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New online key to grass families - guest blog by Sally Hyslop
Grasses are strange and secretive plants. Their elusive flowers are reduced to tiny proportions, so instead of bright, showy petals they have minute, specialised scales. All this is because they have reverted back to wind-pollination, that old-fangled method that doesn’t rely on insects or birds. This retro way of life appears to have worked out well for grasses, which are found in pretty much every habitat across the world (coast to tundra) and have formed huge ecosystems covering ¼ of the Earth’s surface.
During my year at the Natural History Museum, on the Identification Trainer’s for the Future programme, I re-curated a collection of grasses in the British and Irish Herbarium - a vast library of 620,000 plant specimens. There were many rare and extraordinary curiosities! The genus Digitaria, or the finger-grasses, grow in creepy, hand-like shapes. There was Phalaris too, called canary-grasses (disappointingly not because they’re so bright and chirpy-looking, but because they’re farmed as a crop for bird-seed).
At first sight they may seem deceptively simple, but the identification of grasses is notoriously tricky for us tender-footed beginners. It didn’t matter what key or field-guide I tried, identifying to species-level felt impossible. My conclusion “new species to Britain” also started to get less hilarious after several fruitless attempts! The idea of the grasses key was to take one step back and create a ‘top-down’ approach, where users learn what defines each genus before jumping to species-level. For me, this approach breaks down the whole identification process, makes it feel more manageable and builds my understanding of taxonomy.
Whilst my plans for the grasses key were sprouting away, I went to the 2015 National Biodiversity Network conference where I saw Rich Burkmar present his visualisation of Emma Sherlock’s earthworms key. Rich’s multi-access key was ingenious, transforming a traditional dichotomous key into something accessible, responsive and graspable.
In dichotomous keys users select correct characters from a series of ordered couplets and follow a fixed path to identification. Multi-access keys are more flexible, allowing users to select characters in any order and essentially create their own route to an identification. When combined with a touch of interactive computer-tech, multi-access keys can simplify the identification process and become powerful learning tools.
The grasses key predicts the most likely genera from the information you input and Rich’s visualisation allows you to see this whole process in action! Detailed descriptions and example specimens (from the NHM’s British and Irish Herbarium) allow you to verify the identification yourself. I wanted to create an interactive resource that would guide identification, but also teach users along the way, so the key is jam-packed with identification advice and illustrations. Hope you like it!
Sally's grasses key can be found here. All illustrations are drawn by Sally herself. Images of specimens were sourced from the Natural History Museum’s British and Irish Herbarium. The Identification Trainers for the Future project is hosted by the Natural History Museum and run in partnership with the Field Studies Council and National Biodiversity Network Trust. It is generously supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund's Skills for the Future programme.
The Field Studies Council publishes a fold-out chart to the 30 most common grass species. Buy it here for only £3 plus P&P
There are several FSC courses coming up on grass identification. They are listed here.