Natural history is important, but not perceived as an academic job skill


This post is a reflection on a thoughtful post by Jeremy Fox, over on Dynamic Ecology. It encouraged me (and a lot of others, as you see in the comments) to think critically about the laments about the supposed decline of natural history.

I aim to contextualize the core notion of that post. This isn’t a quote, but here in my own words is the gestalt lesson that I took away:

We don’t need to fuss about the decline of natural history, because maybe it’s not even on the decline. Maybe it’s not actually undervalued. Maybe it really is a big part of contemporary ecology after all.

Boy howdy, do I agree with that. And also disagree with that. It depends on what we mean by “value” and “big part.” I think the conversation gets a lot simpler once we agree about the fundamental relationship between natural history and ecology. As the operational definition of the relationship used in the Dynamic Ecology post isn’t workable, I’ll posit a different one.

As a disclaimer, let me explain that I’m not an expert natural historian. Anybody who has been in the field with me is woefully aware of this fact. I know my own critters, but I’m merely okay when it comes to flora and fauna overall. I have been called an entomologist, but if you show me a beetle, there’s a nonzero probability that I won’t be able to tell you its family. There are plenty of birds in my own backyard that I can’t name. Now, with that out of the way:

Let’s make no mistake: natural history is, truly, on the decline. The general public knows less, and cares less, about nature than a few decades ago. Kids are spending more time indoors and are less prone to watch, collect, handle, and learn about plants and creatures. Literacy about nature and biodiversity has declined in concert with a broader decline in scientific literacy in the United States. This is a complex phenomenon, but it’s clear that the youth of today’s America are less engaged in natural history than yesterday’s America.

On the other hand, people love and appreciate natural history as much as they always have. Kids go nuts for any kind of live insect put in front of them, especially when it was just found in their own play area. Adults devour crappy nature documentaries, too. There’s no doubt that people are interested in natural history. They’re just not engaged in it. Just because people like it doesn’t mean that they are doing it or are well informed. That’s enough about natural history and public engagement, now let’s focus on ecologists.

I honestly don’t know if interest in natural history has waned among ecologists. I don’t have enough information to speculate. But this point is moot, because the personal interests of ecologists don’t necessarily have a great bearing on what they publish, and how students are trained.

Natural history is the foundation of ecology. Natural history is the set of facts upon which ecology builds. Ecology is the search to find mechanisms driving the patterns that we observe with natural history. Without natural history, there is no such thing as ecology, just as there is no such thing as a spoken language without words. In the same vein, I once made the following analogy: natural history : ecology :: taxonomy : evolution. The study of evolution depends on a reliable understanding of what our species are on the planet, and how they are related to one another. You really can’t study the evolution of any real-world organism in earnest without having reliable alpha taxonomy. Natural history is important to ecologists in the same way that alpha taxonomy is for evolutionary biologists.

Just as research on evolution in real organisms requires a real understanding of their taxonomy and phylogeny, research in real-world ecology requires a real-world understanding of natural history. (Some taxonomists are often as dejected as advocates for natural history: Taxonomy is on the decline. There is so much unclassified and misclassified biodiversity, but there’s no little funding and even fewer jobs to do the required work. If we are going to make progress in the field of evolutionary biology, then we need to have detailed reconstructions of evolutionary history as a foundation.)

Of course natural history isn’t dead, because if it were, then ecology would not exist. We’d have no facts upon which to base any theories. Natural history isn’t in conflict with ecology, because natural history is the fundamental operational unit of ecology. Natural history comprises the individual bricks of LEGO pieces that ecologists use to build LEGO models.

The germane question is not to ask if natural history is alive or dead. The question is: Is natural history being used to its full potential? Is it valued not just as a product, but as an inherent part of the process of doing ecological research?

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.

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.

I made an observation a few months back, that graduate school is no longer designed to train excellent scientists, but instead is built to train students how to publish papers. That was a little simplistic, of course. Let me refine that a bit with this Venn diagram: 


What’s driving the push to train grad students how to publish? It doesn’t take rocket science to look at the evolutionary arms race for the limited number of academic positions. A record of multiple fancy publications is typically required to get what most graduate advisors regard to be a “good” academic job. If you don’t have those pubs, and you want an academic job, it’s for naught. So graduate programs succeed when students emerge with as their own miniature publication factory.

In terms of career success, it doesn’t really matter what’s in the papers. What matters is the selectivity of the journal that publishes those papers, and how many of them exist. It’s telling that many job search committees ask for a CV, but not for reprints. What matters isn’t what you’ve published, but how much you have and where you’ve published.

So it only makes sense that natural history gets pushed to the side in graduate school. Developing natural history talent is time-intensive, involving long hours in the field, lots of reading in a broad variety of subjects. Foremost, becoming a talented natural historian requires a deliberate focus on information outside your study system. A natural historian knows a lot of stuff about a lot of things. I can tell you a lot about the natural history of litter-nesting ants in the rainforest, but that doesn’t qualify me as a natural historian. Becoming a natural historian requires a deliberate focus on learning about things that are, at first appearance, merely incidental to the topic of one’s dissertation.

Ecology graduate students have many skills to learn, and lots to get done very quickly, if they feel that they’ll be prepared to fend for themselves upon graduation. Who has time for natural history? It’s obvious that ecology grad students love natural history. It’s often the main motivator for going to grad school in the first place. And it’s also just as obvious that many grad students feel a deep need to finish their dissertations with ripe and juicy CVs, and feel that they can’t pause to learn natural history. This is only natural given the structure of the job environment.

Last month I had a bunch of interactions that helped me consider the role of natural history in the profession of ecology. These happened while I was fortunate enough to serve as guest faculty on a graduate field course in tropical biology. This “Fundamentals Course,” run by the Organization for Tropical Studies throughout many sites in in Costa Rica, has been considered to be a historic breeding ground for pioneering ecologists. Graduate students apply for slots in the course, which is a traveling road show throughout many biomes.

I was a grad student on the course, um, almost 20 years ago. I spent a lot of my time playing around with ants, but I also learned about all kinds of plant families, birds, herps, bats, non-ant insects, and a full mess of field methods. And soils, too. I was introduced to many classic coevolved systems, I learned how orchid bees respond to baits, how to mistnet, and I saw firsthand just how idiosyncratic leafcutter ants are in food selection. I came upon a sloth in the middle of its regular, but infrequent, pooping session at the base of a tree. I saw massive flocks of scarlet macaws, and how frog distress calls can bring in the predators of their predators. I also learned a ton about experimental design by running so many experiments with a bunch of brilliant colleagues and mentors, and a lot about communicating by presenting and writing. And I was introduced to new approaches to statistics. And that’s just the start of it the stuff I learned.

I essentially spent a whole summer of grad school on this course. Clearly, it was a transformative experience for me, because now I’m a tropical biologist and nearly all of my work happens at one of the sites that we visited on the course. Not everybody on the course became a tropical biologist, but it’s impossible to avoid learning a ton about nature if you take the course.

The course isn’t that different nowadays. One of the more noticeable things, however, is that fewer grad students are interested, or available, to take the course. I talked to a number of PhD students who wanted to take the course but their advisors steered them away from it because it would take valuable time away from the dissertation. I also talked to an equivalent number of PhD students who really wanted a broad introduction to tropical ecology but were too self-motivated to work on their thesis to make sure that they had a at least few papers out before graduating.

In the past, students would be encouraged to take the course as a part of their training to become an excellent ecologist. Now, students are being dissuaded because it would get in the way of their training to become a successful ecologist.

There was one clear change in the curriculum this year: natural history is no longer included. This wasn’t a surprise, because even though students love natural history, this is no longer an effective draw for the course. When I asked the coordinator why natural history was dropped from the Fundamentals Course, the answer I got had even less varnish than I expected: “Because natural history doesn’t help students get jobs.” And if it doesn’t help them get a job, then they can’t spend too much time doing it in grad school.

Of course we need to prepare grad students for the broad variety of paths they may choose. However, does this mean that something should be pulled from the curriculum because it doesn’t provide a specific transferable job skill? Is the entire purpose of earning a Ph.D. to arm our students for the job market. Is there any room for doing things that make better scientists that are not necessarily valued on the job market?

Are we creating doctors of philosophy, or are we creating highly specialized publication machines?

There are some of grad students (and graduate advisors) who are bucking the trend, and are not shying away from the kind of long-term field experiences that used to be the staple of ecological dissertations. One such person is Kelsey Reider, who among other things is working on frogs that develop in melting Andean glaciers. By no means is she tanking her career by spending years in the field doing research and learning about the natural history of her system. She will emerge from the experience as an even more talented natural historian who, I believe, will have better context and understanding for applying ecological theory to the natural world. Ecology is about patterns, processes and mechanisms in the natural world, right?

Considering that “natural history” is only used as an epithet during the manuscript review process, is natural history valued by the scientific community at all?  Most definitely it is! But keep in mind that this value doesn’t matter when it comes to academic employment, funding, high impact journals, career advancement, or graduate training.

People really like and appreciate experts in natural history. Unfortunately, that value isn’t in the currency that is important to the career of an ecologist. And it’d be silly to focus away from your career while you’re in grad school.

But, as Jeremy pointed out in his piece, many of the brilliant ecologists who he knows are also superb natural historians. I suggest that this is not mere coincidence. Perhaps graduate advisors can best serve their students by making sure that their graduate careers include the opportunity for serious training in natural history. It is unwise to focus exclusively on the production of a mountain of pubs that can be sold to high-impact journals.

We should focus on producing the most brilliant, innovative, and broad-minded ecologists, who also publish well. I humbly suggest that this entails a high degree of competency in natural history.

27 thoughts on “Natural history is important, but not perceived as an academic job skill

  1. One way to encourage people to do natural history is to remind them that you can publish natural history. While the journals that publish such things are ‘low-impact’, it is still a nice democratic way to build your CV. Below I have included a link to my natural history papers, none of which are earth-shattering, but all of which I’m proud of. But, like Terry, I do NOT consider myself a natural historian, although am finally starting to learn the names of birds that I see when I canoe to work.
    Root Gorelick’s natural history papers:

  2. I’m coming at this discussion from the world of plant molecular biology. And I feel like natural history is yielding some of the best work on plants ever (granted, it’s focused on the cell/molecular biology of the organism, but its natural history is always present in the publication. Like the Utricularia (sp?) Genome (smallest flowering plant genome known) for instance that seems to have a lot to do with where it lives/how it evolved. However, I may also not be getting exactly what is meant by ‘natural history’ (I’m envisioning what Darwin did on the Beagle; document/collect a lot of specimens and note where they live, behavior, etc.). A lot of molecular work is focused on getting away from the classic model systems and developing new ones that will yield broader insights into how plants work (and seems to be happening in other fields too– especially microbiology).

    As for training scientists in natural history, I agree that there’s a lot more focus on publication and getting into fancy higher impact journals, not so much on doing good work or learning deeply about a system (you can do that when you’re tenured!). As for the notion that grad school is supposed to land you a job of some kind…well, yes, that is one of the things it’s supposed to do (I say this as someone who feels like I’ve completely screwed that part of the experience up for myself, but who knows, maybe I’ve learned more than I think and can get a job somewhere- I’ve pretty much decided academia is no longer for me & am unsure what that means still).

  3. Thanks for writing this post. There just aren’t a lot of faculty jobs out there, that’s why it’s frustrating to frequently see people advance the idea that there is One True Path to securing the faculty job you want. So sad to hear and see that natural history, of all things, is what is being sacrificed on the altar of this silly notion. Especially sad if it is leading students to miss opportunities (and happiness) because they think having another paper or two is going to make much of a difference.

    I was fortunate to have a PHD advisor (Craig Guyer) notorious for encouraging his students to take the OTS class you describe. And, I’m glad I did it. But, I wonder if the decreasing focus on natural history is also what is driving the decreasing interest among graduate students. I certainly didn’t want to go to the jungles of Costa Rica to learn how to write a paper, or whatever…

  4. Root – some of your papers are listed under both “Ecology” and “Natural history”. Is that because you consider them to be both? That would seem to agree with my comment on Dynamic Ecology (which Terry links to above) that there’s no real dividing line between ecology and natural history.

  5. I took the OTS course in 2012, and, it was an extremely formative experience for me as well. I am now working on my dissertation at La Selva for much of this year. In addition to the hypothesis-driven science of my dissertation I am also actively pursuing natural history studies of species we don’t know much about. So, there are still some graduate students with active interest in natural history.

    I was unaware of the OTS courses flat-out “dropped” the topic of natural history (seems almost impossible?!). However, I was startled to hear that the course has decreased in duration substantially, from eight to four-five weeks in total. Seems like a shame to me, because it now seems almost impossible to become reasonably familiar/experienced with field sites before moving on to the next one.

  6. As a clarification, the summer course is just as long – it’s just that the dry season course was just in January.

  7. Jeff Ollerton asked whether I think there is a dividing line between natural history and ecology…

    For me there is a dividing line between natural history and all of science, not just ecology. I am a natural historian by way of evolution, more so than ecology. But even geologists can be natural historians, and not just those geologists that think rocks are alive (e.g. volcanologists). The crucial demarcation seems to be: Where does natural history end and science start? I torment over that question, with an initial attempt at answering it in the CSEE Bulletin (2013: 17) (sorry about the long quote within a quote):

    “Regarding defining natural history, ‘I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…’ (Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964) Potter Stewart, concurring opinion). Is natural history the input data for science or at least the thing that generates sufficient curiosity to construct hypotheses? Is natural history merely a pattern-recognition exercise (Fleishner 2011), something at which most humans excel? Is there ‘history’ in ‘natural history’? Does this make natural history not just descriptive, but also predictive? Or is natural history merely more geographically local than other aspects of ecology and evolution? For me, the ‘history’ means that natural history must contain some good story telling.”

    I would characterize some of my papers as containing both ecology and natural history. But I am not ready to formally explicate exactly why. I have struggled to define ‘science,’ as have philosophers since at least Karl Popper, and am even less sure about what is natural history other than to say it the fun outdoor stuff. But even that probably is not correct if you consider genomics to be a modern facet of natural history.

    The good news is that definitions are arbitrary. We gauge quality of definitions solely on their utility (Gorelick 2011 Ideas in Ecology & Evolution). So, first tell me what natural history is and what ecology is; then we can decide whether there is a dividing line between the two!

  8. As someone who grew up more-or-less as a natural historian and managed to find one of the few remaining graduate school programs that heavily focuses on natural history I would say that, while interest in natural history remains high, professional opportunities in natural history are definitely fewer and fewer. Many professional and academic organizations say they want people with the interdisciplinary expertise that a natural history background provides, especially one that combines field experience with theory, in practice most employers actually wind up looking for and hiring people who are increasingly highly specialized in their fields.

    This trend is, at least in my mind, part of why there is such a lack of science understanding and literacy in the US. Not only is the information difficult to access, it is most often written for specialists. Sometimes to such a degree that even highly educated people in slightly different fields have trouble understanding it, let alone the lay person.

    This is a shame, because everyone I meet is interested in sciences of all sorts, but feel sidelined and marginalized by the specialization, lack of access, and lack of lay-person friendly science communication.

    In my opinion that communication of science to interested lay-people was one of the things that made the natural historians of yore great and kept popular interest and support of science from waning.

    I advocate that for every journal article a scientist writes they should also publish two accurate articles for the general public.

  9. I’d absolutely agree with Root’s comment above about definitions being arbitrary, which is why (as I said in the Dynamic Ecology comment) I don’t generally make that distinction. I also research and write in the field of history of science, but it’s history informed by my understanding of the science, and the science in turn gains a fuller appreciation by knowing the history. Where does the history end and the science begin? Ultimately, let’s call it all scholarship🙂

    I’d also agree with EarthKnight’s comment about writing general articles for the public, though perhaps not be so prescriptive as to say 2 for 1. Personally I have quite a few such articles on my publication list, but for me the best medium for broadening the audience is blogging. My blog is aimed at a very general audience. One last thing: the Journal of Pollination Ecology asks that every article it publishes be accompanied by a shorter version for a lay audience in it Pollination Magazine:

  10. Terry has offered his opinion on the issue of the inclusion of natural history in training today’s ecologists, which brings up an interesting discussion and I find the comments to his opinion truly valuable in understanding how the ecologists out there feel about this topic. However, as the co-coordinator of the recent OTS graduate course in question, I feel it necessary to clarify a few points that Terry has not included in this blog post.

    Firstly, the decline in student enrollment in the course began long before there was a reduction in the focus of natural history. Lower enrollment might be more related to a reduction of support from faculty in sending students on a course that might extend their duration in grad school and reduce their publication rate (likely a false perception, but a perception nonetheless). Second, the winter course was shortened to make it easier for graduate students to take the course without interference with classes and TAships, which have taken more priority in a grad student’s path in recent years in the push to graduate in 5 or fewer years. The change was made with consideration of comments by the faculty delegates at OTS’s 50+ member institutions.

    Lastly, while there is less focus on “natural history” (however one might choose to define it), that is not to say that there is no natural history involved in the course; students still learned to identify numerous plant and animal species, long orientation walks are still included at each site, and students get intimately familiar with particular flora and fauna during 3 Faculty-Led projects and 2 Independent projects at 4 sites in those 4 weeks. A shift in focus from natural history allowed students to do something they have never done before: produce a blog with a series of great science podcasts ( and produce short science videos about the research they did in groups while at La Selva (as featured in a National Geographic blog article here: The role of science communication in today’s world has become of utmost importance, whether the path of today’s ecology graduate students is academia or elsewhere. The current OTS graduate course incorporates important training in communication in a few different media while still training students in the tried and true OTS way test to hypotheses in the field in diverse sites in Costa Rica. Yes, it has changed a bit with the times, but I doubt that such a course is somehow less valuable than a course primarily aimed to train students in natural history (or arguably, taxonomy).

    As a more personal aside, I think that the definition of natural history varies by person and I also do not agree that it is so different from “ecology”. For some, it seems like it is only the basic description of a pattern seen in a particular taxa. For others, it could be practically anything that we are learning about species and their interactions with biotic and abiotic factors. In a recent peer review of a manuscript for the journal Ecology, one of our reviewers mentioned that they think it is worth publishing because our findings were “an interesting bit of natural history”. However, the findings also tested a solid hypothesis related to predator avoidance, parental care, and chemical ecology. Extrapolating that point to the OTS course, I think that means that students actively involved in the process of hypothesis testing are also learning (and creating!) natural history, whether they are directly studying plant families and frog genera or not.

  11. I agree with everything she says. Thanks for the additional context. I should have replied to this comment more promptly, to explain that recent changes to the course have only increased interest, and that’s a very good thing.

  12. I just triple-read the post to make sure that that I made the point that the long-term shift in interest in the OTS Fundamentals course isn’t explained by what happens on the course (which hadn’t changed much), but by the shift at universities that doesn’t allow grad students the time for a single field course. I think it was, but if it wasn’t then it is now.

    On my re-reads, what I did see is that I wasn’t adequately effusive about how awesome the OTS course has been — and still is. The change in the direction in the course is wonderful, because it’s meeting both actual and perceived needs and demands. And, it will result in a net increase in natural history education for ecology grad students. I’m an uber-supporter of the OTS Fundamentals course – and that’s why I’m proud to be a part of it, and I am even more so now that there is an emphasis on evolving the course to meet the evolving needs of grad students.

  13. Since we’re re-reading to make sure we’re appropriately complimentary about the OTS experience, I also want to make clear that every ecology graduate student should try to take the course, even if it means extending their graduate school experience. I learned lots of natural history, for what it’s worth, among other benefits.

  14. Thanks Terry and David, and others who support the course. Passive by-readers should probably know just how awesome it is (and if they are students they should apply and if they are faculty they should support their students to come!). Any OTS alumni could tell you just how transformative and valuable their course was for their life and career, myself included.

  15. As the inventor and architect of the OTS Fundamentals course in 1965, I am genuinely moved to tears by the applause recorded here. Thank you all. It was worthwhile. And it was worth all the bureaucratic structures I had to trash, knowingly, unknowingly, and with commonsense, to make it and OTS happen. The partial decay of the Fundamentals Course, and companion actions, over the decades has nothing to do with a contrast or synonomy of natural history and ecology, but rather with the application of normal Pleistocene human behavior. As someone who is “famous” as an ecologist and natural historian simultaneously, let me cast my vote that there is no difference whatsoever between good and well done natural history and good and well done ecology. They are one and the same thing (ALL of my infamous and famous papers are both).

    As someone who has been part of a rather too large number of faculty searches, let me also add that 1) faculty have long, long not practiced the graduate student birth control that they should (and when I wrote a paper about that 20+ years ago I was accused of having run out of ideas to feed the slaves), 2) in order for someone to get a larval professor post, someone has to die, and 3) anyone who thinks that a summer (or winter) worth of solid experience of the kind the Fundamental Course (should) offers will not give them a leg up in any serious academic job search, has been victimized by the handlers of their graduate student experience. Well done ecology and natural history are one and the same thing — wrap them in whatever packaging works for you in whatever dance floor you find yourself. But there better be something in the package or it will go into the trash basket, and you along with it, when it gets to the consumer. What morphs on the academic dance floor is petticoats and silk ties, applications of the Pleistocene human deeply set desire for higher fitness and inclusive fitness in the individual’s particular arena. Nothing new under the sun. 20 million species do it day in and day out. That many votes can’t be wrong. Dan Janzen, 4feb14

  16. Fantastic piece, thanks for writing! A deep love, and interest in understanding natural history is what motivated me to become a graduate student of Ecology; this seems to be a commonality within ecologists. As a student in a department of zoology, I sometimes find it disheartening to hear more about ‘impact factor’ at water cooler discussions than discussion of the wonder, and beauty of the world we study as zoologists. I would love to see a shift towards the center element of your diagram, it’s important that we (as ecologists) don’t forget our passion for discovering, exploring, and engaging with this incredible world around us.

  17. Terry – unfortunately, the summer 2014 grad course is 6 weeks, not 8 (or 10 when I took it, I think!).

    Thanks everyone for your thoughts and reflections on your OTS course experiences. We are working hard to plan a course that is at its core what the founders intended, but that also gives students the tools and knowledge they need to succeed in science today and tomorrow. Our emphasis still includes natural history, but we have added a stronger emphasis on quantitative skills and experience communicating science to a broader audience. We are absolutely excited about all the feedback we are getting from the science community and from OTS grad course alums. This course was as transformative for us as it was for all of you and we want to continue that tradition moving forward.

  18. Your own motivations for getting into ecology are indeed common, and wonderful, but they aren’t the only ones. And just because one isn’t motivated by a deep love of natural history doesn’t mean one is motivated by naked careerism instead. A passion for discovery in ecology can be manifested in all sorts of ways…

  19. Thanks for the affirmation and (yet another) definition of natural history! And, more than anything else, thanks for everything you’ve done for the generations of tropical biologist in your wake. (I’m beyond flattered that you’ve taken the time to read this.) Let’s hope that more conversation like this can convince more students that the Fundamentals course is the best possible use of their time.

  20. The opportunity cost of practicing natural history (you have to practice often in order to stay good at it) and the trade-off with publishing has emerged as the most frustrating thing for me about graduate school, and the way in which getting a PhD has least met my expectations.

  21. Terry, great post, I totally agree. We have seen a huge decline in natural history skills in our biology undergraduates over the years, both as a result of the reduction of teaching in that area at pre-university level and also at undergraduate level, especially in many research intensive universities where the focus is on molecules and computer models as many of their faculty also lack the skills to run field courses. Many “ecology” PhDs in the UK are now based on data crunching and modelling rather than on data collection. You just have to look at the recent NERC doctoral training posts advertised over the last couple of months to see what I mean.

  22. Hello to all. I have been reading these comments and getting the courage to write for the last couple of days. I thought I should share my observations on this topic, as I have been both influenced by the US and Costa Rican teaching and research methods and can share a student point of view here.

    I am Puerto Rican and did my undergraduate studies in the University of Puerto Rico. Currently, I am conducting grad studies (Masters for now) in CATIE, a small research institution in Costa Rica. I was Terry’s OTS-REU student in La Selva in 2008, when I was still an undergrad.

    I first noticed that I knew very little of natural history when I arrived in Costa Rica for the first time for my REU experience. In Puerto Rico, I only had around 4 field trips during my undergraduate studies and most of them were in a Herpetology class I took as an elective. The sole focus of my training as a biologist was, as Terry has said, to publish or perish (as influenced by the US system). When I arrived to Costa Rica and met many Costa Rican biology undergrads, I realized they know A LOT of natural history; I was intimidated by the amount of plants and animals they could identify (even at the age of 20!) when walking around the forest, and I immediately felt ashamed for my lack of knowledge.

    Now, after being in Costa Rica for a few years, I notice they do not focus much on publication (specially not on English journals, but not even much on Spanish). The focus here is more on natural history and how to use it for conservation and sustainable development initiatives. In Terry’s Venn diagram, they are still on “what programs used to teach”. I imagine this is because, in Latin America in general, there is less competition for finding science related jobs than in the US, and also more focus on community based development programs and environmental education.

    This has been a very interesting discussion in my experience, since I have evidenced both teaching techniques and tasted the pros and cons of them both. I agree with Terry that natural history should not be left behind and is an essential part of being a good ecologist. I have experienced this myself, as my lack of knowledge of natural history has created many barriers during my research, and I’ve had to break them down little by little, with difficulty.

    Terry’s last statement: “We should focus on producing the most brilliant, innovative, and broad-minded ecologists, who also publish well.” Yes, definitely, please…Both teaching focuses lack something, and we do need to move towards the center of the Venn diagram. How do we, as students who are mostly the product of what we are being taught by our mentors, surpass the limits that this problem has created upon ourselves and our skill set? How do we become great ecologists, if the job market is always threatening to leave us behind and the faculty does not encourage us as we need them to? I do not want my education to be based solely on learning to crunch numbers and modeling and writing papers, but on also discovering and exploring the world around me and learning how it works. How can aspiring ecologists achieve this goal in the modern and competitive scientific world?

  23. Aura, thanks for commenting! We’re grateful you took the time, and you provide a valuable perspective based on your relatively unique experiences. It’s interesting to see the contrasts among the US, Puerto Rica, and Costa Rican grad schools. And, you’ve set yourself up well! (For what it’s worth, it was obvious to us all that you were mighty darn knowledgable as an REU.)

  24. Great to see this dialogue. Just wanted to alert folks to an ongoing international (primarily US and Canada, but some European and Latin American) movement to revitalize natural history: the Natural History Network ( There has been tremendous response to this, from all kinds of folks, including but not limited to professional research ecologists. There’s a peer-reviewed, on-line Journal of Natural History Education and Experience. On the NHN website, check out The Natural Histories Project– oral history interview film clips with about 100 people. All this was part of “The Natural History Initiative: From Decline to Rebirth”, a series of gatherings of naturalists, broadly defined, in 2011, and funded primarily by NSF. Yes, that’s right: the National Science Foundation has been overtly and enthusiastically funding a renaissance in natural history. Also, at Prescott College, where I teach, we have launched a Natural History Institute ( All these efforts welcome broader participation. Finally, to stir the pot, I’ll include my own definition of natural history: “a practice of intentional, focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more-than-human world, guided by honesty and accuracy.” Natural history, from this view, is a practice (a verb), not just the accumulated body of facts (the nouns). This idea is elaborated on in a series of papers that can be accessed at [bottom of page]. I also edited a book, The Way of Natural History, in which a wide variety of contributors–ecologist, poets, musicians, activists, and more–shared stories of how natural history has played key roles in their life work and play. Bottom line: concern for the marginalization of natural history, and commitment to its importance, is alive in a much larger sphere than just research ecologists. I tried to succinctly make the case for “Why Natural History Matters” in a short paper (

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