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Finding and identifying organisms

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Some species are hard to see so you need to look carefully to find out what lives in an area. Image: Maureen Keen.

Animals, plants and fungi can be difficult to see. They may be tiny, camouflaged, shy or nocturnal, so scientists use a variety of tools and techniques to find organisms.


To identify a plant, you need to look at how it grows and at the shape of leaves. You may also need to look closely at flowers, seeds or the roots.

To identify different types of ferns you may need to collect spores and look at them under a microscope.

Don’t forget to look closely at the ground because some plants are tiny and can go unnoticed.


To find creatures like spiders, centipedes, mites and snails you will need to look under rocks, in the soil and under plants. You will need to look during the day and at night.

You may need to use sweep nets, torches, pit traps, malaise traps or Berlese funnels to catch invertebrates.

A pit trap is set up to catch animals. Image: LEARNZ.


The fruiting bodies of fungi such as mushrooms, brackets and puff-balls can be found on trees, logs, litter and soil.

Micro-fungi will not be visible, but plants may show symptoms of infection in leaves. Scientists can also analyse soil samples.


Scientists can use agar to grow bacteria and then look at what has grown under a microscope.


Bats are difficult to see and hear. Scientists use ‘bat detectors’ to pick up the high frequency sounds that bats make when they are flying and feeding at night.


Often it is easiest to find birds during early morning or evening. You will need to stay still and quiet to see birds and binoculars may be useful.


Scientists use specially designed nets and traps for fish. Electric fishing may also be used by experts to temporarily stun fish so they can be identified.

A net can be used to catch aquatic invertebrates. Image: LEARNZ.

Skinks and geckos

Pit traps can be set with food to attract skinks and geckos and left overnight. Like all traps it is important to make sure these are monitored, and animals are released as soon as possible.

Tracking tunnels

Tracking tunnels are baited with food such as peanut butter. They use ink so that any animal that walks through the tunnel leaves their footprints behind.

Possums, hedgehogs, rats, stoats and cats

These introduced animals can be identified by finding scat or poo, tracks and signs of feeding on plants. Cage traps, motion cameras and tracking tunnels can also be used. You will need to look for these animals at night.

You can take photos and use iNaturalist to help record and identify plants and animals.

Complete the Finding and identifying organisms quiz

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