|Keys to Nature
Our digital rootsThe project originated with a small group of individuals-Pat Leacock, Gayle Tonkovich, Bil Alverson, Greg Mueller, Laurel Ross, and other colleagues who worked on the vPlants project (www.vplants.org)-who wanted to increase the visibility and use of the great resources that vPlants has to offer.
As of July 2008, vPlants offers web-searchable data for ca. 72,000 plant and fungal specimens collected in the Chicago Region, with over 50,000 images of these specimens.
vPlants also offers "species pages," each of which provides a description of the species (e.g., leaves, flowers, fruits), its flowering times and habitats, ecology, and conservation status, as well as tips for distinguishing it from similar species. (At present there are over 1,300 species pages posted on line, with at least 400 to come, soon.) Many species pages offer color photographs of the living plant or fungal species, as well.
However, at present you can only find data on a particular species by knowing its scientific or common name, or by searching for the name of the person who collected a specimen, or a county or other place name of where it was collected. Unfortunately, you cannot search based on characters, so you can't ask questions like this: What is that red-flowered plant with opposite leaves I collected in the woods in July?
Keys to Nature was born in response to this need for modern identification tools.
Technology choicesIn the spring of 2007, we reviewed many of the available web-based tools for identifying plants and fungi. Some of the best are electronic "synoptic" keys (also called multi-access or multiple-entry keys), in which the user gets to choose the order of the characters of focus in the identification process. For example, see the Electronic Field Guide Project (http://efg.cs.umb.edu/efg/) and Discover Life (www.discoverlife.org). These synoptic keys require a web-enabled database as an infrastructure.
In contrast, "guided keys" (also known as single-access keys) lead the user through the identification process by considering characters in a specific, presumably wisely chosen, order. These were the standard when keys were delivered only in print media. For example:
Nesting, and hybridizing keys and picture guidesAlso during the spring of 2007, one of us (P. Leacock) noted that many traditional, print-format keys were "nested." That is, there would often be a top-level key that would lead to several, large groups of species. Then, users would arrive at an identification via one or more additional set of nested keys, each more specific and tailored to the species it included. This was significant for us because we realized that not only could we nest keys, as had been done traditionally, but we could mix and match different types of keys, as well as other kinds of resources for identification, at different levels of the process.
Picture guides (often picture-only guides) are a non-key resource for identification. For example, Robin Foster's group at The Field Museum produces Rapid Color Guides for identification of plants and animals, primarily tropical (http://fm2.fieldmuseum.org/plantguides/rcg_intro.asp). These began as print-format guides, laminated for use in the field, and evolved to both print-format and electronic forms. For a group of interest (like frogs of a region, or palms of a particular national park), they promote identification with a set of pictures showing characteristic images of each species—akin to a multi-entry key with the characters provided by the images themselves.
We first envisioned using picture guides at the top-level of an identification process—to lead users to groups of species based on general characteristics—and then jump to the next, nested layer of identification, i.e., illustrated, guided keys that could be produced with the Keys to Nature Project. We later realized that picture guides also are a good fit at the branch tips (terminal nodes) of a key, which sometimes end in small groups of species (for example, see our guide to common shrubs of the Chicago Region). The luxury of using digital formats, rather than print, means that we can keep everything flexible and very modular.
In sum, we concluded that there was no "best" type of identification tool—dichotomous, polytomous, or multi-entry/synoptic keys or picture guides. Our vision for the Keys to Nature Project is that it should provide a web-based infrastructure to do the following:
Why Keys to Nature is an experimentAside from the traditional arguments over single-access versus multi-access keys, we need to assess the plusses (easy, fast, cheap, hopefully useful) versus the potential downsides of our HTML-based keys. For example, once a key is built in HTML, is it brittle? That is, how difficult in practice will it be to add or subtract species from a key, to create a new revision of a key, to extend branches of a key to more finely distinguish between members of a terminal group, to attach independent keys into larger composite keys, or to combine two independent into a single key?
Wish us luck, then, and please participate as a user, or author, of our web-based keys!