more consistent with fossil record, cellular ultrastructure, and cellular biochemistry than the two kingdom system that preceded it.(Margulis, L., "How Many Kingdoms? Current Views of Biological Classification,"American Biology Teacher, 43(9), 1981, 482-489)

    Until recently, the most widely used reference for identification of microorganisms has been Bergey's Manual of Determinative Bacteriology.Since it was first published in 1923, it has undergone 8 revisions and is still the most frequently used manual for identification. As more and more information has been gathered by microbiologists regarding the relationships among bacteria, new classification schemes have been constructed that more accurately reflect the evolutionary relationships. The new classification has resulted in the expansion of the classical Bergey's Manual into a multi-volume series entitled Bergey's Manual of Systematic Bacteriology.

    Earlier editions of the manual reflected a taxonomic classification for bacteria developed more for convenience than for evolutionary relationships. However, modern molecular evidence from studies of base composition, nucleic acid hybridization, and amino acid sequences have challenged many of the old ideas.

    In addition, it has been suggested by Woese and others that a third broad division or DOMAIN of living organisms should be considered. (Berry A., & Roy A. Jensen, "Biochemical evidence for Phylogenetic Branching Patterns," BioScience, 38(2), 1988, 99-103) While this third group are bacteria-like, evidence indicates that they are a more ancient group and unrelated to other bacteria and eukaryotes. These microbes have been dubbed the ARCHAE.

    Identification of an organism can take place after it has been classified and received an official name. Most identification keys are dichotomous keys which means that each time it branches there will be two equal choices available. A key is useful device for identification of organisms. A good key helps develop the powers of observation and discrimination and may be used in the manner of a detective following clues. A key may be thought of as a trail which always branches in at least two directions. At each succeeding fork, there is a signpost indicating the choices available at each junction. Once your choice has been made, you follow the path to the next fork where you are again faced with a series of choices. In this manner you proceed to destination - the identification of your organism or specimen.

    If you are interested in using an identification key for different trees, try this site.

    Use the key below to identify the mythical creatures pictured below.
    (Used with permission of Shannan Muskopf,

    Dichotomous Key

    1. a. Has pointed ears ................................... go to 3
    1. b. Has rounded ears ................................... go to 2
    2. a. Has no tail ........................................ Kentuckyus
    2. b. Has tail ........................................... Dakotus
    3. a. Ears point upward .................................. go to 5
    3. b. Ears point downward ................................ go to 4
    4. a. Engages in waving behavior ......................... Dallus
    4. b. Has hairy tufts on ears ........................... Californius
    5. a. Engages in waving behavior ........................ WalaWala
    5. b. Does not engage in waving behavior ................. go to 6
    6. a. Has hair on head ................................... Beverlus
    6. b. Has no hair on head (may have ear tufts) ........... go to 7
    7. a. Has a tail ......................................... Yorkio
    7. b. Has no tail, aggressive ............................ Rajus

    Norns belong to the genus Norno and can be divided into eight species that are generally located in specific regions of the world. Use the dichotomous key to identify the norns below. Write their complete scientific name (genus + species) in the blank.
    _______________________________________ _
    _______________________________________ ___

    More keys for various organism types.