This thing called life

This thing called life

Identification of animals and plants is an essential skill set

La Trobe University students learning how to identify plants near Falls Creek. Susan Lawler

I have recently been made abundantly aware of the lack of field skills among biology students, even those who major in ecology. By field skills we mean the ability to identify plants and animals, to recognise invasive species and to observe the impact of processes such as fire on the landscape.

My colleague Mike Clarke calls it “ecological illiteracy”, and identifies it as a risk for nature at large. While people spend more times indoors in front of screens, we become less aware of the birds, plants and bugs in our backyards and neighbourhoods. This leads to an alienation of humans from nature that is harmful to our health, our planet and our spirit.

On a more practical, academic level, I was in a meeting this week where an industry representative complained that biology graduates are no longer able to identify common plants and animals. This limits their employment prospects and hampers the capacity of society to respond to changes in natural ecosystems predicted by climate change.

Field taxonomy vs. Bloom’s taxonomy

So what is going on? Why don’t ecology students get this information during the course of their University degrees?

Practical sessions teaching scientific names of animals or plants can be perceived to be boring and dry. Students may be asked to collect and pin a range of insects or press and identify certain plants as part of their training in biological diversity, but these activities are time consuming and expensive. As we strive to be more flexible and efficient, classes and assessments relying on identification skills are quickly dropped.

Ironically, the dogma that has been so detrimental to field taxonomy is known as Bloom’s taxonomy. University lecturers are told to apply an educational theory developed by Benjamin Bloom, which categorises assessment tasks and learning activities into cognitive domains. In Bloom’s taxonomy, identifying and naming are at the lowest level of cognitive skills and have been systematically excluded from University degrees because they are considered simplistic.

The problem is that identifying a plant or insect is not simple at all. Not only do you need to know which features to examine (nuts, leaves, roots, spines, eye stripes or wing venation), you need to adopt a whole vocabulary of terms designed to provide precision in the observation of specific traits. Examining the mouthparts of insects requires knowing the difference between a mandible, maxilla and rostrum. Hairs on a leaf can be described as glaucous, glabrous, or hirsute.

Such detail cannot be taught without a student passionate enough to embrace the task and having a passionate mentor who can make the discipline come alive.

Photographs are not enough

In this digital age some people seem to think that photographs can replace the collection of specimens. I know a bit about crayfish, and where in the past a fisher might show up with an animal in an esky, these days people like to send me a photo and ask what species that was. I cannot identify a crayfish from a photo, nor can I easily explain to an interested amateur how to count the mesal carpal spines.

There is a reason that scientists must collect specimens and take them back to the lab or lodge them with a museum. Biological organisms are extremely complex, and the critical feature that distinguishes one from another relies on careful comparison.

A recent discovery of a rare kingfisher in Guadalcanal caused controversy in the Washington Post when the researchers photographed, then killed and collected the animal. I understand why they felt they needed to document their finding with a specimen, and I understand the outrage of nature lovers who decry the need for more than a photo.

Australian species are poorly known

A recent article by an author in Britain points out the difference between taxonomy and field skills. Trends in biological recording are changing due to electronic and photographic recording and the availability of complete field guides. However, the situation in the United Kingdom does differ from Australia.*

It is true that in some parts of the world the species have all been named and catalogued, but Australia is not one of those places. Any shake of a shrub will produce un-named insects. Every Bush Blitz expedition discovers new species or new records of known species.

Young people need field trips

I spent last week in the Victorian alps with biology students from La Trobe University. As part of their research project they needed to identify plants and insects. We had some impressive expertise among our staff, people who knew the Latin names of every plant at first glance. The trick is to transmit that knowledge to the next generation.

Accordingly, we made the students tape leaves into their notebooks and write names next to each one. We brought the insects back to the lodge and sat in front of microscopes for hours. Using keys, identification books and each other we were able to describe the particular community at each study site.

Some of the students came away excited about different groups of organisms. The excitement of the camp may lead them to spend time away from their desks staring at gum leaves, listening for bird calls or popping bugs in jars for later inspection.

I hope that some of them becom obsessed enough to turn themselves into experts, but I also want all young people to have more exposure to nature and all of its parts.

Not everyone can spend time in the alps, but everyone can learn the names of the trees in a nearby park. Can you identify the birds calling in your backyard? Do you know the difference between a moth and a butterfly, or between a worm and a grub?

Take the time to engage with both the little and big things growing around you and discover the joy of re-connecting with nature.

*This paragraph was corrected on March 1.