I’ve argued for some time that natural history gets short shrift in the next-generation sequencing, -omics proliferating world of today’s biologist. By natural history, I mean observations of species, events, habitats, or behaviours. I think it’s safe to say that without the solid foundation of natural history, much of today’s ecology, and biology in general, wouldn’t be possible.
The major ornithological journals (Auk, Condor, Ibis, Wilson, and the then-German Journal of Ornithology) all got their start in the late 1800s. You can go back and look at some of the articles that passed muster, and you’ll see lovely titles like “A Barn Swallow’s Nest on a Moving Train” published in the Condor in 1935. Such “purely observational” notes would never pass as “research” in today’s hyper-competitive publishing gauntlet. Or would they?
There are still some journals out there that embrace this aspect of science. The Canadian Field-Naturalist, once bemoaned for its 2+ year lag in publishing has caught up, has a snazzy new website where past issues are available (others can be found on the Biodiversity Heritage Library), and keeps a fairly active presence on Twitter. Other outfits like Northeastern Naturalist (or Southeastern, Northwest, Southwest, and American Midland Naturalist) complement each other in geographic scope.
I got into biology for the field work. I love being outdoors, living in remote places, interacting with amazing creatures (and their habitats). And like those a century before, when I find myself somewhere for a lengthy period of time with no power, phone, radio, computer, or running water, I notice things. Sometimes these are little things, like an oddly-coloured individual. Other times, they’re larger things, like a significant species occurrence record, or a volcanic seep.
The initial goal of publication in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (the first academic journal, founded in 1665) was to tell other Fellows of the Royal Society of all things various and sundry. Who could forget, after all, the 1674 classic by Dr. Johnstones: “An observation of Dr. Johnstones of Pomphret, communicated to him by Mr. Lister, and by him sent in a letter to the publisher, concerning some stones of perfect gold-colour; found in animals”? But I digress.
A few weeks ago, while taking stock of things on my plate, and prompted in part by Meg’s post on Dynamic Ecology on languishing datasets, I decided to implement “Natural History Fridays”. Friday afternoons, from about 1:30 until I leave for the day (usually about 5pm), I dedicate to natural history writings and projects. Some of these will results in manuscripts, others won’t and will end up being shared with colleagues. Here are a few of the things currently on my natural history plate:
-a summary of the birds of Kiska Island, in the western Aleutian Islands where I spent 4 years doing my PhD
-describing some cases of aberrant plumages (leucism or melanism)
-compiling vagrant records (observations or collections outside their normal range) of auklets (the seabirds I worked on for my PhD)
I’m pretty lucky in that I have the flexibility to dedicate a few hours of my week to projects that some might see as frivolous or unnecessary. But I don’t think these projects are frivolous or unnecessary – I find them enjoyable, and some may result in a publication or two, and all increase our knowledge of species, habitats, or phenomena, which, after all, is what science is all about.