When I majored in biology in the late 1960s, the focus was on cellular biology. Our year-long intro biology course concentrated on molecules, cells, genetics, and human physiology. Taxonomy was almost completely skipped over. This was probably worse than eliminating it completely because a quick tour was head-spinning, and we were left with little more than the idea that the living world is full of exotic creatures with tongue-tying names, definitely an aspect of biology to avoid. During the fall semester, I fell in love with electron microscope images of cells and that set my educational course. If I could see a living thing, I wasn’t interested in it. Out of fifteen biology majors in my cohort, only one went into organismal biology, becoming an oceanographer studying copepods.
While many of my generation continued on to careers in ecology, few ended up in systematics, and the movement away from this discipline remains a trend to this day. The result is that there are not many botanists and zoologists who have expertise in accurate species identification. This is particularly ironic because species are still being discovered. However among plants, a quarter are left undescribed for 50 years or more after they were first found (Bebber et al., 2010). With the dawn of the 21st century, targeted efforts have been underway to bring back what can broadly be called natural history: studying biology at the organismal level. In part this trend is the result of the massive NSF project over the past 10 years to work toward digitizing information on the nation’s natural history collections.
As collections are scrutinized, many discoveries are made, and just the scope of the collections has reawakened interest in them, in what they say about the natural world. The Society of Herbarium Curators is playing a larger and larger role in this work, as it encourages interest in herbaria among many constituencies, including young people considering careers in systematics and botanical biodiversity. One of the more disturbing discoveries is the number of species known from old collections that haven’t been found again in the 20th and 21st centuries. Another is that scientific species names are a foreign language for most of us. I definitely include myself here. Until I got on my botany kick, I knew more bacterial than plant genera. Catching up isn’t easy but it feels good when I can identify a species and name it correctly. And it’s that good feeling, among other things, that botanists are attempting to pass on to more of today’s students.
In the last post, I wrote about bringing natural history into K-12 classrooms. Here I want to mention programs to do the same in higher education. This is a huge topic because it has several different strata. Among undergraduates, there are some who will major in biology and go on to work in ecology, systematics, and related fields. But the vast majority will not. These are the students I taught and that I still worry about. If they are interested in anything biological, besides issues of health, it is organisms they can see. Yet much of biology education is devoted to cells and molecules. The first semester I taught I was shocked to find that my nonmajors did not find protein synthesis fascinating, and they still don’t. I tried to find ways to make it tantalizing, and finally turned to dealing with another problem: plant blindness. I found this an easier sell. Students were much more likely to find trees on campus to observe than to stumble on a ribosome. There are now many natural history activities geared to such students including a project developed at the Université catholique de Louvain that could be adapted in many ways. In addition, Brad Balukjian has written persuasively on why he has just begun a natural history and sustainability program at a California community college.
For those majoring in biology, there is definitely an upswing of interest in fields focused on biodiversity. The NSF-sponsored program, BLUE: Biodiversity Literacy in Undergraduate Education, aims at developing a set of biodiversity competencies for undergraduates. These would include not only a focus on organismal biology and ecology, but also on digital literacy and bioinformatics, which will be essential for future professionals. It is exciting to see a field form around these ideas, some of which are centuries old, and some only beginning to gel. Natural history collections are essential to these efforts because they hold a great deal of the history of the natural world. They are also where the living world of today will be recorded. As I have mentioned a number of times, I volunteer at the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. It is alive with undergraduate students who as student workers and interns have learned a great deal about botany by digitizing label information and imaging specimens. Among the specimens are those collected in the mid-19th century by the planter and botanist Henry Ravenel. These are on permanent loan from Converse College, and provide a picture of the flora of South Carolina of the past. There are also graduate students in environmental studies who are contributing specimen vouchers from their work in the field. Herrick Brown, the A.C. Moore Curator, whose doctoral work dealt with seed dispersal and climate modeling (Brown & Wethey, 2019), has plans to foster participation by more students in the herbarium’s activities. It is an exciting place to be!
Bebber, D. P., Carine, M. A., Wood, J. R. I., Wortley, A. H., Harris, D. J., Prance, G. T., … Scotland, R. W. (2010). Herbaria are a major frontier for species discovery. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(51), 22169–22171.
Brown, H. H. K., & Wethey, D. S. (2019). Observations on anthesis, fruit development, and seed dispersal in Gordonia lasianthus (theaceae). Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, 13(1), 185–196.