Why Natural History Matters

The Yukon River in the Yukon Charley National Preserve, Alaska.

The Yukon River in the Yukon Charley National Preserve, Alaska.

You’ll have to pardon me if this piece feels like a bit of a tangent, it might well be. You see, I’ve been thinking a lot about natural history, what it is, and how it has changed. I’ve been angered by the way the study of natural history has been relegated to the bottom rung of the scientific ladder. In the face of statistical models, minimum sample sizes, and site or species-specific studies, the practice of watching and documenting wild things has fallen by the wayside. At least in the academic world.

I read an article from 2014, recently about how naturalists are becoming an endangered species in the nation’s colleges and universities, replaced by biologically adept statisticians. Sadly, I think this decline is real, as even field-based sciences are becoming more and more mathematically oriented. The loss of general natural history studies are bad news for students and researchers alike.

Since my undergraduate years at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, I’ve been neck deep in natural history. While I believe that statistics can play an important role in understanding and elucidating relationships within the natural world, I believe that they should come secondary to careful observation in the field. Observations that, hopefully, reach well beyond our specific focus.

I am currently working on a review paper for publication that digs as far back as the 1870s for data on birds. The historical papers are fascinating. Written in entertaining, narrative form, they discuss everything from the weather to the species observed, numbers of individuals, where they occurred, and what they were doing.

But as we progress through time, the changing methods and culture of science are obvious. From the first half of the 20th century, where observational, natural history, and collections still played the leading role, we move on to the second half of the 20th century when site and species-specific studies took over. For a time at least, those studies retained a major natural history component, even including comprehensive species lists as part of the final publication. But then the 21st century rolled around, and with the exception of dedicated survey work, the collection of observational or anecdotal data, even species lists, fell by the wayside. As a result, I’ve had a mess of a time digging up recent information on the abundances of birds in my study area.

So, yes, natural history as an important part of field science is fading, if not utterly lost. Though the rise in citizen science, and publicly accessible digital databases like eBird and iNaturalist are helping to fill that role, it’s an imperfect fit.

A White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) in Denali National Park, AK, USA

A White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) in Denali National Park, AK, USA

I hate the notion that the study of natural history is somehow inferior. No, it may not work well to answer very specific study questions, and no it doesn’t possess the statistical significance of a computer model, and it certainly lacks the academic cachet. But what natural history data provides is historical significance and insight ecosystem relationships.

Those lists and anecdotal observations that seem cumbersome or pointless today, may have an impact in the future. Lists and relative abundance estimates allow a future researcher (me for example) to determine how populations in a region have changed over time. What new species are appearing, and how those changes might impact the system as a whole. Behavioral observations, even anecdotal ones, can lead to new discoveries. What may seem a one-off for an observer in the field, may become an important part of a species’ ecology, when combined with the notes of others.

In my last post, I described the findings of a recent paper that documented how reduced ice in the arctic is allowing species to criss-cross through the Northwest Passage, jumping ocean basins. This study, which outlines far-reaching ecological consequences, would not have been possible without anecdotal records of where and when species are appearing.

Another paper recently published in the ornithological journal “The Auk”, again shows the importance of natural history. In the Baltic Sea researchers observed an interaction between diving ducks and Larus gulls. When the ducks dove to pull mussels from the bottom of a lagoon (which were out of reach for the gulls), and returned to the surface, they found the gulls hovering overhead, waiting to poach a mussel or two. After long hours of observation, the authors determined that it was no coincidence, the gulls were indeed changing their normal foraging behavior in the presence of ducks, and affecting the community structure, right down to the mussels, at the same time. Had the authors not also been naturalists, such a fascinating system may have been ignored.

Too often, I’ve encountered biologists that simply dismiss Natural History. They don’t create lists, they don’t pay attention to anything but their own study species. I’ve seen field biologists studying birds that are virtually ignorant of anything outside their focal species. Even the journals themselves, in their press releases, feel compelled to state that the paper was a product of “old school natural history”, as if the authors were doing something totally retro, instead of dedicating themselves to a rigorous study of nature. If the attitude of natural history as second rate becomes the standard in field biology, untold insights will be lost.

Biologists should be naturalists first. Not only should they know their study species, they should recognize the other critters and plants that share its environment. Students of the lab sciences should be compelled to study the greater systems and history under which they work. They should get outside, and watch how the small questions they study relate in a much larger world. I strongly believe their work will be better, more approachable to the public, and more relatable to funders and policy-makers

We all know that all elements in an ecosystem are connected. Some of those connections are obvious, some are hidden down deep, but if we aren’t paying attention, we’ll never find them.