Identifying animals from pictures

Photo IDs can never be 100% correct!

Me, and many others

Telling the exact species of an animal requires much more than a simple comparison of pictures on the world wide web. Please take all my labels as assumptions or best guesses.

Some species might have a unique look or are just so common that we all find the same name for them. But 20 years of keeping exotic animals at home taught me that it is not that easy. Modern DNA analyses have just started and might change one or another positioning of species. Some species just look very similar, or one species has variations that make it look like different species.

There are over 1 million species of insects, a hundred thousand species of arachnids, more than ten thousand reptiles, and so many others! This only counts the described species, the list of undiscovered species will be even longer.

An example of the identification of tarantulas:

Let’s say you find one and want to give it a name. The big picture of where you found it, how it looks, and existing knowledge would give you a rough idea of what to look for. So you would compare your tarantula to those that are described already. You would compare not only color but sexual organs, you would count spines, hair patches, shapes of certain body parts, and so on. There are tons of modern descriptions because every year a handful of new species are found! If yours isn´t one of them, there is more to check.

You’ll be required to go back in history because there have been people traveling and describing tarantulas since the 18th century or even earlier… Museums will have those descriptions, and possibly some specimen conserved in alcohol. So how to compare your spider to a 100-year-old, marinated spider that lost all color and is falling apart? It’s difficult! And the description may not be too easy to understand, and they might not have used the same methods you are required to use in order to describe a new tarantula. Or maybe they described one gender only, or they mixed up the location. It is a bit of a mess, but you have to do your best, only then other researchers will accept your work. The challenge is the following: there is this code of ethics that says, once an animal is described, the specific name (or epithet) can’t change. So you need to make sure your spider has not been described before, only then you can describe it and give it a scientific name. Otherwise, it has a name already.

When your spider is different from the ones you compared it to, you are able you can finally describe its details and decide on a name.

So let´s be clear that in this project I´ll possibly read some descriptions, but I won´t be able to examine the animals I photographed. A good example is these tiny beetles on the dandelion flower. It will just be my best guess (but I haven’t tried yet)! I´m inviting you to leave comments and share your thoughts! Contact me here!