How to use keys to identify animals & plants in a local habitat

Updated April 17, 2017

Keys are a type of map used to explain information through words and pictures. Also called legends, they are often used with graphs and charts as a guide to the meaning of colours, shapes and symbols. Keys can be used effectively along nature trails and in conservation areas to identify species of plants and animals. The keys can include information about growing seasons, distinguishing features and animal behaviour. Keys can also be useful to show what to avoid, such as poisonous plants or dangerous animals.

Draw columns and rows with the pencil and ruler to display your information. For a simple key using only a picture and a name, write the name to the right of the picture.

Add columns for more in-depth information. For instance, on a table about flowers in the area you can create columns for blooming season, shape and size of seeds, propagation and preferred growing conditions.

Create separate sections for different categories of information: plants in one section and animals in another, for example.

Describe with words and pictures the traces of animals or insects that might not be visible because of their size or behaviour. These might include spider webs, insect galls on trees, woodpecker holes, animal burrows, scat or faeces and animal tracks.

Use pictures to compare young and adult species if there is a recognisable difference, as with caterpillars and butterflies. Show differences between males and female bird species.

Describe an animal's feeding habits with pictures of the plants or animals they eat.

Use pictures to show the most distinguishing features of plants, such as the shape of their leaves and the way they are clustered on a branch, the colour and texture of tree bark, or an unusual colour of a leaf or stem.

Include pictures of blossoms of flowering plants along with the blooming season.

Show nuts, fruits or seed pods produced by the plant and explain how they are distributed to propagate the plant, as well as any animals that feed on them.

Include a map of the area and indicate where the reader is standing. Use graphics to locate a beaver dam, nesting spot or stand of trees.

Identify different habitats such as ponds, woodlands and meadows and list the plants and animals that can be found in each.

Explain what happens to the wildlife during seasonal changes, as when a pond dries up in the summer.

Install keys at entrances to parks and conservation areas, at trail heads and in areas with unique topography, such as ponds or meadows. Use different keys for different categories -- one for seasonal changes, one for variations in maturation and gender, one describing the food chain -- and post in different areas so visitors are exposed to a variety of new information.

Construct them of weatherproof material. Sandwich the key between two sheets of plexiglass and bolt to an upright post, or display it on a roofed kiosk or other shelter.

Provide printed copies so visitors can use them while walking through the designated areas. Install recycling boxes at the park or trail exits where visitors can return the guides.


If the area has many international visitors, include translations on the key.

Things You'll Need

  • Paper
  • Ruler
  • Pencil
  • Graphics
  • Glue
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About the Author

Donna Eigen has written, produced and managed communication programs for global, government, university and nonprofit organizations since 1980. Eigen has taught graduate business communication and is a certified facilitator in work force diversity, leadership, team building and effective presentations. She has a Master of Arts in communication and a Bachelor of Arts in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.