Going out on an exciting trip to the zoo, or better yet, to a grand wildlife safari in Africa, would be more enjoyable if you equipped yourself enough knowledge about animals. Being on this trip is pretty fun as it sounds, regardless of whether you are knowledgeable about animals or not.

A day tour in the wildlife does not require you to be a zoological expert, and you could just simply enjoy the magnificent view and appreciate nature as you travel. However, having basic to advance knowledge about animals would help you in some way during the tour, at the same time, making it more interesting.

What we need is proper wildlife identification for us to make our safari more enjoyable. If you are a wildlife photographer, you will expose yourself to thousands of animal species – in which it may be challenging to distinguishing them individually. Because of this, it is essential to have an identification guide to make sure that you are capturing the photo of the right animal.

To identify a specific animal, we need to consider different key points, starting from its appearance, habitat, behavior, and many others. These factors are what we need to have an accurate declaration of the animal’s species.

For us to do this, pick up a pen and paper, then make it a habit to take down notes. You will need to take personal field notes to help you with recognition and comparison later.

Field Notes Guide in Wildlife Identification

1. Decide which group the animals belong

The first thing you need to do in writing a field note is to identify which group the animal you are observing belongs. Every animal falls under the primary animal groups – which are the mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, fishes, and invertebrates. Each group has very distinct features that made it easy to identify where an animal belongs to in one glance.

Starting from mammals, which are warm-blooded animals, these are the most common of all. You can easily identify the appearance of mammals because of their fur and mammary glands. Compared to other animal groups, mammals have the least species, although they are the most typical since they are mostly present in our daily lives – like dogs, cats, rats, cows, etc.

Then we have the reptiles, which consist of cold-blooded animals that usually have scaly skins and the ability to lay eggs for reproduction. Their population is not as many as other animal groups, due to natural and some human-made causes. There are different kinds of reptiles, mainly the crocodiles, turtles, snakes, and lizards.

Amphibians are somehow similar to reptiles because of their cold-blooded nature. They also can lay eggs and have semi-aquatic lifestyles. Amphibians have various species all around the globe. However, researchers consider them as one of the most globally endangered animals.

Another group in the animal kingdom is birds. This group is one of the most diverse among all groups, mainly because of its various species globally. From the hot deserts to the ice-cold deserts of the arctics, birds are present and can adapt to different conditions. Besides this interesting fact about birds, you can quickly identify their appearance from their feathers, wings, bill, and tail.

Next in line are the fishes, which dominate different bodies of waters. There are various types of fish that have distinct features, mainly their gills, which they use to breathe.

Lastly, we have the invertebrates, which fills the 97 percent of the Earth’s total animal species. The main distinguishing factor for invertebrates is they don’t have backbones and internal skeletons. The group of invertebrates has several sub-groups including, worms, insects, sponges, mollusks, octopuses, anthropods, etc.

2. Estimate the size and the proportions of the animal

Now that we have decided on the animal’s group, let us now examine its further details. What we need to note down are its size and proportions.

In doing this, we don’t need to jump in and startle the animal by using usual measuring tools. The idea is to do a rough estimate of the creature’s size just by looking at it. You can use basic units of measurement for doing and estimate.

Let’s have an elephant as an example. By only looking at the elephant, it is apparent that it has a pretty massive size. We can estimate its size by using meters or feet because you can easily use these units to compare with the human scale, while for small animals, you can use inches.

3. Look out for distinguishing features which assist with identification

Different animals have several distinguishing features. From the six primary groups to the various species in each sub-groups, there are a lot of distinct features that you can see if you observe closely.
The perfect example of this is birds. There are several species of birds, some of them are pretty distinct, and some of them are not. Let’s examine the bald eagle and the golden eagle. Both of them have similarities, as much as differences. One way to distinguish the difference between the two species is to check the color of the head – the bald eagle has a white head while the golden eagle has a brown head with golden feathers on its nape. Take note of these features so we could use them in comparison later on.

4. Check out the distribution map to establish the likelihood of the animal’s occurrence

Another thing to take note of is the animal’s distribution map. Certain animals have a distribution map to help us know whether you can find them in a specific area or region. This information could help identify an animal because some species are only present in particular areas. Having this kind of knowledge will give us certainty about determining the animal species we are observing, as well as make us more knowledgeable about our subjects.

5. Check the habitat preference of the animal

The habitat preference is quite similar to the distribution map since it also provides information about locations. However, the habitat preference of an animal gives us more specific data of a species. Different animals might be present in the same region or area as the distribution map shows, so for us to gain more profound knowledge on where an animal lives, we should utilize our habitat preferences. With these preferences, we can identify if an animal in the region lives in mountains, forests, swamps, etc.

6. Make notes of the specific behavioral trait which may aid in identification

Last but not least, we need to take notes regarding the animal’s behavior. Like humans, animals have different types of behaviors. Some of them are shy and passive, while some of them are territorial and aggressive. Knowing these behavioral traits is essential to us and might come in handy in some unwanted scenarios.

An excellent example of this is are bees and wasps. A common misconception from some people is the confusion between bees and wasps. Some people might even say they are the same and can’t even tell the difference. Well, bees and wasps are individual insects, and both of them have several similarities. Although you can spot their differences with their appearance, there are also different factors that you can see from their behavior. One of these is their nature towards humans; bees are gentle and rarely sting, while wasps are aggressive and are more likely to sting.

With this said, even with behavior, we can distinguish different species of animals; that is why we need to take a note of this information.

After you write down all of this information, you can now proceed in recognizing and comparing each of the animal species you observed. You can use it as a future reference, for additional knowledge, or merely as a product of interest. The field notes that you made is a representation of the experience from your wildlife safari, and would be a useful guide in your future wildlife activities.


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