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Name: Rane D.

Date: ______________ Period: ____ Score: _______

Using and Constructing a Dichotomous Key BACKGROUND
Knowing the similarities and differences in organisms
can help not only to figure out their phylogeny (evolutionary history),
but also to help sort and identify them.
Suppose you find a large colorful wildflower while walking
through the woods. Chances are the flower has already been
named and classified, but how can you learn its identity?
As an aid to help others identify unknown organisms, biologists
have developed classification keys.
Many classification keys have been developed to help
identify wildflowers and many other kinds of plants and animals.
Although these keys may vary in purpose and complexity,
they have certain features in common. These classification keys
are often called dichotomous keys. The word dichotomous
comes from the word dichotomy, meaning two opposite parts
or categories. A dichotomous classification key presents the
user with two opposite statements about some trait or
characteristic of an organism. By choosing the statement that best
describes the unknown organism, the user is led to further pairs of
statements. By going from one set of statements to another, the
name of the organism or its classification group is finally determined.
Do not confuse a dichotomous key with a phylogenetic tree.
A phylogenetic tree represents evolutional relationships, whereas a dichotomous key does not.
However, both analyze the similarities and differences and therefore help in the classification of
organisms. `
In this investigation, you will use a classification key to identify several salamanders (Part
A). You will then write a classification key (Part B) for the Beasties you analyzed in Part 1.
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Plethodon glutinosus, slimy salamander

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Name: Rane D.

Date: ______________ Period: ____ Score: _______

Using and Constructing a Dichotomous Key DATA SHEET

Part A: Using a Dichotomous Key
Use the dichotomous key for salamanders to identify each of the 11 salamanders, writing both
their scientific name and their common name. Remember to write the scientific name in the
correct format!
Scientific Name
1. Plethodon glutinosus
2. Ambystoma jeffersonianum
3. Ambystoma maculatum
4. Triturus viridescens
5. Eurycea bislineata
6. Necturus maculosis
7. Ambystoma tigrinum
8. Hemidactylium scutatum
9. Plethodon cinereus
10. Siren intermedia
11. Ambystoma opacum

Common Name
Slimy Salamander
Jefferson Salamander
Spotted Salamander
Two-Lined Salamander
Mud puppy
Tiger Salamander
Four-toed Salamander
Red-toed Salamander
Marbled Salamander

Part B: Constructing a Dichotomous Key

1. Use your data regarding the characteristics present/absent in Beasties below to construct
your own dichotomous key.
2. Remember that a dichotomous key includes pairs of opposing descriptions. At the end of
the descriptions, the key should either identify the organism for you or lead you to another
pair of opposing descriptions.

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Curly Tail

Go to 2

Split tail

Go to 7


Go to 5

No Spots

Go to 3

Sharp Teeth

Go to 4

No Sharp Teeth

Go to 5


Beastie F

No Fin

Go to 5


Go to 6

No Tongue

Go to 8

Snake Tongue

Beastie E

Split Tongue

Beastie B

Dot Feet

Beastie A


Beastie C

Big Eyes

Beastie D

Small Eyes


Conclusion Questions
1. As you used the classification key to identify the salamanders, did you go from general to
specific characteristics or from specific to general characteristics?
I went from general to specific characteristics. It started off broad, like the kind of tail and
if its body had spots, and then it went to more descriptive characteristics like the kind of
feet or the size of its eyes.
2. What two groupings (levels of classification) do the scientific names of the salamanders

3. Was the classification key you constructed exactly like those of other students? Explain
why or why not.

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My classification key was not like the other students keys. Some people had a different
order in which to classify the differences of the Beasties, so they would even say Go to
a different number than mine.
4. If you were using actual living organisms, what other characteristics could you use to
identify them?
I could use all my senses to identify the organism rather than just sight. For example, the
sound it makes or what it might feel like.
Critical Thinking and Application Questions
1. Do you think that there may be some closely related species of organisms that cannot be
identified with a classification key? Explain your answer.
I think there may be some closely related organisms that cannot be identified by a classification
key. Some may look exactly alike with only one minor difference that cannot be inputted into the
key, or there could be something molecular that divides them but could not be seen by merely
looking at it.
2. Why do you think biological classification keys always present two, rather than some other
number, of choices at each step?
No, I do not think biological classification keys always present two choices in each step. There
may be other choices that fit in that category, so they would branch out and go towards another
solution that the other ones didnt have.
3. What types of problems would scientists have today if Carolus Linnaeus had not developed
his classification and naming system of organisms?
Scientists would probably get closely related organisms confused with one another, mixing up
their research and halting their endeavors. Also, scientists would not know which organisms were
related and which organisms werent. Some organisms or species could not have a name or
means of identifying it.
4. Explain what is meant by the statement Classification systems are the inventions of
humans; diversity is the product of evolution.
The names of species and how we divide them is what humans decided to do to keep track of
living things on this planet. The diversity of the actual species and organisms is made by
evolution, and we merely follow and record it. One species can break off into two, and humans
played no role in it, so they just record it for future use.

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