#IAmANaturalist reclaim the name campaign celebrates natural history research

Are you a naturalist? Join the grassroots effort to reclaim the name. ESA’s Natural History section is calling on you to assert your naturalist identity with pride by tweeting a photo to #IAmANaturalist on Monday, September 8, 2014. Guest poster Kirsten Rowell explains why.

[update: see some of the fantastic #IamaNaturalist photos and tweets in our September 10 collection or scroll down this post for more blog excerpts.]


140908 Kirsten Rowell IAmANaturalistI am a Naturalist — I use careful observations of the natural world to inform my daily life and research. My practice of natural history feeds my research program with questions, and answers.

But I don’t think I’ve ever introduced myself as a naturalist. When was the last time you heard an ecologist introduce herself as a NATURALIST? Why do we reject that identity?  Isn’t natural history the seed of many ecological questions—and in some cases the answer?

This is why we (@esanathist ) are starting a #IAmANaturalist campaign to raise awareness about the prevalence of naturalists in ecology and the importance of natural history.

Without natural history knowledge, I would be lost.  In my research I look for patterns in nature and I ask questions about what shapes those patterns.

In the absence of natural history information, our progress toward an understanding of complex ecological questions grinds to a halt. Impacts of climate change?  Depends on the natural history. Management of threatened populations?  The devil is in the details of how and where they live and die. Disease prevention?  Same story.  All of our sophisticated models are only as good as the natural history that informs them.

The field of Ecology is young, and it stands on the shoulders of natural history. Many of the icons in ecology, such as G.W. Carver, E. Leopold, E.O. Wilson, J. Goodall, J. Lubchenco, S. Earle, R. Kimmer, etc. were and are fundamentally naturalists, observing and recording the natural world in situ and in its entirety with a keen appreciation to connections and interactions.  It is the first-hand experiences in nature that give us the ”Rachel Carlson / Gene Likens” insights that unlock mysteries and help solve major environmental solutions.  It is also the naturalist instinct that is open to the abundance of complexity in ecosystems, which fuels our passion for better scholarship.

Yet most ecologists don’t teach natural history courses. Anecdotally, this seems especially true for junior faculty. Over the past decades we have seen a steady decline in the practice of natural history, perceived value of natural history, and natural history course work for biology majors (Tewksbury et al. 2014). These statistics beg the question, what will the field of ecology look like in a future without a strong emphasis on the training and retention of young naturalists?

We cannot afford to loose the skillset of natural history in ecology.  We need to invest in and support more naturalists and more natural history institutions (museums, field stations, and botanical gardens)! The ecological issues that we will face in the future require more than ever the diverse insights of folks who can read landscapes, make careful field observations, recognize anomalies, accurately record patterns in nature, and make hypotheses that come from an education that only experience in observing nature can give you.

The Natural History Section of the Ecological Society of America invites you to join our #IamaNaturalist campaign. If you practice natural history, then reclaim the name “Naturalist” by posting a picture of yourself (i.e. in the field or with a specimen) with the hashtag #IamaNaturalist. Please give a shout out for the celebration of natural history, the oldest human endeavor and the forerunner to the field of ecology.  If you prefer facebook over twitter, you can join this campaign by posting your #IamaNaturalist picture on our facebook page.

Our hope is to start a wildfire of support for the value of natural history and the people who spend their days (or nights) practicing natural history.  We hope that this engagement starts some conversations around the importance of natural history in ecology and that it provokes a trend of closeted naturalists to proudly present their passion for natural history to the world!


Kirsten Rowell is curator of malacology at the Burke Museum of Natural History in Seattle, Wash., and a biologist at the University of Washington, currently on sabbatical in Geneva, Switzerland. She uses sclerochronology, stable isotope ratios, and elements to tell her about the lives of fish and molluscs  living thousands of years ago, comparing where they live, what they eat, and where they are in a trophic web to living animals — but it is her observational knowledge about these ecosystems that informs her interpretations of these tools.

“#IAmANaturalist. It’s only in the last year or so that I’ve become comfortable with using that title. More officially, I am an ecologist. Certainly these titles are not, and should not, be mutually exclusive…”

Read more: on his blog, naturalist (and ecologist) Nash Turley explains what natural history means to him, and why he strives to root more of his research in natural history observations.

**update 3:45 pm EDT:

140908 Chris Buddle IAmANaturalist“Many naturalists have no formal training in biology, and don’t have advanced degrees. They may have binoculars, probably have paper and pen, and they have an ability to observe carefully and critically and feel joy and appreciation about what they are observing…

…as we face a biodiversity crisis we need people who watch, record, and appreciate nature. We need the passion and motivation of naturalists. We need their knowledge, we need their observations…”

Read more: arachnologist Chris Buddle posted thoughts on What [or who] is a naturalist? on his blog, earlier this year.

**update 4:45 pm EDT:

140908 Terry McGlynn IAMANaturalist“LEGO Master Builders know every single individual building element that the company makes. When they are charged with designing a new model, they understand the natural history of LEGO so well that their model is the best model it can be. Likewise, ecologists that know the most about nature are the ones that can build models that best describe how nature works. An ecologist that doesn’t know the pieces that make up nature will have a model that doesn’t look like what it is supposed to represent…”

Read more: Terry McGlynn dug deep into natural history and modern training priorities on his blog Small Pond Science last February: “Natural history is important, but not perceived as an academic job skill” [with Venn diagram!].

Same Data, Different Century. Sometimes I believe I was born to be a 19th century naturalist. Compiling long term records of flowering phenology involves stitching together old data (for example, this herbarium specimen from 1895) with new data (a phenology observation collected on a smartphone app in 2013). As I trek across Mount Desert Island in the 21st century, I am keenly aware of the naturalists who came before me; in my mind, I insert myself into the troupe of Harvard boys whose field notes and camp logs have become my baseline data. I really love S. A. Eliot's sweater. Caption, Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie. Image, Designed by Michael MacKenzie Herbarium Specimen courtesy of the College of the Atlantic Herbarium Smartphone Screenshot of original data courtesy of fulcrum app Photograph of the Harvard boys in 1880 courtesy of the Northeast Harbor Library Photograph of Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie by Lisa McDonough“Sometimes I believe I was born to be a 19th century naturalist. Compiling long term records of flowering phenology involves stitching together old data (for example, this herbarium specimen from 1895) with new data (a phenology observation collected on a smartphone app in 2013). As I trek across Mount Desert Island in the 21st century, I am keenly aware of the naturalists who came before me…”

Read more: ecologist Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie, feeling the connection to naturalists who had come before her, in her 2013 Science Cafe pitch, “same data, different century.”


Natural History’s Place in Science and Society (2014) Joshua j. Tewksbury, John G. T. Anderson, Jonathan D. Bakker, Timothy J. Billo, Peter W. Dunwiddie, Martha J. Groom, Stephanie E. Hampton, 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 and Terry A. Wheeler. BioScience,  First published online: March 26, 2014. doi: 10.1093/biosci/biu032.