Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Biology For The "Everyman"

The range maps and brief habitat descriptions found in field guides – most people will be familiar with a "bird book" and the colorful diagrams explaining where the different species winter, summer, and breed – are not gospel; there are always exceptions to the rule. Unfortunately, even wildlife biologists sometimes forget this.

Some years ago my father, a conservationist and writer, observed a Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) on our Virginia farm. He called some ornithologist friends to report the unusual sighting, but the scientists scoffed at the notion of a Trumpeter visiting a coastal Virginia pond. Undeterred, my father photographed the bird, had the film developed, and sent them all images, at which point they changed their tone and agreed that this was a remarkable occurrence. Thanks to my father's documentation, this story ended happily, but I remain frustrated that the ornithologists, who all know my father to be an excellent birder (he's written books on the subject), doubted him.

For years, I bemoaned the "intellectual arrogance" of wildlife biologists, caricaturing them as stern bureaucrats more concerned with establishing reputations than expanding what we know of a species. By my early twenties, though, I realized that some degree of skepticism on the part of biologists is necessary. Dubious sightings are reported all the time: a wild grizzly bear in Florida; a crazed grey wolf in Massachusetts; a "poisonous black snake" chasing Maggie Ann across the yard. So many of these erroneous claims are relayed to biologists, especially at the local level, that they are forced to install a "junk" filter. Unfortunately, reports of real interest are lost in the process.

The scientists' skepticism also discourages people from reporting their observations in the first place. Several times I've suggested someone report an interesting sighting and the typical reaction is something like, "I'm not a scientist. What am I gonna tell them? Um, so I saw a mountain lion in West Virginia... They'll think I'm an idiot." In the age of the digital camera, though, some of the more far-fetched accounts may garner professional attention. (On the other hand, maybe the age of the digital manipulation automatically makes all documentation suspect?)

At any rate, this article serves as an encouraging counter-point. Diane Peterson, a remarkable elementary school teacher in Washington, hasn't just turned her students on to science, she has allowed them to produce valuable data, which will now be used (by the initially skeptical biologists) to expand our knowledge of short-horned lizards (Phrynosoma douglasi). If more educators were this innovative, the world would be a better place.

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