Natural history played a central role in the sciences for centuries. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, among many others, were natural historians whose ideas not only changed the course of science, but of society as well. Thanks to their work, the concept of evolution drives thinking in biology but is also a metaphor for social change and economic development.
Staff illustration from photo by Jannis Tobias Werner
In the past century, though, what most people think of as natural history—museums, expeditions, taxonomy—has experienced a steep decline in research and education support. This decline runs parallel to a decline in the direct experience of nature. While both are signals with troubling implications for society and science, new technologies provide novel insights into organisms and ecosystems that were not previously available—and also create new opportunities for public involvement in natural history.
In 2014, my colleagues and I, in a paper in BioScience, defined natural history as “the observation and description of the natural world, with the study of organisms and their linkages to the environment being central.” While this definition is unlikely to satisfy everyone, what it does do is put an emphasis on natural history being multidisciplinary. It also emphasizes the idea that natural history is multiscaled, from the micro to the macro, from microscopic algae to entire forest ecosystems.
I want to emphasize that the study of natural history opens doors for non-scientists to contribute to biology, conservation, and resilience in the face of global change. You don’t have to be a specialist with a doctoral degree to contribute meaningfully to our understanding of nature and natural systems, including the many ways humans impact these systems.
Natural history knowledge also benefits non-biologists. Understanding the ways organisms have adapted to local conditions can teach us important lessons about resiliency and sustainability.
Take human health. About 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases share part of their life cycle with animals. Understanding the life cycles of host organisms is essential to managing outbreaks of disease. Cholera, Vibrio cholerae, is a great example. We now know that V. cholerae associates with zooplankton. That discovery led to a startlingly simple prevention technique: filtering polluted water through cloth. The cloth doesn’t trap individual cholera cells, but it does block the zooplankton they are attached to.
With food production, too, we can quickly see the benefits of natural history. Innovative techniques such as biological pest control (bringing good bugs to deter the bad ones) or multispecies cropping (to likewise encourage the presence of good bugs) reduces reliance on pesticides (and thus decreases a farmer’s costs) and, simultaneously, increases biodiversity at the local level.
Overlooking the critical role played by local natural history knowledge and the traditional ecological knowledge of indigenous people can have negative consequences. Forest fire suppression in western North America, for example, based on practices that work in the hardwood forests of eastern North America and Germany, has proved very costly in lives, homes, habitat, and money. So, too, with salmon habitat in northwestern North America. Tree debris in creeks and rivers provides habitat for fish but hinders navigability. Removing debris improved navigability but now millions of dollars are spent to reintroduce such habitat-building debris.
Taking local natural history knowledge into account often inspires scientists’ efforts. The Alaskan Iñupiat’s traditional ecological knowledge of bowhead whales helped establish hunting quotas—knowledge that was later confirmed by researchers using a variety of technological methods. Even more recently, an interdisciplinary team of scientists verified what people of the Haida Nation have known for years. Younger Haida Gwai herring learn from older fish where spawning grounds are. That traditional knowledge has improved computer models of herring stocks, potentially improving fishery management.
I think revitalizing the study of natural history, not only among professional scientists in research universities but at all educational and societal levels, will bring such benefits to all of us.
I can hear an objection already: I live in the city, far from nature. But nothing could be closer to you than nature!
Nature is not confined to wild places—or, put another way, you can find wild places on your own person. Using an inexpensive smartphone microscope like the Diple, you can explore the microbiome of your belly button lint or your showerhead. Such activities are not only fun, engaging, and inspiring, they potentially add to the kinds of big data sets that professional researchers can use to improve life for all concerned.
From sourdough to sauerkraut, there’s plenty of wild in the kitchen, too. Citizen scientists recently shared samples of sourdough starters and startled the professionals who, after sequencing microbial DNA in the dough, found an amazing diversity of microbes.
Using smartphones and social networks, apps like Seek, iNaturalist, and eBird empower dog walkers, bird watchers, and kids in parks to record their observations, share them with others, and get a sense of what nature’s up to in their neighborhood, rural or urban. Some of that data is of high enough quality that researchers can use it to help make informed decisions about conservation—and the citizen scientists who collected it get kudos and the satisfaction of having helped make the world a better place.
All sorts of technology also enable citizen scientists to engage with nature. Drones can be used to capture photos and video of changes in landscapes and develop 3D maps useful to fire managers, scientists, and policymakers. Camera traps and even simpler tools can be used to understand the ecologies of backyards, those overlooked sources of wonder and wilderness that few people actually study.
What we don’t know is immense, and there is plenty for all of us to do. We need to learn the basics of natural history because it contributes to our ability to assess the changes our planetary systems are undergoing. A resilient future requires us to be able to make informed predictions about how and why things change. Our ability to build computational models that do precisely that is immense and steadily improving—but those models are worthless without basic natural history knowledge to inform them.
Stephanie E. Hampton is a professor of environmental sciences and director of the Center for Environmental Research, Education, and Outreach at Washington State University. She acknowledges and thanks her coauthors on the BioScience paper: Joshua J. Tewksbury, John G. T. Anderson, Jonathan D. Bakker, Timothy J. Billo, Peter W. Dunwiddie, Martha J. Groom, Steven G. Herman, Douglas J. Levey, Noelle J. Machnicki, Carlos Martínez del Rio, Mary E. Power, Kirsten Rowell, Anne K. Salomon, Liam Stacey, Stephen C. Trombulak, Terry A. Wheeler