by Robert Thomson, co-author of California Amphibian and Reptile Species of Special Concern

This guest post is published to coincide with the Ecological Society of America conference in Fort Lauderdale. Check back every day this week for new posts through the end of the conference on August 12th.

9780520290907Many writers have noted the decline of natural history focused research over the last century with dismay. Natural history research is fundamental to many areas of biological science, and so this decline has the consequence of starving large branches of work of the very data that they depend upon. One area where we see this most clearly is in conservation biology. In the face of increasing rates of conservation concern, the need for basic natural history data on the types, causes and severity of conservation threats is growing. This point was clearly driven home for my co-authors and I in our recent synthesis of conservation threats for California’s amphibians and reptiles, where time and again we found that the data we would like to have does not exist. In followup work, we are quantifying what fraction of suspected conservation threats for California’s herpetofauna have any underlying data at all (in the form of surveys or experiments). The answer, so far, appears to be something less than half. While this is not a number that any stakeholder wants to see, it also highlights what needs to be done. Quite simply: we need to re-prioritize natural history.

The good news is that this kind of data can be inexpensive and conceptually simple to collect; which makes it the ideal subject of side projects for academics, conservation managers, or citizen scientists. Do you have a favorite hike or park that you visit regularly? Take five minutes to record weather and vegetation, then count what species you see, and record it in field notes. While very simple, this is valuable (and rare) information for a large number of species, particularly when it can be aggregated among people across time or space. The key is that the data must be shared with others. Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to submit it to one of many excellent data portals: (for birds), (for amphibians and reptiles), or (for virtually everything else). Alternatively, get in touch with your local natural history museum, university, or conservation organization for advice.

Robert C. Thomson is Assistant Professor of Biology in the Department of Biology at the University of Hawai‘i.