How to identify species of mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian, insect, bug, fish, crustacen, moluscus, or any animal

How to identify species of mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian, insect, bug, fish, crustacen, moluscus, or any animal

You've seen a creature and photographed it; you are now curious to find out what kind of animal you have in your picture. There is no automated way of finding out just yet, but there are many many resources online that can help you. One of our goals at Faunapolis.org is that in the future we provide an easier way of identifying these creatures.

Necessary Information to Start your Animal Search:

In general, four pieces of information can help you narrow your search and ultimately find very accurately the species:

  1. Identifying the type of animal (class in scientific terms), we can start by determining whether it is a bird, mammal, reptile, amphibian, insect, spider, crustacean, snail, squid, clam, worm, or fish.
  2. General characteristics: Color and texture, hairy, slimy, long tongue, horns, etc.
  3. Location: Often overlooked, the place where you have seen the animal is extremely important. The general location of your sighting can help you narrow the search because often times, somebody else has seen this animal or a similar one in the same place. The specific location, such as a pond, tree, or your basement of your house can help narrow the search as animals thrive in the environment they belong to. Using your city, state, or region as a keyword in your search will do wonders for you.
  4. General behavior: Aggressive, shy, walks, climbs trees or walls, flies, etc.

General Classification (not scientifically correct, but the most effective):

First of all, you are looking at an animal, part of the animal kingdom, there are several other classifications, but to make things easier, we will only look at the classes directly (birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, spiders, crustaceans, snails, squid, clam, worm, fish and sea creatures also). This is something that in some circumstances might be a little difficult, but we've all had curiosity for animals since we were very little, so our current knowledge should aid us in this task. Kind of a rule of thumb is the following:

  • Mammals: Hair, most of the time walk on four legs, generally the smallest we will see is about a mice's size, although there are many smaller mammals.  Think of your dog, cat, a horse, or even a monkey.
  • Birds: Feathers, wings, and peak. Think of animals who generally fly, and in the cases where they don't fly, they still have wings.  Think of a chicken, or a dove.
  • Reptiles: Rugged skin typically in any shade of greens to browns.  They might have legs, like gators or lizards, but sometimes they don't, like in the case of snakes.  Turtles are included in reptiles, although you might have amphibian behavior.
  • Amphibians: Skin similar to reptiles, but thiner, might be very smooth and watery looking, like in the case of frogs, or a bit more rugged as in the case of frogs.  They live in humid places, closely or inside the water ponds, lakes, or rivers.
  • Insects, bugs, spiders:  Although they belong to different classes, and phylums, we often group them as they are small multi-legged creatures generally smaller than our hand that walk fast and can in many cases climb over walls.  The variety of these critters is huge as there are millions of species that we group together here.  But, if we have a good picture of them, we might find a wealth of information that characterizes them, such as number of legs, wings, shape of eyes and feeding "mouth" or "peak", and head.

The next step is to gather all of this information and start looking for similar animals using the many available resources online; don't be afraid of making mistakes in your search keywords, as most likely many have made mistakes in trying to identify creatures and they might have made the same mistakes as you have. They are listed here in order of how general they are.

General Resources:

Google Images: This is many times the first place I use to track down species. Many times I find something that looks like the animal I am searching, move onto another site, and come back to images.google.com to search for more images within that site. Alternatively you can use Yahoo images too; although both directories overlap, they do have some different resources and sorting mechanisms.
Google (the good old web search): There are many instances when animal descriptions are not accompanied by uploaded pictures, but rather by very good narration of events and links to resources. For this reason, the good old web search is not ruled out.

Wikipedia: If you think you have the animal you are looking for, but you are not sure, or if you have a "cousin species" or very similar animal, then Wikipedia is a good place to look as well. You will find very good descriptions here, as well as a list of species in a genus, or subspecies in some cases. One thing that wikipedia lacks today is a good system to handle misspellings or near misses, but it is an excellent resource in our quest.

Animal Resources that are very general:

Tree of life web Project: The tree of life can be very powerful, and probably has the most accurate account of the classification of species that you will be able to find online. However, the amount of images, while growing is still limited. I have used this resource usually at the end of my search to find where the species is located in the map of life.

Specific Sites Dedicated to Different branches of the Animal Kingdom:

What's that bug: For insects, bugs, spiders, and any other small crawling of flying critter. This site is one of the best resources to find information about these minuscule animals since it is built from many emails that have been sent by people who want to find out what kind of bug they have just seen. For this reason, it contains common descriptions that you or I would give these bugs.

Insect Images:: Is an excellent entomology (study of insects) site that has many images. Their level of detail includes the sex and development stage of each insect; this is specially important in cases such as butterflies, and the caterpillar they came from.

American Society of Mammalogists, Mammal Image Library: There are a bunch of images organized by taxonomy on this site.

Seattle Community Network Bird Images:A compilation of bird images from several sites. There seem to be many bird images sites, but most are very specific to areas and photographers.