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These guys are tiny! only a few mm high. Photo by Rich Sobel

A Personal Love Affair with Taxonomy

Naming Things is Fun!

I love to put names on things.

“I believe in the power and mystery of naming things. Language has the capacity to transform our cells, rearrange our learning patterns of behavior, and redirect our thinking. I believe in naming what’s right in front of us because that is often what is most visible.” Eve Ensler

When I was an undergraduate at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse, (more years ago than I care to remember!) I took lots of courses that used dichotomous keys to find out the common and scientific names of plants, animals, fungi and lots of other organisms.

One of my favourite courses was one where we spent the whole course looking at and identifying algae and other water based microorganisms like diatoms.

How do dichotomous keys work?

A taxonomic dichotomous key gives you a set of questions/descriptions to answer about the creature you are trying to find the name of. Each answer then directs you to the next set of questions until you arrive at the name of the organism.

Here’s a picture of one to give you the idea.

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Using these keys was one of the activities I most loved doing and when I graduated, I asked my parents for a copy of Britton and Brown’s Illustrated Flora. This was in 2 volumes at that time and I was ecstatic when they actually found it and gave it to me as my graduation gift.

Over the years I have accumulated naturalist guidebooks for birds, fungi, ferns, lichens, plants, seashore creatures and you name it. When I see something new, I want to know what to call it.


That’s how it becomes part of me and part of my sense of home and belonging. If I can name you, you’re a friend.

For example, on one of the hikes I regularly go on with my partner J, we pass this old growth Douglas Fir. We both love trees, especially the big ones and it is our favourite tree on that trail. One time when we went up I asked her, do you think it’s a grandmother or a grandfather? J replied “I don’t think of assigning them genders, it’s just a tree.”


These elder trees often seem to have genders to me, crazy at that may sound. Since it was Just A Tree, and to me it was obviously a grandmother, I have named it Grandmother JAT. Now she’s also a friend.

While that story isn’t about taxonomy per se, it is about befriending our natural companions.

One of the best reasons to find out the names of things is that without names, we can’t talk about them to other people.

Hey, what did you see when you went hiking last week. Well we saw some pink flowers and a couple of blue ones. And a snake.

Very informative. Real conversation starters, eh?

So why did I tell you all this?

Another one of my hobbies is photography. I have been taking pictures of plants and animals for years. Lately, I decided to go back through my photos, aesthetically combine the two pursuits and create my own, hopefully, attractive and informative taxonomic pictures.

I found that helps me to remember what I’ve seen and named and adds to my circle of natural biological “friends”. And they’re fun to look at.

My ultimate plan is to print them out as full size photographic pages and make a scrapbook from them. There’s no order to them right now, just images I liked with their names and some other details.

I thought you might like to meet some of them..

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Alpine Chickweed. Photo by Rich Sobel
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Pink Monkey-Flower. Photo by Rich Sobel
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Chocolate Lily. Photo by Rich Sobel
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One of the Gumweeds. Photo by Rich Sobel

These are some of the flowers I’ve photographed on hikes in the alpine and elsewhere.

I also photograph birds and other animals I come across and when I don’t know what they are, try to find their names too.

FYI, the feature image at the top of this post is one of the slime moulds I captured, Trichia decipiens, sometimes called lollipop fungus, on a hike on Grouse Mt. a few years back.

Hope you enjoyed meeting and making some new friends. And the next time you see a dichotomous key, you won’t hesitate to use it. Very handy tools.

Oh, yeah. If you like to walk around in natural settings, it’s also a good idea to carry a hand lens to look at some of these creatures up close. Here’s one of my favourites. Our naked eye often misses some really cool and beautiful stuff!

Until next time,


Hey! Are you interested in biology news and fascinating/ cool stories — for yourself or to share with your friends or kids? Then grab my “3 Fascinating Creatures” ebook here and sign up to get my weekly newsletter.

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Rich writes about fascinating creatures and biological issues that affect our everyday lives. Subscribe and get your free ebook at

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