A dichotomous key is a device that can be used to easily identify an unknown organism.
The word dichotomous comes from two Greek words that together mean, “divided in two
parts”. A dichotomous key consists of a series of two-part statements that describe
characteristic of organisms. At each step of a dichotomous key the user is presented with
two “opposite” choices. As the user makes a choice about a particular characteristic of an
organism, the user is led (using numbered indicators) to a new branch of the key (which
may or may not be immediately below). Eventually, the user will be led to the name of the
organism that he or she is trying to identify.
When constructing a dichotomous key, the first step is to look at the group of organisms
and separate them into two groups based on a single distinguishing characteristic. The two
parts of the dichotomous choice have to be mutually exclusive, which means that each
organism satisfies the criteria of only one, and not the other, choice. This first dichotomy
can divide the species into groups that are either approximately equal or unequal; neither
approach is wrong. It is sometimes helpful to choose something that divides all the
organisms into approximately equal groups. However, if there is one or a few organisms in
the list that are distinctly different from all the others covered by the key, then
sometimes the first choice separates those few from the rest. Key-building continues by
then separating each of the first two groups into other pairs of groups. So, multiple pairs
of distinguishing characteristics are created that allow the user to get ever closer to the
correct identification. Ultimately, the pairs of choices will allow the user to separate each
of the groups until each organism has its own separate set of characteristics and a
definitive identification can be made.
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