How do I get into Natural History?

Students with an interest in pursuing a career in ecology or conservation often find out that skills and experience count. At the heart of conservation work is knowing where to look for things and knowing what is in front of you. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family where this was second-nature (we were always doing it). But most people aren’t in that situation. They need a foot in the door. Here are my top paths to natural history experience.

  1. Treat it as a hobby. That way it doesn’t take time away from other essential things. I often find students worrying that experience needs to be treated like an unpaid job, and people worry how they can afford to do it. You don’t have to do it like that; spare time (evenings, weekends) is just as good. Being a good naturalist comes from loving spending the time doing it. If you like it, you will make the time. You might need to invest a bit at the start, but the love grows quickly. It is never-ending, because the number of species to observe and record is so large.
  2. Start a nature diary (or blog). Write down every nature experience. I have an A4 hard backed lined book that my colleagues will recognize as a “lab book”. To start with you will just spot easy-to-recognize things that are common like familiar trees, birds and butterflies. As you grow in experience, the list and length of species you have seen will grow. You need at minimum to know the date, the location (the more precision the better) and the species. My nature diaries will be left to my children, and I am keeper of my grandfather’s, so it’s a rich legacy you are creating.
  3. Buy some nature books, especially field guides to common groups like flowers, trees, butterflies, birds. Later on you can graduate onto more difficult groups. You don’t have to do this all at once, and not expensively. Gain books by Xmas or birthday presents, and get some second-hand. You will find yourself pouring over them to identify the things you saw, and that’s how you learn. You may find yourself wanting to cover one group more than others, and that’s fine. There’s plenty of time to learn, and also you have to save something for your retirement.
  4. Join a natural history society. Learning from other people is the best way to find out what you are seeing and where to go. My local recording organization is the Yorkshire Naturalist’s Union, and they run field trips and annual meetings. If you don’t have your own transport there is normally someone to give you a lift. Your local wildlife trust will also run field meetings and open days at nature reserves, and this is all valuable as you will become part of a community of people who share your love. Other useful organizations include the BSBI for plants, Butterfly Conservation for butterflies and moths, the RSPB for birds. These organizations can also employ you or provide work experience as well. natural history as a hobby is a way to get to know them.
  5. Get a camera. I don’t mean a smart phone, though these are often quite good, but something which will keep a good permanent and detailed record of what you see. What type you go for will depend on your price range and what you want to photograph, but most of what I want can be done with a good pocket-sized digital camera with a macro function. Birds require long lenses which are expensive, though you could always start by sketching. Cameras are useful because they mean you can more easily identify all those tricky species you weren’t sure about in the field. Keep your files somewhere safe as a reference collection.
  6.  Submit your records to a recording organization. This brings lasting value to your efforts and allows scientists to monitor changes in species status and distribution over time. Your local natural history society will have a list of recorders who will accept your records. There is also i-record these days, which is the digital recording centre of the BRC, although not all records on it are currently verified and used: better to go through your official country recorder. There are other various specific recording schemes you can get involved with including  plants, moths, butterflies, birds etc. I am lucky in that I get an annual report from my local recording group which names all the interesting records each year (some of which are mine), and that’s all part of my living legacy to the future of humanity.
  7. Join groups on social media. I am a member of several Facebook and Twitter groups where I deposit photos of species I can’t identify, and I end up helping others identify the ones I know. Gradually you turn from novice to expert. Just reading what species other people find and what others think they are enables you to build experience in what species are out there and what they look like. It’s also a good way to get to know professional ecologists and conservationists.
  8. Spend time outdoors, especially in places rich in wildlife. This can usually be local. I normally have a quick walk during my lunch hour to a flower-rich site near where I work. At weekends I try to make time for a longer walk, or visit a nature reserve. It all provides opportunities to see things. The more time you spend outdoors, the more you will see and the more you will learn. Much of my love of natural history comes from visiting beautiful places where other species live.

Happy hunting!


Peter featured in Nouse

You can see the article here. The interviewer chose to focus on Hannah Lewis’ work, which was quite some time ago, but it seemed to interest him and he did a good job of it. The Brazilian project gets a mention.

Peter does some Evolution Outreach

On 25th January, Peter took part in a discussion forum on “Are evolution and creation compatible?” at Queen Ethelburga’s College, near York, with about 200 audience. On the panel were also Prof Roger Butlin, a speciation scientist from Sheffield, and two theologians from the York area. There wasn’t much opportunity to say much, as the whole discussion was less than an hour, and there were a lot of questions, and they were fielded to one or other of the panel by a chair. The whole evening was bracketed by some presentations about evolution by some sixth form students, who were very brave and professional, and a statement by the college chaplain, who stated that evolution and creation were entirely compatible. There was no opportunity to rebut this, and the statement just got left there as if it were true. It turned out that the chaplain had in fact conceived the evening, and so there was only really going to be one view put out there. I was never asked for my view on the main question. I was at times reduced to using exaggerated facial expressions to express my disagreement (amazement and also profound embarrassment) with much of what was said by some others on the panel.

Had I been asked for my view (I managed to imply this in answering some other questions) I would have said that the methods that require me to accept evolution (evidence based reasoning, particularly a high quality and variety of evidence) also require me not to accept creation. In this sense, they are incompatible for me. I think that evolution also raises many problems for monotheism: (1) the length of time it took for humans to evolve; (2) the fact that the creative process that gets us here is the death and suffering of the majority over 4 billion years, not to mention the other ten biollion years before there was even planet Earth (3) the apparent stochasticity of evolutionary trajectories (4) the problem of when you think souls emerged and how discriminatory that is against those who miss out on them (5) the fact the evolution shows how science can destroy an assumed religious origins story and replace it with natural explanation (6) the fact that evolution shows how morality can emerge through natural (internal) processes rather than needing an external (God) source (7) evolution can tell us why people can be fooled into believing in Gods in the first place. I expect that a tooled-up theologian could provide counter-arguments to these, but these issues will probably tend to draw a deep-thinking evolutionary biologist away from monotheism.

On 6th February, Peter gave a Darwin Day lecture to North Yorkshire Humanists, which was an altogether more satisfying affair, on “Why are there so many insect species?”. I tried to give a flavour of how the question is interpreted, the approaches used by scientists to answer it, as well as the weaknesses of the work we have to date, and what answers current studies are pointing to. There were some interesting and intelligent questions from the audience. These Humanists are a critical-thinking bunch. A video of the lecture is available at this link.

Ichneumonid diversity paper out

The supposed “anomolous latitudinal gradient in species richness” in ichneumonid wasps is a contentious subject. The issue was raised decades ago when high richness was recorded from a UK garden, and richness was not much higher in a small number of tropical samples. Since then, many researchers have assumed that temperate diversity of these wasps is at least as high as that of many tropical sites, and a lot of effort has been put into explaining why. However, the supposed trend may be spurious. Tropical richness is always undersampled (as are most temperate sites). In a new paper comparing the global set of samples of Pimpline Ichenumonids, as well as some new samples from Peruvian Amazonia, Gomez and co-authors have shown that Amazonia harbours the highest richness of all those sampled globally, but is still undersampled. My contribution to this work came from adding in the data from Sally Fraser’s PhD project around York. In addition, I spotted that once you control for sampling intensity (by numbers of individuals), latitude and species richness are negatively correlated. So, the most simple control for variation across studies removes the so-called anomalous richness gradient, in this group.