On the benefits of natural history knowledge

I am reminded today about the importance of ecologists knowing a good deal of natural history. Every species is in some sense a unique experiment in evolution, and our job as population and community ecologists is to understand how these species operate in the ecosystems in which they live. But this means we must know the details about how the species operates, what it eats and who eats it, and in some sense how it thinks about its world. I suspect that this is easier to do with higher vertebrates than it is with insects or protozoa but we need to do the same with all forms of life if we are to achieve ecological understanding.

There is in my experience a great lack of this approach in the universities I have seen. We no longer tend to teach about angiosperm systematics, or mammalogy, or ornithology. These are completely old fashioned, the world’s most condemning epithet. So we turn out biology students in British Columbia that cannot identify a Douglas fir tree (perhaps the most important forest tree in the province) and California students who think the eucalyptus trees originated in Berkeley. That would all be well if we perfected bar-coding on our iPhones for species IDs so we could spend more time learning about where and how these species live and die. But too often we seem to think there is a short cut to understanding species roles. It is always worth exploring short cuts to understanding if we can effectively make a simpler way to explain the world. But we try and fail at this enterprise again and again. Hope springs eternal. We need to know now, so let us assume that all algae can be grouped as one ‘superspecies’ in our models, and all ‘rats’ are bad and need to be exterminated, and adding CO2 to the air will make all plants grow faster. We learn by a lot of difficult and extended research that these are oversimplifications. But then the problem becomes communicating this complexity to politicians and the public who desire simplicity rather than complexity.

This whole task is much easier if you talk to a birder who being keen on birds knows that they all differ in many interesting ecological characters, that some individuals of the same species behave in quite different ways, and that the ecosystem continues to operate with this amazing complexity. So I think one solution to ecological oversimplification is to quiz those who start to tell you about harvesting whales, or poisoning rats, or bringing in genetically modified crops to find out how much they know about the natural history of the species they talk so confidently about. A dose of humility would not hurt our discussions of the current controversies of wildlife and fisheries management.

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