AboutZoos, Since 2008


Decline of nat­ural his­tory trou­bling for sci­ence and society

pub­lished 15 April 2014 | mod­i­fied 15 April 2014

Sup­port for nat­ural his­tory – the study of organ­isms, how and where they live and how they inter­act with their envi­ron­ment – appears to be in steep decline in devel­oped coun­tries, accord­ing to Joshua Tewks­bury, a Uni­ver­sity of Wash­ing­ton (UW) pro­fes­sor and WWF Inter­na­tional sci­en­tist. “Yet nat­ural his­tory pro­vides essen­tial knowl­edge for fields as var­ied as human health, food secu­rity, con­ser­va­tion, land man­age­ment and recre­ation,” he said.

Copepod choleraTewks­bury and 16 other sci­en­tists from across North Amer­ica out­line the impor­tance to soci­ety and call for a revi­tal­i­sa­tion of the prac­tice of nat­ural his­tory in an arti­cle first pub­lished online on 26 March in the jour­nal BioScience.

Nat­ural his­tory is gen­er­ally more con­cerned with obser­va­tions and col­lec­tions than with exper­i­men­ta­tion. It’s thought nar­rowly as the purview of sci­en­tists bot­tling up spec­i­mens or press­ing plants meant for muse­ums. But nat­ural his­tory is really about look­ing at organ­isms so closely that one learns their habits and how they fit with what’s around them. The approach works for under­stand­ing ani­mals, plants and other organ­isms out­doors as well as at the micro­bial level in, for exam­ple, our bodies.

Among exam­ples in the paper, the co-​authors point out that effec­tive fish­eries man­age­ment relies on nat­ural his­tory and that dis­as­ters such as the col­lapse of the Bering Sea wall­eye pol­lock fish­ery might have been avoided had nat­ural his­tory been used sooner. Many infec­tious dis­eases of humans – includ­ing avian influenza, Lyme dis­ease, cholera and rabies – are linked at some point in their life cycles to other ani­mals. Indeed 75 per­cent of emerg­ing infec­tious dis­eases of humans are asso­ci­ated with ani­mals, called zoonoses. Con­trol strate­gies rely on know­ing these hosts’ nat­ural history.

Increas­ingly sophis­ti­cated bio­log­i­cal mod­els still need obser­va­tions from the real world, the authors point out.

(Source: The Nat­ural His­to­ries Project – Vimeo channel)

You see col­lec­tions being aban­doned or con­sol­i­dated. Peo­ple are being skirted around nat­ural his­tory. Grad­u­ate stu­dents were told nat­ural his­tory projects were not some­thing valu­able to sci­ence as a whole.
Kirsten Row­ell, co-​author, act­ing assis­tant pro­fes­sor, cura­tor of mala­col­ogy (shells) at the Burke Museum of Nat­ural His­tory and Cul­ture, Uni­ver­sity of Washington »

“Despite the impor­tance of detailed nat­ural his­tory infor­ma­tion to many sec­tors of soci­ety, expo­sure and train­ing in tra­di­tional forms of nat­ural his­tory have not kept pace with growth in the nat­ural sci­ences over the past 50 years,” accord­ing to the authors.

Whereas uni­ver­si­ties in the 1950s, exam­ined as part of the Bio­Science paper, required nat­ural his­tory courses for a biol­ogy degree, today the major­ity of U.S. schools have no such require­ment, a trend that has coin­cided with the rise of mol­e­c­u­lar, exper­i­men­tal and other forms of biol­ogy. The rate of nat­ural his­tory pub­li­ca­tions in some dis­ci­plines has seen a par­al­lel decline.

In the paper the co-​authors offer rec­om­men­da­tions for indi­vid­u­als and insti­tu­tions inter­ested in revi­tal­is­ing nat­ural his­tory.

“There’s hope, both within and out­side of tra­di­tional nat­ural his­tory col­lec­tions, in the rise of Inter­net– and smartphone-​based tech­nolo­gies that allow the growth of broad part­ner­ships, includ­ing citizen-​science ini­tia­tives,” Tewks­bury said. An exam­ple is eBird, a web-​based pro­gram devel­oped by the Cor­nell Lab of Ornithol­ogy that has cap­i­talised on the wide­spread inter­est in and appeal of birds. The pro­gram has wit­nessed a rapid, global increase in data con­trib­u­tors and users, which has enabled both researchers and the gen­eral pub­lic to ben­e­fit from tech­nolo­gies for the col­lec­tion, organ­i­sa­tion and dis­sem­i­na­tion of vast num­bers of bird observations.

Such pro­grammes are emerg­ing but will need estab­lished pro­fes­sion­als to self-​identify as nat­ural his­to­ri­ans to pro­vide the lead­er­ship for nat­ural his­tory to reclaim its nec­es­sary role, the authors assert.

Besides the paper, a web­site and other mate­ri­als emerged fol­low­ing a series of four work­shops funded by the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion and the UW Col­lege of the Environment.

(Source: Uni­ver­sity of Wash­ing­ton news release, 26.03.2014)

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