Species identification: links & references

Atlas Naturalists

List of useful resources for species identification

This is a community-generated list. Please let us know what resources you find valuable, so that we can add them here for everyone’s benefit. Ideally, such resources should be: in print or widely available in libraries; or available online, preferably free or at a modest cost.


Species Identification (Harris & Whitington)

These guides, prepared by Paul Whitington & Kerri-Lee Harris, describe their approach to the identification of species. These are not field guides or keys. They describe how to go about learning more about plants, invertebrates, and vertebrates. The guides are published on the Life in a Southern Forest website.

Alternative (and complementary) strategies for identification

  1. “Photo match” your unknown organism with an image (photo or drawing) in a book or website.

  2. Use written descriptions, which are organised in some methodical way in a “key” or table.

There is no perfect method. We almost always use a combination of the two.


Naturemapr websites (https://atlasoflife.naturemapr.org, https://canberra.naturemapr.org, https://atlas-budawangcoast.naturemapr.org)

The Naturemapr websites are a particularly powerful tool for the photo-matching method of species identification because they contain images of many species found in our local (ALCW) and adjacent (Canberra, Budawang Coast) regions.

Here is how you can use those sites. Let’s assume you wish to identify a beetle you’ve found. On the Home Page, click on the group of organisms to which your species belongs (Insects, in this case). Then select the relevant category (Beetles). You can then either scroll through the list of all Beetles (currently 131) or, if you think you know the subcategory of beetle (e.g. Lady beetles), click on that. This will give you a smaller list to work through. Remember to look at all images (there will be up to 3) for a given species.

If your beetle doesn’t appear on the ALCW site, try the Canberra or Budawang Coast sites. If it doesn’t appear on either of those sites, your next online resource might be the Atlas of Living Australia.

Of course, you can also add your sighting to the NatureMapr site. Others can then help with identification, and you will be helping to build the species list for our region!

Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) www.ala.org.au

Described as ‘Australia’s national biodiversity database’, the Atlas of Living Australia is an extraordinary resource. It brings together species records from a range of sources, including from museums, research collections, and from citizen-science projects. The structure of the site enables viewing of records and photos at all taxonomic levels, and we routinely use the site as a way to check we are on the right track with our identification of invertebrates. Jumping back and forth between different taxonomic levels and checking images at each level can be a very productive strategy to enable identification of a species.

Cautionary note: although the ALA site is progressively checked and moderated, not all records are accurate. Therefore, we always look for additional sources to ‘triangulate’ any identification.

Ideally, we would consult the original species description and any subsequent taxonomic reviews before conclusively identifying a species. In practice, however, we often rely upon slightly less rigorous means. For many invertebrates, we can feel sufficiently confident of their identity by using a combination of field guides, other relevant reference books, and online resources such as ALA.


Insects - General

CSIRO Insects and their Allies website (http://www.ento.csiro.au/education/index.html). Lots of useful background information about insects and their relationship to other animals, written in an accessible, non-technical fashion. There are pages describing key features of each insect order, as well as other terrestrial arthropods and non-arthropod invertebrates. The site includes an excellent Key to the Invertebrates, which enables you to drill down to the Order level for insects and to Phyla or Classes for other invertebrate groups.

Brisbane Insects website (https://www.brisbaneinsects.com). This is an amateur site and Brisbane based, but it's very good and covers many of the same species found in the ALCW region. And even if the species differ, it can provide a clue to the family or genus. Useful overviews of many orders and families, and excellent images.

Insects of Tasmania website (https://sites.google.com/site/insectsoftasmania/home). Another amateur site, this one based in Tasmania. Some great resources here, including a list of Insect Orders with representative photos - all of high quality. Many of the Tasmanian species will also be found in the ALCW region. Insects tend to get around!

The Insects of Australia 2nd edition. CSIRO Melbourne University Press. 1991. This is the bible for professional entomologists. Highly technical, very detailed and an absolutely unique resource. No longer in print, but held by the Tura-Marrang public library. Contains comprehensive keys to the family level for all of the insect orders and a wealth of background information, including many detailed drawings. The book is now available as an eBook (http://www.publish.csiro.au/book/94/) - $90 for the whole book or $10 a chapter.

Insects of South-Eastern Australia: An Ecological and Behavioural Guide. Roger Farrow. CSIRO Publishing. 2016. As the name implies, this book focuses on the ecological interactions between insects and their environment. However we have also found it to be a very useful field guide for insect identification, given its focus on the south-eastern Australian region. Lots of great photos and a very accessible, interesting read.

A Field Guide to Insects in Australia. Zborowski, P. and Storey, R. 4th ed. We haven’t actually used this book, but the description suggests that it would provide a good introduction to the different insect Orders.

The Waterbug Book: a guide to the freshwater macro invertebrates and their larvae of temperate Australia (John Goderham & Edward Tsyrlin). This book includes adult beetles (Coleoptera) and bugs (Hemiptera), as well as the larval stages of many other insect orders, such as dragonflies (Odonata) and lacewings (Neuroptera). A simple key in the introduction provides a quick guide to the various groups of invertebrates commonly found in ponds, lakes, streams and wetlands. Most of the examples are from southern Australia, making this a particularly useful reference for our region. Published 2002, and still widely available.

Waterbug ALT key. Download a free pdf of this guide, prepared by the Waterbug Bioblitz team (above)

Moths & Butterflies

Moths of Victoria booklets (Peter Marriott & others). These inexpensive booklets are available directly from the publishers, the Entomological Society of Victoria. Although focussed on Victorian moths, many of the same species also occur here on the Far South Coast of NSW. Covers only a limited, but expanding selection of the moth taxa. more information here

Butterfly House website (Don Herbison-Evans & Stella Crossley) This is an extraordinary resource. It includes photos and information on 4,600 adult moths & butterflies, and nearly 900 caterpillars. There are various entry points to the site. Try Adult Moth Families or Caterpillars

Field Guide to Butterflies of the ACT (Suzi Bond). Many of the species found in the ACT also occur in our region. Dr Suzi Bond is one of our butterfly moderators for sightings on NatureMapr. This handy field guide is available directly from the publishers, National Parks Association of the ACT more information here

A Guide to Australian Moths. (Zborowski, P. & Edwards, T). 2007. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood. Gives good summaries of the defining features of different moth families. If you’re serious about moth identification, you’ll want to get to know the major families, for which this is a valuable resource. Given its small size, the book provides only a small number of images of species in each family. So it has limited use as a field guide for identification to the species level.

Other Insect Orders

CSIRO publishes a series of field guides for various insect orders and families. We have used several of these and find them to be a very valuable resource. The books dealing with the less species-rich groups (e.g. stick insects, butterflies, stag beetles) are pretty comprehensive and go right down to the species level. You can order the following books on the CSIRO website http://www.publish.csiro.au/Animals/Invertebrates. They cost around $50 each but several of these titles are held by the Tura-Marrang public library.

A Guide to Crickets of Australia (forthcoming)

A Guide to Native Bees of Australia

A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia (yes, I know. Spiders aren’t insects…)

A Guide to the Spiders of Australia (ditto)

A Guide to Stag Beetles of Australia

The Complete Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia

A Guide to Mosquitoes of Australia

A Guide to the Cockroaches of Australia

A Guide to the Katydids of Australia

A Guide to the Beetles of Australia

The Complete Field Guide to Stick and Leaf Insects of Australia

The Complete Field Guide to Dragonflies of Australia

Kerri-Lee Harris