There’s been some recent discussion on the importance of natural history, whether the worth it’s afforded by academics is declining, and whether it’s being overshadowed by ecology (1, 2, and links therein). This post is weighing in on that debate only obliquely, by focussing on where and how I personally came to value natural history–on courses with the Organization for Tropical Studies.
I’m an alum of two OTS courses: the undergrad course in South Africa, and the grad course in Costa Rica. These courses obviously differed in many ways, but had two major similarities. First, both courses moved a LOT, between different sites located in different ecosystems across South Africa and Costa Rica. Second, the OTS hallmark, the field projects. Field projects come in two flavours–the Faculty-led Field Projects (FFPs) and the Independent Projects (IPs). Both FFPs and IPs have similar timelines–we have two or at most three days to come up with a testable hypothesis, collect data, analyse data, and present the results to our classmates. In FFPs, the study system and broad questions are picked by a guest faculty-person, whereas in IPs we can choose any system and question we like.
In OTS-SA, I recall being completely overwhelmed when it was time to choose a system for my IPs, and eventually worked on projects that built upon pre-existing datasets. But all through the course, trying to identify the plants and animals we saw became one of our primary activities. I learnt how to identify birds from several excellent birders on the course, the sort who would argue endlessly about which bird-guide had the best illustrations, but still didn’t mind showing us novices something as common as a grey go-away-bird. Laurence, one of our course-instructors, was unrelenting in his emphasis on interesting plants, just as Alan always pointed out fascinating insects and Graeme knew something cool about any organism we came across. And this enthusiasm for natural history was infectious–though I started the course only somewhat interested in herps, I ended up decently adept at identifying South African reptiles, as I wanted to be good at the natural history of something. The general atmosphere of excitement about plants and animals ensured my interest in the natural history of everything.
The course lasted three months, and because we were looking for and identifying some creature or the other almost daily, we invariably came across certain taxa enough times to actually see some aspects of their natural history in action. Particularly exciting were two components that are key to organismal ecology: variation among individuals, and interactions between organisms. [On one of my favourite days on the course, my friend Sam and I went birding in the odd combination of hot sun and bitterly cold wind in the West Coast National Park–we saw not one, not two, but four predator-prey interactions involving birds in one evening!] And the pressure to come up with an idea for an IP forced me to pay close attention to variation that was potentially explainable, even though I didn’t manage to come up with any ideas I was happy with.
OTS-SA imprinted in my brain a method for looking at the natural world: (1) be excited about any creature and begin by trying to figure out what it is; (2) examine, learn, and think about its natural history in conjunction with variation among individuals to figure out what the interesting variation is; and (3) pay special attention to interactions between organisms. I tried to apply this method of thinking whenever I did fieldwork, to both study organisms and, just for fun, other creatures as well. By the time I participated in the OTS Fundamentals of Tropical Biology course in Costa Rica, I was ready to design and execute my own IPs, using this method to ask questions that I honestly still think are pretty interesting*. In OTS-CR, I began to see how to translate these ideas learnt on OTS-SA and honed through other fieldwork into actual experimental design, data collection, analysis, and interpretation.
Because I learnt how to do ecology through OTS, my approach to ecology is inextricably linked with natural history. But my OTS-derived method of looking at nature has served me best when doing fieldwork in India on almost completely unstudied species. For these projects, it’s been almost as though I’ve gone from general to specific, from ecology to natural history, and I think I’ve found it easier to begin understanding some of the natural history of golden frogs or fan-throated lizards by being conscious of the interplay between ecology and natural history. For various reasons, I’m now pushing these projects to the backburner, in favour of work that is arguably more ecology than natural history–a personal illustration of ecology winning a competition against natural history for my time. That said, even this future work includes, indeed depends upon, a healthy portion of natural history!
The sort of ecology I do right now is very restricted to the organismal level, and to certain taxa, and I wondered about the impact of OTS on people studying questions at broader scales. But then I saw Terry McGlynn’s fantastic description of the importance of natural history even to larger-scale ecological problems:
Yes, the best ecological model is the one that is the most parsimonious: an overly complex model is not generalizable. You don’t need to know the natural history of every organism to identify underlying patterns and mechanisms in nature. However, a familiarity with nature to know what can be generalized, and what cannot be generalized, is central to doing good ecology. And that ability is directly tied to knowing nature itself. You can’t think about how generalizable a model is without having an understanding of the organisms and system to which the model could potentially apply.
Any generalizing I might ever do across organisms that aren’t lizards is going to be based on my knowledge gained from OTS, or knowledge gained via my OTS-inspired method of looking at nature. And I now personally know and have worked with people who are shaping up to be experts on mammals, birds, snakes, frogs, crocodiles, insects, arachnids, trees, fruits, people, soil microbes, and myriad interactions between these organisms–an OTS-based community of researchers whose knowledge I can draw on if I ever switch or expand to new systems.
There are plenty of other reasons to do an OTS course–they’re where I met some of my best friends, they’ve ensured that I’ll know someone outside my lab at any scientific meeting I go to, they’ve exposed me to cultures and social issues that I’d never otherwise have grown passionate about. But as a biologist-in-the-making, the biggest effect of OTS in my life has been making me truly value the mutualism between interesting natural history and interesting ecology.
* I do recognize it’s not been long since I did OTS-CR, and that how I do ecology in the future will probably be different from how I do it now. But given how crucial OTS has been in shaping me as a biologist so far, it’s unlikely to ever become unimportant to me.