An interesting article about the lack of naturalists, and respect for them, was recently posted on the Nature Conservancy's Conservation Blog (see link below). In my own experience, the role of naturalists in science has greatly declined. In the field of ecology, where naturalists once reigned, attention has shifted to the human-nature interface. Once we observed the breeding habits of birds, now we quantify the ecosystem services of the wetlands they inhabitat. Once we developed theories about succession, now we monitor human carbon emissions and ponder the impacts of global warming.
These new avenues of study in ecology are explored because ecologists not only recognize the pressing environmental issues that the current generation must face, but also because budding ecologists seem to think that all of the observational work of naturalists has already been completed. Unfortunately, this isn't necessarily true. As this Nature Conservancy post suggests, the work of naturalists is still needed, both to enhance conservation and advance scientific knowledge.
Finally, the Nature Conservancy post fails to mention one salient point: educational opportunities are dwindling for those who are naturalist-inclined. Even at Duke University, with it's renowned graduate program in ecology, natural history classes are lacking. To take a course like mammalogy or ornithology, not to mention the natural history of North Carolina, one has to look elsewhere -- and this is despite having a talented staff and respected faculty.
Where Have All the Naturalists Gone? Cool Green Science: The Conservation Blog of The Nature Conservancy
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