On the importance of Observations to Ecology

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.

If you want to delve further into the relationship between observation and science, I highly recommend the book Observation and Ecology, by Rafe Sagarin & Aníbal Pauchard, and its complementary blog.

And if you prefer your ecology observations in blog format, my favourites are Jane’s Mildly Extreme adventures and Natural Newstead.

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.

The Victorian Naturalist

The South Australian Naturalist

The Western Australian Naturalist

The Queensland Naturalist

The Tasmanian Naturalist

Northern Territory Field Naturalist

Cunninghamia (plant ecology)

Australasian Plant Conservation

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

38 thoughts on “On the importance of Observations to Ecology

  1. ScientistSeesSquirrel July 28, 2015 / 9:46 PM

    Great piece! I particularly like the notion that these simple, one-off observations are the stuff on which future hypothetico-deductive science depends. So we need to make these observations and share them. Studies like this will never make your career (sorry, but I think it’s true), but that doesn’t mean they lack value.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Mason July 28, 2015 / 11:42 PM

    Thanks for writing this, very nice piece! I love writing these types of observational-natural history notes because they tend to be fun and a break from typical research papers. Plus, they are fun to read. Another journal for your list is Herpetological Review which has a section dedicated to amphibian and reptiles Natural History observations.

    These types of notes can be important because they can inspire someone to look more closely at the phenomenon which can lead to a research project. Plus, in some cases I feel we have a responsibility to write up these notes because many times we are in the field on grants and these notes can uncover aspects of species lives that can be used for conservation. The former point is important for endangered or threatened species for which we have little knowledge.

    I have found many well known researchers look down on Natural History notes, but I’ve also had some well known researchers that recognize their value. It’s too bad their value isn’t always recognized.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Manu Saunders July 29, 2015 / 8:42 AM

      Thanks Mason! I like your point that ecologists have a responsibility to write up these observations, especially if they are in conservation-significant locations that may not be visited regularly – I completely agree.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Dirk July 29, 2015 / 1:47 AM

    Thanks for that. There are a range of open access journals, which would be happily publishing this as well. E.g. Biodiversity Data Journal. I agree that we need to have a repository for such information. They might be worth a lot in the future!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Brianne Du Clos (@brianneduclos) July 30, 2015 / 5:29 AM

    This is great! I attended a natural history conference this spring, and though I got scoffs from colleagues when I mentioned it to them, I would like to publish some of my dissertation work in a regional natural history journal. Observations are really valuable, and I find them particularly motivating when I’m burned out on on the coding-modeling-writing routine that is academia.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Manu Saunders July 30, 2015 / 9:17 AM

      Thanks Brianne. Great point about finding observations motivating – I love those ‘Eureka’ moments when you’re field work isn’t going as planned & you’re ready to give up, and then you see something amazing. It always gets you back on track! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Karen Retra July 31, 2015 / 9:17 AM

    Great call to action Manu … even for those of us who aren’t ecologists or academics.
    I love the idea of ‘natural history Fridays’ (or similar) to help organise and write up observations, so they can be shared. Might well get started on that later today (I’ve plenty of content to consider)!

    Also much appreciate your links and notes about those journals as a way for someone like me to access others’ observations (and adventures).
    Big thanks for my ongoing ecology education via your blog!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Manu Saunders July 31, 2015 / 10:35 AM

      Thanks Karen! That’s the beauty of studying nature – it’s not exclusive to the academic realm. And I’m pretty sure you would have lots of great bee stories to share 😉


  6. sleather2012 August 3, 2015 / 6:13 PM

    great post – we all need to remember the value of publishing our observations and it is a shame that those type of papers are not really recognised for academic progression

    Liked by 2 people

  7. PK Read August 8, 2015 / 8:33 PM

    Awesome write-up, amazing ladybird pod images! So glad you wrote this up here for the rest of us to read.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. invertchallenge365 August 10, 2015 / 9:36 PM

    This blog post made me very happy and completely reflects my own love of natural history observation. So many observations like this add to our knowledge and thankfully there are now so many places to publish such observations here in the UK that are easily accessible. Great stuff!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Macrobe August 14, 2015 / 10:32 AM

    The past 2 and 1/2 months I have lived in the world of milkweed and Monarch larvae. It has been like a drama series that I watch and document 3-4 days every week. From watching milkweed bud and flower, to excitedly watching tiny 1st instars grow to fat voracious 5th instars. To giggling at mosquitoes try to release their entrapped legs from milkweed stigmatic chambers, to luminescent blue beetles copulating for hours on leaves. And watching a tired adult Monarch whose wings are tattered take rest on a peppergrass.

    I realized this is a world that few people know about, or may even care. The ‘experts’ claimed that Monarchs don’t breed here, but there is a resident population here with its accompanying drama that I feel lucky to have observed. And have data and photographs to support their success, where other people dismissed it too readily. Most times, I leave with more questions than answers.

    This is how I grew up and entered the field of biology and ecology. It’s nice to hear and know that others like me still rejoice in those observations. As small as they may be, they are a world within our own. And you are right; we are turned ‘on’ to that “24/7”. Perhaps it’s just the way we think. 🙂

    Very happy to see your post celebrating the art and wonder of observing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders August 14, 2015 / 2:34 PM

      Watching butterfly instars is so much fun! Thanks for the great comment. I wonder why, when ‘odd’ happenings like you describe are encountered, they are often brushed aside as random anomalies because they don’t fit the pattern of what we ‘know’. But ecology is all about identifying patterns, even new ones, so I guess it’s our loss to ignore the clues!
      Glad my thoughts resonated – happy nature watching! 🙂


  10. Gregg Muller September 1, 2015 / 4:45 PM

    The decline of natural history is a sad phenomenon. I think it can be traced to the need by ecologists in the later part of the last century to be taken seriously by ‘real’ scientists. As an avowed naturalist, I simultaneously rejoice and rankle at the recent trend to Citizen Science, as with decreasing funds, ecologists now hope to co-opt the very naturalists they rejected half a century ago to undertake their field work for them. Note – these Citizen Science projects are definitively NOT science, They are natural history, and I wish more ecologists would reclaim the term. (Science is the testing of hypotheses, natural history is detailed observations). The rejection of natural history is still in evidence, as the publication policies of Austral Ecology show.
    I had a similar encounter to yours with hypolithic mosses on the Snowy Mountains Main Range, probably somewhere in your panorama, back in the 1980s. A return trip with ecologists 2 decades later only evinced cursory attention, but with careful research, I found a nice journal with a decent impact factor to publish in. But I needed to go outside the ecology cloisters.
    Thanks for the list of journals, and more strength to your naturalist arm…

    Liked by 4 people

    • Manu Saunders September 6, 2015 / 6:51 PM

      Thanks Gregg. Agree on ecology’s struggle to be considered a ‘real’ science – definitely tragic for science as a collective body of knowledge, and also for the rest of the world that are misled to believe that their genuine interest in the natural world is not scientific or useful to society.
      I like your point on the two sides of the citizen science trend – I support the concept, but also see the other side of the coin. Unfortunately, it has become a bit of a catchphrase that many people use without thinking. However, I don’t agree that all cit sci are unscientific. There is a slight difference between ongoing projects that aim to raise public awareness of nature & get people interested/familiar with collecting scientific data, and one-off projects that use public observations to gather data on a particular species/system. Each approach has their pros and cons, but some can definitely be based around hypothesis testing. Also (hence this post) I think detailed observations IS a science in itself, and is certainly a prerequisite to traditional hypothesis testing! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  11. Angela Simpson January 4, 2016 / 8:15 AM

    Hi Gregg
    Thanks for the interesting read and the links which I will follow up.
    The ladybird example is interesting because I saw a similar (not quite so dense) clustering on rocks of red spotted ladybirds some years back at the summit of Mt Tongariro. I ask everyone I hear that goes up there if they saw lots of them, but they mostly look suprised at my observation.
    keep on enjoying your observing (-:

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Lachlan Fetterplace May 9, 2016 / 10:19 AM

    Very interesting post.I agree, there should be more venues for publishing natural history and its a shame that Austral Ecology doesnt have something similar to Natural History Notes. If its fine for the ESAmerica why not for the ESAus? Just for the fact that it would bring in additional readers for each issue- case in point is that I read every single one of the Natural history notes. Easy to read and engaging. Interesting realated read (I cant remember how I came across this but it was by following links in this blog so ignore if you already have mentioned somewhere) https://www.researchgate.net/publication/280884532_Are_Journal_Impact_Factors_another_key_threatening_process_for_Australian_fauna

    Liked by 2 people

      • Manu Saunders May 9, 2016 / 5:19 PM

        Thanks Lachlan. Completely agree, it would be great if Austral Ecology & Austral Entomology had a section for natural history notes. Currently the only Australian avenues for publishing these kind of notes are in regional field nats journals, some of which aren’t available to non-members, or archives are hard to find – plus many researchers, particularly newer graduates have never heard of many of them. Imagine all the fascinating ecological records that have been overlooked! 🙂

        Liked by 3 people

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