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Everyone Should Be a Naturalist

by Ari A 9 months ago in Nature

The study of nature isn’t just for scientists in lab coats

Everyone Should Be a Naturalist
Photo by Sarah Brown on Unsplash

Think of the last tree you saw. What did you see when you looked at that tree? Most of us saw a trunk and some branches. Are there leaves or pine needles on the branches? What about flowers or fruit? Were any critters on the tree? Was It warm outside?

Congratulations, you just made your first observation as a naturalist! Chances are, you've been a naturalist your whole life without even knowing.

By Sara Cottle on Unsplash

What Exactly Is a Naturalist?

Naturalists are people who study nature, mostly in nature itself. A naturalist makes observations about an environment and records this information to help them find connections between living things and develop insights on patterns and changes over time.

Professionally, a naturalist may be a biologist, botanist, or zoologist who spends time in the field conducting research and collecting data about living things in their natural habitats and the conditions within those ecosystems. These naturalists' work is vital for understanding the effects of things like development or climate change. Their work ends up published in major scientific journals or becomes part of studies and governmental policy. Without a doubt, the work that naturalists do has a significant impact on our day-to-day lives.

By Rakshith Hatwar on Unsplash

Who are some famous naturalists?

Some of the most notable naturalists in history include Charles Darwin, John Muir, and John James Audubon. You might remember Charles Darwin from your science class. His observation of animals in the Galapagos Islands became the foundation for the theory of evolution and natural selection. Suppose you have heard of the sierra club. In that case, you might know its founder, John Muir, a naturalist who advocated for the conservation of California's Sierra Nevada mountains, home of Yosemite National Park. If you enjoy bird watching, then John James Audubon is a name that rings familiar to you; after all, the Audubon Society and several birding field guides are in his name.

Many of us even grew up watching famous naturalists on TV. Terri Irwin and her husband, the late Steve Irwin, hosted the famous "Crocodile Hunter" series and dedicated their time and efforts to the conservation of engendered species and their habitats. Today, Terri Irwin is still pioneering vital work to help wildlife in Australia and around the world.

By Diane Helentjaris on Unsplash

How Am I a Naturalist?

What if we didn't get a biology degree? What if we didn't even go to college? How can non-scientists even call themselves naturalists?

Being a naturalist is more than having a scientific degree on the wall, all though those certainly help if conducting significant research is your goal. Being a Naturalist is second nature to us as humans, and for many of us is an integral part of our heritage that we might not even recognize yet. If you're a fisherman, hunter, or gardener, you've already been using these skills!

By Olena Sergienko on Unsplash

To be a naturalist, you have to observe, record information, and find connections within our environment. We already make several observations throughout our day that we record in memory and then make assessments. To be a naturalist is to be receptive. You see, listen, taste, touch, smell your surroundings to understand them better and record those observations.

By Johann Siemens on Unsplash

Think back to that tree. If it's a tree you walk past every day, you know what it looks like season to season. Maybe it flowers in the spring, or it loses pinecones every fall. You can make connections, not just about the tree but also about the season because you have these observations in memory.

By Ryan Magsino on Unsplash

Now, you have to take your observations to the next level and record that information more concretely. Most naturalists start the old-fashioned way, with a journal and a pencil. All you need to do to start recording your observations in nature is writing them down and drawing a sketch. A sketch doesn't have to be fancy; something simple will do. If you have a camera handy, even pictures on your phone are a great resource to keep handy. You can even record sound in an environment and use it as a reference to identify birds, frogs, and insects. Having binoculars or land lenses handy can also help you see things with more clarity. If you're not sure what you're seeing, try picking up a local wildlife field guide.

By Anna Hecker on Unsplash

After you've made these observations, you can reflect on this information. Environments can change quickly in a few hours, like tide pools facing an incoming tide or over more extended periods like a season or a year. These reflections are valuable tools that teach us about these natural spaces, whether in a national park or your backyard.

By Julian Hochgesang on Unsplash

How Can I Put My Observations to Use?

Being a naturalist helps tremendously with assisting in citizen science projects. These projects use information that is crowdsourced from laypeople making observations to accumulate scientific data.

Naturalist Apps like iNaturalist and Seek record images, notes, video, and sound of your observations and help you identify plants, animals, and insects. Some apps use algorithms to help narrow down an observation or entire online communities of users that help you out. INaturalist even lets you contribute to ongoing scientific projects with the information you collect.

By Alessandro Cavestro on Unsplash

You can also participate in citizen science projects by volunteering with local nature centers or environmental organizations. These groups are consistently gathering information about their local areas to help in protecting the environment. With enough knowledge about your local area, you could even become a docent or tour guide with these groups and pass information along to members of your community.


Ari A

Reconnect to the land with me on Instagram @arioutdoors

Read next: Reducing is the Transition

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