We need rules and norms, but we also need records about apparently irrelevant things that, in non-linear systems like ecological ones, might become the drivers of change and, thus, the determinants of history. Ferdinando Boero (2013)
I’ve just had a personal career highlight…one that will most likely go unrecognised on my CV. Last month, I had an observational note published in the Victorian Naturalist, an excellent peer-reviewed natural history journal that has an impact factor of 0.00. As most academic career processes focus on quantifiable ‘impact’, it is pretty unlikely that this publication will be recognised in any of my future career or grant applications. So why did I bother?
One cold weekend last July, I took a day trip with my partner to Lawrence’s Lookout in north-east Victoria – one of the best spots to view the snow across all the alpine ranges that straddle the NSW/VIC border. I wasn’t on work time, and it wasn’t an ecosystem I knew much about. But as an ecologist (a.k.a naturalist), I’m in ‘work’ mode 24/7.
On a stone camp hut at the lookout, I found huge huddled masses of ladybirds – the largest number of ladybirds I have ever seen in my life. All I knew about ladybirds was that they were sensational biological control agents. And as I was relatively new to this alpine/temperate region (from subtropical Queensland!), I assumed that this was just ‘normal’ ladybird behaviour down south. So I snapped a few photos and moved on to gasp at the view.
When I got home, my curiosity prodded. I’d recently read a paper about the biodiversity value of drystone walls in Italy. Had anyone looked at this in Australia? I did some research and couldn’t find much about stone wall biodiversity here.
I identified my beetles as the common spotted ladybird (Harmonia conformis, syn. Leis conformis, Boisduval 1835, for the taxonomists) using this handy guide. Although it is an Australian species, most of the literature published on this ladybird is from overseas, from countries where it had been introduced many years ago for biological control of economic pests. A handful of studies on its biology in Australia briefly mentioned its aggregation behaviour, and a couple of papers on pests in forestry pine plantations noted aggregations seen in the same area of my observation, but they didn’t give any ecological details.
Clearly this type of aggregation behaviour was somewhat common in ladybird species in temperate regions, but there was very little information on the ‘who’, what and why in Australia. What ladybird dispersal patterns appeared in the Australian alpine region? Where did they prefer to congregate? Did this behaviour vary in different ecosystem types? How did this affect biological control in managed landscapes?
Lawrence’s Lookout is completely surrounded by pine plantations that are managed for forestry and the only other structure within 2 km of the camp shelter (a nearby timber toilet block) had no resident ladybirds at all. So I wondered whether stone structures (which can retain heat longer than timber) may be important overwintering sites for ladybirds in cool-climate managed landscapes.
I’m not a ladybird specialist, or an entomologist. But I couldn’t find this information in any published literature, which told me there might be a gap in the knowledge. So I wrote up a short note and submitted it to Victorian Naturalist…
Observations vs observational studies
These kinds of observations are rarely considered ‘scientific’, in the sense that they are not a result of rigorous scientific methods and data analysis. I had no data on these ladybirds other than a serendipitous one-off observation at one site.
To many scientists, these are ‘anecdotes’, not ‘data’. Therefore, they shouldn’t be taken seriously or treated as bona fide science. Observational notes differ from observational studies, which are pretty common in the ecological literature – well-designed, replicated studies of interactions or organisms in natural conditions. Notes, on the other hand, are unreplicated, random observations. So we can’t use them as scientific evidence, because they are not backed up by repeated observation. Hence, why many people ignore the ‘impact’ of observations.
But are the woods being overlooked in the debate over the trees?
Ecologically, these random observations can be just as useful as ‘proper’ research. Where no other published information on a particular interaction exists, one-off observational accounts can inspire, and justify the need for, further testing of new projects and hypotheses.
Observations of natural processes, phenomena and interactions are the foundation of ecological science. Around 1500 years ago, Herodotus recorded the mutual benefits of symbiosis between unrelated species – the Nile crocodile and a bird he called the ‘trochilus’. He observed that the trochilus would hop into the crocodile’s throat as it lay basking on the river bed, and clean up the leeches infesting its throat without worrying about being eaten. Much of the subsequent discussion over Herodotus’ ‘anecdote’ has been over whether it is ‘fact’, partly because no one is quite sure what bird the ‘trochilus’ is (as far as I can tell, perhaps a plover of some kind). But we have since learned a great deal about interspecific mutualisms, cleaner birds, and a leech that infests animal throats, so he wasn’t that far from the truth.
From a few years’ worth of observations, Charles Darwin literally wrote the book on most of the ecological ‘laws’ we know today. Entire ecological sub-disciplines have grown from offhand observations making it into print. Ecotone/edge ecology developed from two separate observations. It started with Tansley’s 1935 observation of the unique plant communities that linked two different vegetation types, which initiated the study of vegetation ecotones. Later, Leopold’s 1933 observation that game animals (e.g. deer) tended to hang around forest edges inspired wildlife biologists to start formally studying how animals reacted to those vegetation ecotones.
Most ecological theories are founded on processes and interactions that were observed first, shared as an interesting reflection, and then (usually much later) tested and developed as hypotheses and theories. Many of our recent inventions and technological advancements are based on coincidental observations in the natural world…Velcro® was invented by a man whose alpine hunting trip ended with hours spent picking burrs out of his clothes and his dog’s coat.
Sadly, a human society increasingly removed from nature, and a greater emphasis on tangible outcomes in scientific research, means that conscious observation of nature is now often seen as less critical to the scientific process. We assume that the answer to anything we see in nature is already-known or insignificant, so we no longer feel the urge to stop and ask ‘Why?’ The knowledge-building power of simple curiosity is becoming a lost art.
But curiosity is the key to learning and remembering information. It opens the doors to knowledge.
Observational notes are an essential addition to any ecologist’s CV. They are also a great way for amateur naturalists (citizen scientists) to contribute to the literature. In our pursuit of high-impact journals and sensational science, how much ecological science are we missing?
So keep your eyes wide open next time you’re working in the field, or just out for an afternoon walk! Keep a notebook of interesting observations – a new bee in your neighbourhood, an odd growth on your favourite tree, or an interesting interaction between two different species. You never know what science you might end up contributing to! And here’s a nice piece of advice: set aside some regular time to write up your growing collection of natural history notes.
But where to publish?
Although many of the ‘high-impact’ ecology/biology journals publish research based on observational studies, notes of individual observations are generally only found in regional natural history journals. However, Frontiers in Ecology and Environment recently announced a new section dedicated to natural history observations, so perhaps other journals will follow suit. (UPDATE: This series is on hold, but Ecology has started a new series called The Scientific Naturalist.)
The following Australian peer-reviewed journals publish natural science notes and observations. For some (not all), you will need to be a member of the related society to publish in the journal, but membership comes with a whole lot of other benefits! These journals are also often overlooked as a great literature source.
Cunninghamia (plant ecology)
Australian Field Ornithology (birds)
Australasian Mycologist (sadly, has ceased publishing, but the back catalogue is still available)
The Australian Entomologist (insects and related fauna)
Herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians)
Most states also have a Royal Society, many of which publish a ‘Proceedings’ journal; but check with each one, as some focus more on the physical sciences and some aim to publish research papers or reviews only.
And if you’re outside Australia, most other countries/states/regions have region-specific natural history journals too: e.g. check out the list of BioOne journals
© Manu Saunders 2015