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Natural history dying of neglect

Natural history provides essential knowledge for human wellbeing, yet its research, use and instruction in academia, government agencies and non-government organizations is declining drastically.

Simon Fraser University ecologist Anne Salomon is among 17 authors of a new paper that claims this decline in the developed world could seriously undermine the world's progress in research, conservation and management.

The paper, Natural History's Place in Science and Society, evaluates the state of natural history research and use today. The journal BioScience has just published the paper online.

Natural history is the study of the fundamental nature of organisms, and how and where they live and interact with their environment.

According to the study, natural history collections have stopped expanding. The number of active collections of preserved plant specimens has dropped since 1990 in Europe and North America.

The authors say 75 per cent of emerging infectious human diseases, including avian influenza, Lyme disease, cholera and rabies, are linked to other animals at some point in their life cycle. Control strategies rely on knowledge of the hosts' natural history.

The authors note there are all kinds of examples throughout history of how the world could have avoided natural resource-based calamities, had it paid attention to natural history's fundamentals.

"Natural history knowledge is vital for making wise management and conservation decisions. Without it, we can make major blunders that can have extreme costs to nature and people," says Salomon.

For example, opossum shrimp were introduced into British Columbia's Kootenay Lake and other lakes in the western United States in the 1960s as food to boost the production of salmon.

But instead of acting as food, the shrimp migrated to deep water to avoid being eaten by fish during the day and returned to lake surfaces at night to feed on the same food eaten by juvenile salmon.

Salmon numbers ended up declining, triggering declines in bald eagles and tourists. Ironically, scientists already knew the vertical migration pattern of these introduced shrimp. So had the details of the shrimp's natural history been acknowledged, the authors write, their introduction's outcome could have been predicted.

Natural history-based field observations that usefully represent the real world underpin successful biological modeling, which is becoming increasingly more sophisticated.

"With our pressing need to make ecology a more predictive science, natural history has taken a back seat to modern ecological modeling and molecular techniques," explains Salomon. "This cultural shift in the ecological sciences has changed the skills we value and, consequently, the skills we teach in ecology. Yet, natural history is the starting point for all progress in ecology."

Joshua J Tewksbury, a natural history professor at the University of Washington who also works with the WWF International in Switzerland, led the study.

With the release of this paper, the authors have established an online forum to broaden discussion about natural history's research relevance and solicit new research ideas.

"Our hope is that this forum becomes a starting point for the next set of collaborations, initiatives and action," says Tewksbury. "We hope forum-related ideas can spread to inform, energize and integrate different audiences who are passionate about the future of natural history."


Contact: Carol Thorbes
Simon Fraser University

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