Saturday, October 22, 2011

Curious Naturalists

Curious Naturalists Back CoverCurious Naturalists Front Cover
The Curious Naturalist is a book by Niko Tinbergen (1907 - 1988) that was first published in 1958. The edition discussed here is a reprint of the revised 1973 text. The book covers the time period from the late 1920s to the 1950s during which Tinbergen became an eminent Dutch ethologist (one who studies animal behavior) and ornithologist (one who studies birds). Tinbergen was a co-winner of the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. His prize speech of December 12, 1973 is interesting because in it, he credits observation - the central theme of Curious Naturalists and really of Tinbergen’s career - as a critical factor for winning the prize. The speech starts off talking about the “unconventional decision” to choose three men (Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz, Karl von Frisch shared the prize) who were, in some sense, outside the field and whose work was that as “mere animal watchers”. He argues in the speech that observation can in fact bring a lot to bear in physiology (citing the then still relatively new ideas that became the Alexander Technique) and medicine (observations on autism). It’s not clear how the observations have held up in time.

So what is a naturalist? A naturalist conducts scientific research of plants and animals with observation being his main research tool. That doesn’t mean that the naturalist doesn’t experiment and test things, just that a strong emphasis is placed on observation. In fact in the book, the typical pattern of the research that Tinbergen presents starts with an observation period of an animal, followed by some rather simple, yet ingenious experiment or alteration to the animal’s environment, and further observation of the animal with the new environment. A typical example is the work he describes on the Beewolf, Philanthus triangulatum, in the first few chapters. At first, Philanthus is observed to understand the basics: each female Beewolf wasp has one burrow and returns with bees for the larvae inside. But how does Philanthus find its burrow entrance? Landmarks seem to be the key, so different aspects of Philanthus’s homing skills (finding their way back to their burrow) are tested by placing different objects (landmarks) around burrow entrances. The tests become more elaborate and the response of the insects is watched. In a few tests, all the natural landmarks near burrow entrances are move elsewhere to mislead the Beewolf and it works. Tinbergen writes “[a]t the end of such a series of tests I replaced the landmarks in their original position, and this finally enabled the wasp to return to her home. Thus the test always had a happy ending - for both of us. This was not pure altruism on my part - I could now use the wasp for another test if I wished.”

Some of the species discussed include:

- Beewolf wasp, Philanthus triangulatum, the spark that really got Tinbergen started.
- Sand wasp, Ammophila campestris
- Moths, Ennomos alniaria and Ennomos quercinaria
- Moths, Biston betularia betularia and the difference between morpha typica and carbonaria
- Grayling moth, Eumenis semele (Hipparchia semele)
- Black-headed Gull, Chroicocephalus ridibundus,
- (Black-legged) Kittiwake, Rissa brevirostris

It’s interesting to note that Tinbergen didn’t title the book Curious Naturalist, singular, and instead used the plural, Naturalists. I think it points to his desire that this book isn’t so much about him, singularly, but about us, plural, and that we could all benefit from being a curious naturalist. And upon reading this book, it would strike me as odd if you didn’t approach observation of your surroundings - be they an urban lot or deep-woods - a little differently and with a little more respect. But, I suppose if you pick up this book, you are already bent this way and Tinbergen just pushes you a bit more.

One fun aspects of the book are the many photos and illustrations. The photos aren’t glamourized, just naturalists poking around in the field. The illustrations often involve some form of abstracted field observation, observation setup, or results and are engaging to look at. Here is an example where two of Tinbergen’s students study the homing behavior of the sand wasp, Ammophila campestris, which climbs shrubs or small trees, takes a survey, and then jumps in the direction of her nest with prey (a caterpillar) in its grasp. The illustration below shows paths home for one wasp and that a strong learned “long” path.

Curious Naturalists Illustration for Sand Wasp Homing



I decided to read the Curious Naturalists after reading an excerpt of it in The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing (2008) edited by Richard Dawkins, who incidentally was a student of Tinbergen. While reading the Naturalists I kept thinking of a bike ride on the Waterland route from Amsterdam to Marken we took in 2004. I remember being struck by the beauty of the polders, waterways, farms, and wooden houses. The route is across Zuider Zee where, on the south end (in Hulshorst) Tinbergen studied Philanthus.

Another point of connection is that I started the Curious Naturalists before taking a trip on the Wainwright Coast to Coast Walk and finished it when I returned. Chapters 7 - 9 are set in Ravenglass, in Cumbria. Ravenglass is just a few kilometers south from St. Bees where we started our walk.

After I finished the book it struck me how much room for improvement I have for making good observations. I went on the Wainwright walk with the goal of identifying plants (one a day) and while I was able to do that (see western botanical guide and eastern botanical guide), there were many cases that I didn’t do basic things like count petals, examine leaves, make notes on the surroundings and, in general, just take the time to observe.

On a related note, while on the Wainwright walk I saw many rabbits that succumbed to myxomatosis. Tinbergen mentions the disease in Chapter 7 in regard to the vegetation of the dunes of Ravenglass which seemed to be recovering because of the reduced rabbit (“undiscriminating vegetarian”) population - killed by myxomatosis.

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