You are on page 1of 2

The University of the Wes Indies

Department of Life Sciences

Semester 1- 2011-2012
BIOL 1261 Tutorial 1 -Diversity of Organisms
Constructing dichotomous Keys
Once a system of classification has been constructed, a method must be devised whereby
other persons can quickly determine the name of a particular organism. Keys are used to
identify organisms. There are keys for animals, plants, fungi, bacteria and protists, which
can separate organisms down to every level of classification. There are various types of
diagnostic keys, but the simplest is called the dichotomous key.
The characteristics used in any key should be readily observable morphological and
anatomical features (characteristics); these may be qualitative or quantitative. The
character must be constant for the species, genus or division, and not subjected to
variation due to environment.
The characters used in a dichotomous key must have two or more contrasting states
(leads or couplets). At each couplet, the user has two (hence dichotomous) choices ie. A
or A'. Each choice leads to an identification (species name) or to another lead or couplet
somewhere in the key. By considering the characters in order a large group of organisms
specimens may be progressively broken down until the unknown is identified to its
lowest taxonomic group.
The best way to get the concept is to construct a key. You can do so by completing the
following exercise.

Form groups of approximately 3-4 students

Use the steps outline below to construct a dichotomous key which can be used to
identify each member of the group by name.

Step 1 Identify characteristics of the individuals to be identified (characteristics such as

eye colour, hair colour, type or colour of slacks, type or colour of shirt or blouse etc.
Step 2 Identify paired contrasting leads having more than one character state.
Example- hair colour; brown or black (each member of the group should attempt a key)
Step 3 Construct dichotomy, (flow diagram) continue until all individuals are identified

Step 4 Number leads each pair is given one number eg. 1a. Shirt colour Blue
1b. Shirt colour Black
1. Shirt colour blue
Shirt colour black
Step 5 Tabulate (This is the final format of the key)
No of lead
Paired leads
No. of lead to go to or name of individuals
Shirt colour Blue
Shirt colour Black

Pants orange
Pants green



Tutor can use one or two keys as time permits to identify members of the group
by first name

Group reviews objectives with tutor to ensure that they have been met

Each student prepares a completed dichotomous key to the tutor. Include only the
final format of the key.

Now that you are able to construct a dichotomous key;

Construct a dichotomous key which could be used to identify the algae specimens
studied in the lab.

JRM 29/09/2011