Keys to Nature
Author Instructions
Thanks for your interest in the Keys to Nature Project. We want to make it easy for you to use the web to share your knowledge of how to identify organisms found in the Chicago Region.

The project originated with a small group of individuals—Pat Leacock, Gayle Tonkovich, Bil Alverson, Greg Mueller, Laurel Ross, and others associated with the vPlants project—who wanted to increase the visibility and use of the great resources that vPlants has to offer. However, the technologies we are developing will allow you to make keys not only for plants, but regional animals and fungi, also. (Click here for more background on the Keys to Nature Project)

Below is a description of how you can use our web-based entry forms to create your own keys, or build "companion" keys to extend the utility of keys built by others. Once complete, we will host the web pages and make them freely available to the public at, with full credit to you.

You can build a key by filling out forms available here. But, if you have not done so already, please read through the tutorial given below before creating a key.

First of all, you'll need to designate the structure of your key, to use as a reference as you build your key with our web-based data-entry forms. These forms allow two or three choices at each branching point. We call each branching point a “node” and give each one a unique number to keep track of the branching structure. (Nodes don’t have to be numbered sequentially, though it does make things easier when you create the first version of your key.)

For example, here's a key to five plant species in a backyard, beginning with a pair of choices at Node 1:
  • 1. Plant woody – 2. (i.e., go to Node 2)
    • 2. Leaf venation palmate – Acer saccharinum
    • 2. Leaf venation pinnate – Quercus alba
  • 1. Plant herbaceous – 3.
    • 3. Leaves very fuzzy – Abutilon theophrasti
    • 3. Leaves with few, if any, hairs – 4.
      • 4. Petioles thick (>5 mm), plant cultivated – Rheum sp.
      • 4. Petioles thin (<2 mm), common weed – Solanum ptychanthum

The same key could be written out like this, which is a form that will be easier for you to use when you are cutting and pasting text into our web-based data-entry forms:
  • 1. Plant woody – 2.
  • 1. Plant herbaceous – 3.
  • 2. Leaf venation palmate – Acer saccharinum
  • 2. Leaf venation pinnate – Quercus alba
  • 3. Leaves very fuzzy – Abutilon theophrasti
  • 3. Leaves mostly glabrous – 4.
  • 4. Petioles thick (> 5 mm), plant cultivated – Rheum sp.
  • 4. Petioles thin (< 2 mm), common weed – Solanum ptychanthum

Now, you can proceed to the web-based forms to create the first version of your key. There are two kinds of forms for your data. The first captures “metadata” (general information) about your key. The second form allows you to associate text and images with a single node of your key; you will use this latter form each time you add a new node.

The Metadata Entry Form

The first page of your key that users will see is the "metadata" (or "node 0") page, which gives them an idea of the scope of your key, its structure, who made it and why, and the taxa included. Here's an example of a metadata page in the form that users see it:

The entry form you will use to create your metadata page looks like this:
  • The text you enter into Title of key as you want it to appear on web will show up at the top of each and every page of your web-key, so please make it informative but brief.
  • We will use the text you enter into Key short-name as a nickname for electronic files that we will store for you, as well as part of the web address to your key. It’s simplest to use one word, but if you use more, please remove any spaces between words. Once you choose the Key short-name, you won't be able to change it (unlike the Title of your key, which you can change whenever you modify your key).
  • The names of the Authors will appear on the first page of your key, as will your description of the key and an image of your choice (see below).
  • If you want feedback from users of your key to go to a single author or multiple authors, enter your Email address(es) in a form like this,, Your email address(es) will appear on each page of your key so that it's easy for users to give you feedback.
  • For photo or illustration credits, please provide a list of the photographers, or illustrators, whose images you are using in your key. These will become drop-down lists that will make it easy for you to tag the photos you drop into the node-data pages (discussed below).
  • As to the Description of the key, please speak directly to your audience and tell them the basics you want them to know. For example, what are its strengths? Where are the weaker parts that need more testing or need to be expanded? What sources did you use? Why did you make it? Any specific ways in which they should use it, or particular kinds of equipment they need? Some of them will be happy to help with photos and testing the key, so don’t hesitate to ask for their participation.
  • If you want an image on the first page of your key, please choose the image file (400 pixels wide or less, and recommended ~200 pixels tall), then provide a caption and photographer credit.
  • Next, please type or paste in text describing the Structure of the nodes your key, as discussed above. This will help us (and you) keep track of things, especially if you go on to create newer versions of the key. Keep this text handy, because you will copy and paste some or all of it into the node-data entry forms (below). This text will be displayed on the metadata page seen by users, in part to let them see which taxa are included. Try to avoid special characters (like en dashes) because they sometimes don't show up well on the web pages the users see. Click here for more examples of how to create this structure.
  • The Password will allow you to revisit these templates and modify or extend your key. If you are working with a group of people, you can distribute the password to any or all of them you wish so that they can access and modify the key as well.
  • Finally, to end your work with the metadata page for now, choose one of the following options:
    • Click Done with page. Save and continue creating. if you want to start entering data for the nodes.
    • Or, click on Done with this version...Save and quit. if you want to stop for now and come back later.
If you are ready to create a metadata page, you can go to the Metadata Entry Form by clicking here. Once you have completed that form, you will be taken directly to web forms to submit data for the nodes of your key. Below, we give the instructions for entering data for the nodes of your key.

The Node-data Entry Form

This form lets you enter text and data for two (or three) choices at each node. We suggest that you keep things simple: Start with only two choices per node and, if possible, a single image (photo or drawing) for each of the two choices. We strongly suggest that for any given choice/column, you use images from species that key out further down the branch to which that choice/column leads. You can add a second or even a third image to clarify each of the choices. Likewise, you can add a third choice (third column) to a node, if it enhances the key.

First, if you are unsure if the previous web page that you created is ok (which in this example would be your metatdata page), click the button at the top left that says View the web page you just created to see what it will look like to users; the preview will open in a separate window. If you then need to make changes that web page, click Edit the last page you created on the node-data entry form. That will allow you to make changes before you begin to enter data for the next node. (Note that this edit will advance the version number of your key by 1.)
  • Type in the Node number you are building. This should correspond to a numbered node in the text description of the key you submitted on the metadata page. The first node will default to a value of "1."
  • Then, for Column 1:
  • Insert the Text you want to appear at the top of the column, which corresponds to the leftmost column of the web page that users will see. Just copy and paste appropriate text from the Structure of the nodes of your key, in text format box on your metadata entry form. Or, you can simply type in the text, which doesn't have to be identical to the text from the metadata page.

  • Then move down the column to First image, hit the Choose File button, and indicate the image file that you want displayed directly beneath the text in that column. This image file should be on your hard drive. After you indicate its location, the Keys-to-Nature software will grab a copy to live on our servers. (Note that it may take a little while for this to upload to us.)

  • Crop your images to focus on the character or characters you want to emphasize, and save them in JPG format, 400 pixels wide or less. If you don’t have the capacity to resize your photos, let us know and we’ll solve it with you. If you don’t have a good photo or drawing to illustrate a particular character, leave it blank and use your key as an opportunity to request help from other naturalists in the Chicago Region!

  • Next, use the pull-down menu to indicate the Image credit, i.e., the photographer or artist for the first image.
  • Repeat the last two steps for a Second image and a Third image in the first column, if that's needed to sufficiently illustrate the character(s) highlighted in the text.
  • After you are done providing the text, images, and image credits you want to use for Column 1, you need to specify where you want users to go next.
    • If it’s to another node within the key that you are creating (or have already created), just type that node number into the Go-to node number box. Please use any "whole" (positive, integer) number, e.g., 9, 25, etc.
    • Or, if you want to jump to an external web page, chose Go-to URL. Just cut and paste that URL (web address) into the Go-to URL box. At present, we are only accepting one URL here, just to keep things simple.

    Botanists: For the Go-to URL, we prefer that you use a vPlants description page (like but USDA Plants pages work well if no vPlants species page is available (e.g.,

    Then, for Column 2 (and Column 3):
  • Repeat all of the steps you just went through for Column 1 (text, image or images, image credits, and Go-to node or Go-to URL), which will then show up a second column, to the right, in the user's web page. If necessary, you can also add data for Column 3, which will create a third column on user's web pages.
  • You then have two options:
    • If you are done with the data entry for this node and want to continue to build your key, hit the button that says Done with page. Save and continue creating the key. You will then get a new, blank node-data entry form for next node you want to build.
    • Or, if you have built all of your nodes and have completed the key, or if you are not finished with the key but want to stop working on it for now, hit the button that says Done with this version of the key. Save and quit. This will automatically save the version on our server and notify us that you have created a key. We will then email instructions on how you can return later with your password to modify or finish it.

    Remember that whenever you save your work for one node and go on to the next, you can use the buttons on the top of the new page to view the page you just finished as users will see it on the web; and you can use the "edit" button to make changes to that previous page before you move forward with new nodes.

  • Finally, when are ready to share your key with the public on the web, please email us at We won't list your guide on the Keys to Nature homepage until you give us the green light. This means you can create draft versions of your guide that you share with friends or colleagues for evaluation, then revise and improve your keys before you share them with the general public.
Feel free to contact us if you have questions or suggestions! We also value your feedback so that we can refine these tools to make keys easier, richer, and more fun to build and use.