Is Natural History Still Relevant for Conservation Science?

Benjamin Kilham. Photo: © Boston Globe via Chelsea Green Publishing

As conservation science increasingly draws from sophisticated models and genomics, does natural history still have relevance? Or is observing nature a fun hobby that outlived its scientific usefulness in the Victorian era?

This is not a new debate, but some accomplished naturalists have breathed new life into it – arguing that field observations matter now more than ever as we confront significant conservation challenges.

Inarguably, natural history observation is the very foundation of biology, the basis of Linnaean taxonomy and Darwin’s theory of evolution.

And it has played a similarly central role in conservation science. Many of the most well-known figures in conservation history have been observant naturalists – think Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall and Edward O. Wilson.

Still, conservation science today is utilizing the latest biological breakthroughs, cutting-edge technology and huge data sets. Using satellite imagery, DNA evidence and predictive models on climate change, a conservation biologist could design a reserve to protect lynx without ever actually seeing a lynx.

And, as many scientists point out, field observation can often live more in the realm of anecdote than data. Chris Helzer wrote recently on the Prairie Ecologist blog of his observations of a particular prairie plant and the impacts of grazing. Helzer spends a lot of time walking prairies, but it turns out his observations were completely wrong.

He writes:

Unfortunately, observations are inherently biased.  When I start to notice a pattern through observation, I construct a theory to explain it.  That’s good science.  However, once I have a theory in mind, it influences the way I see things – and I tend to interpret my observations based on my theory.  That means it’s pretty easy to start telling myself a story that sounds good, but isn’t actually true.  Sometimes, I figure out that my story is wrong through repeated observations.  More often, however, what causes me to stop and reconsider is cold hard data. 

He’s right, of course. But he still had to be out on the prairie noticing trends for his questions to surface.

There has been a recent profusion of books that argue forcefully that natural history observation still matters, particularly to conservation science. Some of the biggest challenges will only be solved by careful observation in the field.

Observation alone won’t provide all the information we need, of course – for the reasons Helzer so articulately describes above.

Some discoveries, some breakthroughs, will only happen from careful observation out among the wild things. And perhaps no book makes that argument more forcefully than Benjamin Kilham’s Out on a Limb: What Black Bears have Taught Me about Intelligence and Intuition (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013).

Is field observation still relevant to conservation science? Photo: © Matt Moorhead/TNC

By his own admission, Kilham is not a formally-trained scientist, which may cause some to disregard his book as the work of a serious amateur. That would be an error.

As a child, Kilham struggled with words, finding reading and writing difficult at best. He believed, to use his description, he was “dumb as a post.”

In reality, his difficulty stemmed from dyslexia, a fact that he didn’t learn until he was forty. Growing up in a nature-loving family of researchers and medical doctors, he had a passion for wildlife and a dream of a life in science.

He had an IQ in the top one percent of the U.S. population, but read at a third-grade level. The reading problems ultimately kept him out of academia. He instead pursued a career in gunsmithing. On the side, he began rehabilitating orphaned black bears and reintroducing them into the wild.

“While I have had to overcome my difficulty in reading books, I have never had any trouble reading nature. And this ability has proved enormously useful in studying bears,” he writes.

He began observing bears carefully, spending countless hours in the field with them. He had no grants, no publication expectations, no peers and no agenda – he just wanted to watch and learn.

Over the years, though, he began to deduce patterns. He notices aspects of bear behavior that did not match up with conventional wisdom. Kilham found that black bears were far more social than most studies reported, mainly because most researchers hadn’t spent as much time with bears.

He discovered a sensory organ that helps bears process smells, found in all bear species save pandas. He developed better methods for dealing with human/bear conflicts – based on bear behavior observations.

Along the way, he incorporated radio-tracking, remote sensing and DNA testing into his work, “but the most dependable and enduring method I’ve employed has been observing the bears with my own eyes.”

Eventually, his research caught the attention of established wildlife biologists including George Schaller and Richard Wrangham. He began getting invites to speak at academic conferences, and eventually enrolled in a Ph.D. program. He assisted the Chinese government with giant panda reintroduction programs, modeled on his black bear work.

As he writes, “My perceived shortcomings turned out to be a perfect fit for studying bears; they enabled me to gain important insights into bear behavior, and also to see the value of alternative ways of learning and experiencing the world.”

He recounts his substantial body of work in Out on a Limb, a book of great biology, but also of human triumph. It is a testament that direct observation remains vital, essential, for conservation science.

Reading it, I could not help but think of some very bright young people dear to me facing their own academic challenges. I know they have much to contribute to solving the world’s great problems.

Kilham argues that the educational system and academia ignore the potential contributions of many, many children. In natural history, he sees a great equalizer. While not everyone will excel with math or words, anyone can make important observations.

And here, we have perhaps the most significant argument for natural history: it remains the best way to get large numbers of people involved with conservation science.

Most of us will not approach Kilham’s achievements, to be sure. But there are a lot of discoveries that can still be made by skilled observers.

Many common creatures – found in your backyard, in the city park – are poorly understood. Citizen-science initiatives rely on observation of thousands of people to provide data on wildlife trends.

Such observations have helped track bird migrations, population declines, the spread of invasive species and more. In short, natural history still has the potential to make important scientific contributions – and not all of those contributions will come from academic scientists.

As biologist Harry Greene writes in another recent nature book, Tracks and Shadows: “Anyone with a notebook and willingness to pay attention can practice valuable natural history.”

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  1. Without question, it is still critical. Critical for keeping existing conservation biologist connected to nature, critical for providing the spark to bring bright and curious conservation biologist into the field, and perhaps most critical for connecting the lay public to the wonders of nature. Science can often be boring but observing nature? Never!

  2. I think we sell Natural History short by saying that “[w]hile not everyone will excel with math or words, anyone can make important observations.” I would say that nearly everyone can be taught to use math and words, but few can excel at critical and truly important observations of nature. It’s a skill that deserves just as much credit, maybe more, than rote learned abilities.

  3. Yes we must be able to research by observation. Currently in MN the DNR is trying to revoke a permit to a wildlife biologist citing safety reasons. The case is in court this week. This wildlife biologist walks with the bears. DNR believes the only valid research involves heart rates claiming this observational research is for entertainment only. They also refused to allow streaming den cams to students/public claiming no educational value. Wish DNR would read your article. Our family supports Nature Conservancy mission. Thanks for a great article.