My, my, hey, hey – (I wish) natural history was here to stay

Is natural history heading down the Dodo track? ("Dodge the dodo" by Elian Chrebor at Flickr, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license).

Is natural history heading down the Dodo track? (“Dodge the dodo” by Elian Chrebor at Flickr, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license).

By Jonas Waldenström

We all love our Darwin. The quiet little man who changed the way we perceive the world around us. A bearded gentleman who laid forth the simple, but elegant principles of evolution by means of natural selection. What is less known is that he spent years studying barnacles, classifying the shells of specimens sent to him from collaborators around the world. Partly, I guess, because he liked these strange animals – but also because that in Victorian England you proved your worth in science by careful natural history studies, and preferentially studies of marine animals.

Goose barnacles. (Picture from Wikimedia Commons by M. Buschmann used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license).

Goose barnacles – delightful kritters that Darwin studied. (Picture from Wikimedia Commons by M. Buschmann used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license).

Who study obscure animals these days? Is there a career in a more descriptive science? Who measures the sizes of thousands wasp genitalia, surveys the distribution of barklice in the boreal forests, or studies the nesting behaviors of Eiders? Not too many it seems. Natural history is slowly vanishing at the universities, and even though there are many scientists pointing out that natural history research is the foundation of most other scientific disciplines, there is still a long-term downward trend. There are cooler things for a prospective graduate student to work with. If you can sequence a genome in a day, why bother characterizing the everyday life of isopods under rocks for four years? When only a fraction of every PhD cohort makes it all the way to faculty positions, natural history research often end up on the wrong side of the cut. Natural history research is under-funded, collections at universities are not managed (or are even tossed out, or given away), and less and less of a biology student’s curriculum is devoted to identifying species and how to make notes on natural phenomena.

Actually, natural history isn’t doing very well in ordinary society either. We see an increasing ‘biological illiteracy’. When Swedes on the street were asked to identify the leaves from the most common deciduous trees – like ash, oak and birch – most people got them wrong. This was especially true for younger people. Perhaps it is inevitable that urbanization puts people more and more at distance with nature – but as someone interested in birds, plants and animals it is a disheartening trend.

So what can be done? At a structural level funding needs to be secured, and universities need to realize that taxonomy, field ecology and identification are important skills to teach and research in. Specialists are needed, and they need to have funds and means to conduct their research. However, at a personal level – as non-natural history scientists or amateurs – we can also do our part. I started my science track at a bird observatory – a great way of learning a lot about birds – which led me to write several studies on bird migration phenology, habitat preferences, and moult patterns during my early years at the university. I got great help from more experienced scientists, and valuable training in the arts of science. In turn I nowadays help young birders with their studies, either at the bird observatory, or as a supervisor for undergraduate students. If you are in a position to help students, you should do that. Perhaps in the process you are nurturing a coming star in science.

And if you are a birdwatcher, an amateur herpetologist or a botanist, put your observations in one of the growing data repositories (for an example see Artportalen – a Swedish database for observations), where they can be accessed by others. And don’t forget, bring your kids, friends and foes with you when you go to the field – perhaps you can inspire someone to become more interested and knowledgeable in nature. For in the end of the day, what is nature if we don’t know what it is we see? A mere postcard.

For more on natural history, read this editorial in Nature, or jump to the Natural History Fridays initiative by Alex Bond at The Lab and Field (where you also can learn how thick Murre eggs really are).

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One thought on “My, my, hey, hey – (I wish) natural history was here to stay

  1. same situation in Germany as well – or even more. Taxonomic knowledge (both in zoology as well in botany) has been removed of most study programmes. Unless students come with previous knowledge before they won´t get too much additionally out from their studies. It is on us to stimulate their interest and share our fascination and passion.

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