A natural history idea for ecologists: the natural history supplement

At risk of rehashing what is in this very short paper (open access pdf here), a few colleagues and I have a simple idea for how to encourage natural history in current ecology and evolution. A whole bunch of notable folks, including Harry Greene, Josh Tewksbury, Paul Dayton and more have noted the decline in traditional natural history – the taking of observations, collecting specimens, and classes in zoology and botany – among academics over the last half decade or so. Their papers all deserve a read as they point out very real problems and quantify these declines.

Though these papers draw attention to the issue and make a very convincing case that it is an issue, they don’t offer realistic solutions. I’ll not overstate our case; our small idea won’t bring back botany classes where they once were taught or inspire people to create an insect collection at a college without one. However, we have an idea that may incentivize natural history study, at least a small bit. We propose that ecologists and evolutionary biologists create a natural history supplement with their paper to highlight potentially interesting observations and important natural history data.

An example of character displacement? A somewhat disjunct population of Abronia pogonantha in the coast range (left) is deep pink-purple, where populations I’ve looked at in the Mojave which grow near Abronia villosa (a deep pink purple species) are whitish or very light pink (right). I’m not going to investigate it, but I’ll include it in a natural history supplement so someone else might and I took specimens of these plants and sent them to an herbarium.

Anything of potential interest could go into this supplement (though it should not be used as support for the main assertions of a paper – any natural history of that sort still belongs IN the paper). This needn’t only apply to field studies, either – researchers working in greenhouses or in laboratories with colonies of microorganisms make important natural history observations, too – they are just as intimately familiar with their study systems as a field biologist.

We think that there are a few reasons why this small addition would be particularly important and useful. First and most obviously, these observations WILL be useful to someone down the line, somewhere, sometime. Even if it takes 50 years for someone to investigate a particular plant or insect, these observations of behavior, population size, flowering time, etc. in 2016 are an invaluable snapshot of what you saw when. Richard Primack and co.’s wonderful reanalysis of flowering time data which Thoreau gathered in the 1800’s are a perfect example of this type of use. Secondly, meta-analyses and comparative studies are commonplace and particularly informative and could use those life history data included in these supplement that wouldn’t make it into a paper on another aspect, but are likely data that many folks take instinctively.

Since we have the internet, archiving these sorts of things has never been easier. Many papers have a great deal of supplementary information (especially in short-form journals) and publishers have ways to archive it. While it doesn’t need to be done immediately, if this practice is adopted, a database of these natural history supplements could be compiled at any time.

This caterpillar, Sympisits [Lepipolysperscripta, is having a good year on both Antirrhinum vexillo-calyculatum (pictured) and A. cornutum. However, it is far more abundant on v-c. even when cornutum is the more abundant food. I’ll likely never write a paper on snapdragons, but if I did, this would be a perfect type of observation for the natural history supplement. 

Lastly, it incentivizes natural history observations and data. The “currency”, if you will, of academia is papers and citations. While including a natural history appendix doesn’t boost the first aspect, if the additional information in that supplement is of use to others, it can only boost your citation count and make your work more widely read.

If those sound like good or bad arguments, read the full paper (again, here), there is a good bit more in it. I’ll conclude by saying that I’ve written two of these, both for papers in Ecology (here and here) and they have been easy and enjoyable to write. Has anyone actually read them? I’m not sure (do tell if you have!). Maybe not, but that doesn’t seem particularly troubling to me – even if one person reads them and gets inspiration for a study or uses some data in an analysis decades after I’m gone, I’ll be happy. Plus, they were more fun to write than the main text of these papers. I focused both of these by describing briefly a great deal of natural history, hoping that someone studying one of these systems (especially the well-known ones, like Mimulus or Petunia or Nicotiana) would think about insect- or sand-entrapment.

On another level completely, I’m sure Ecology wouldn’t have let me use the fantastic quote “[Pholisma feels like] a squishy gummy bear covered in fuzzy sand covered hairs” in the main article 🙂 .

This stilt bug, Jalysus wickhami, moves easily on the sticky surfaces of many plants, including this weird, sticky fire-following monkeyflower, Mimulus bolanderi, by grabbing the glandular trichomes below their sticky heads. However, when I perturbed it for this photo, it got a bit of the sticky stuff on its front legs (visible in photo) and was visibly disoriented and had to groom it off with its other legs. Some cool papers have focused on movement on sticky plants, so the trichome grabbing behavior is well-known, but I might still include this in a supplement (with proper citations to those papers, of course).