Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Field Notes on Science & Nature

Field Notes on Science & Nature

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Harvard University Press
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Field Notes on Science & Nature
    Book Description:

    What did George Schaller note when studying the lions of the Serengeti? How does Piotr Naskrecki use relational databases and electronic field notes? In what way is Bernd Heinrich's approach "truly Thoreauvian," in E. O. Wilson's view? Pioneering a new niche in the study of plants and animals in their native habitat, Field Notes on Science and Nature allows readers to peer over the shoulders and into the notebooks of a dozen eminent field workers, to study firsthand their methods, materials, and fleeting impressions. Recording field observations is an indispensable scientific skill, but researchers are not generally willing to share their personal records. Here, for the first time, are reproductions of actual pages from notebooks. And in essays abounding with fascinating anecdotes, the authors reflect on the contexts in which the notes were taken. Covering disciplines as diverse as ecology, paleontology, anthropology, botany, and animal behavior, Field Notes offers specific examples that professional naturalists can emulate to fine-tune their own field methods, along with practical advice that amateur naturalists and students can use to document their adventures.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06084-5
    Subjects: General Science, Biological Sciences, History, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vi-vii)
    (pp. ix-xvi)

    THE SECOND HALF OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY witnessed the rise of molecular and cellular biology, one of the greatest achievements in the history of science. The study of living things at the molecular level established what may be fairly called the First Law of Biology, that all the entities and processes of life are obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry. This research succeeded in part because it focused on several dozen species of “model organisms” to explore particular basic problems, for example, the colon bacterium E. coli for molecular genetics, the roundworm C. elegans for the molecular underpinnings...

  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    THOSE WHO STUDY NATURE are bound by a shared curiosity and common traditions. Whether tracking gorillas in the Congo or terns above the Arctic Circle, those who take to the field seek information on how organisms live and behave, how they interact, and how the world has been shaped by the forces of nature. This work is rich not only because of the immeasurable diversity of life, but also because of the human experience that inevitably arises with the study, adventure, and once-in-a-lifetime sightings that take place in the field. Along with these intellectual and aesthetic ties, field scientists share...

  5. 1 The Pleasure of Observing
    (pp. 19-32)

    THE LION PRIDE, consisting of three maned males, seven females, four large cubs, and six small cubs, finally stirs itself after hours of indolence. It is shortly after midnight, and a moon suffuses the Serengeti plains with silver so bright that the lions cast shadows. I use no artificial light to observe the animals. It might disturb their potential prey. Nothing violates the vast silence except the distant whoop of a spotted hyena. Brittle grass crackles beneath the lions’ heavy tread. One lioness, a little apart from the others, begins to dig at a warthog burrow, sweeping sandy soil backward...

  6. 2 Untangling the Bank
    (pp. 33-48)

    IT ALL STARTED when I was eight years old. I began running along the gravel roads near my childhood home, keeping my young eyes open for beetles and birds. By the time I was in high school in Maine, I had graduated from going barefoot most of the time to wearing a pair of canvas shoes with hard black rubber soles. This official running attire transformed my running into a more serious pastime when, as a junior, I made it onto the roster of our high school team. To establish rewards for myself, I purchased a pocket-sized spiral notebook that...

  7. 3 One and a Half Cheers for List-Keeping
    (pp. 49-66)

    IN SERIOUS STUDIES of bird distribution, an annotated list of species detected is at the heart of an effective set of field notes. In recreational birding, a list of species detected is at the heart of one of the most frivolous games ever devised. This shared element has led to persistent confusion, at least among birders, between the scientific act of keeping field notes and the game of list-chasing. That in itself is reason enough for a discussion of listing to be included in this volume. But beyond that, the phenomenon of list-keeping is worth examining in its own right,...

  8. 4 A Reflection of the Truth
    (pp. 67-88)

    THE CITY OF HULL was, some would say still is, an unprepossessing place. I was born just outside that city in the tiny seaside town of to which my mother had fled to avoid the exigencies of the German blitzkrieg of 1944. Yet it was to the low-lying, fish-smelling, trawling of Hull that we returned, and I spent my childhood and school years that city. This was also where I became an obsessive naturalist.

    The city was not, at first glance, an obvious place to become with wild nature—but first glances are often misleading. in the 1940s and 1950s...

  9. 5 Linking Researchers across Generations
    (pp. 89-108)

    AS A PALEONTOLOGIST, I spend countless sun-backed hours exploring rocky landscapes searching for time capsules. What I discover is just an unrecognizable fragment, but sometimes I find a breathtaking skull or a bonebed that immediately opens a window through time, showing what life was like millions of years in the past. The intense planning and gritty toil that go into this work are validated by the knowledge I gain from these specimens and the rocks that encase them. Some of this new understanding is distilled into scientific papers, which is gratifying to me and may be informative and even exciting...

  10. 6 The Spoken and the Unspoken
    (pp. 109-128)

    HUMANS ARE COMPLICATED. As an anthropologist who works with humans living in traditional societies, I seek to understand aspects of the human experience that relate to how we evolved as organisms, how societies are constructed, and how they function. Living in traditional societies in remote areas of Mexico, South America, and Madagascar, I have forged relationships with people who have ways of life very different from my own, with whom I live very closely, and who are also the subject of my research. My field notes are contained in maps, data sheets, notebooks, and journals that approach this experience from...

  11. 7 In the Eye of the Beholder
    (pp. 129-160)

    THE HUMBLEST FIELD RECORD is always an act of translation. Whatever is recorded, whether animal behaving, plant yielding, dawn revealing: all have to be processed by human senses and translated into words, numbers, sketches, photographs, or any one of many other communicative conventions or devices that serve to inform other humans. The historical beginnings of those conventions may be recent and highly technical or take us way back into history or prehistory, but at the individual level every one of us learns the techniques and conventions of recording data from mentors, peers, or media such as this book.

    Many of...

  12. 8 Why Sketch?
    (pp. 161-186)

    FROM DA VINCI TO DARWIN, drawing has a long and illustrious history as a means of scientific investigation and communication. In this chapter, I hope to make it clear that this practice still maintains its relevance to scientists and naturalists. Although technological innovations have provided powerful new tools for documenting information, all field scientists can benefit from understanding how to think visually and can use simple drawing techniques to improve the way that they document their corner of the natural world.

    Why should your field notes include drawings? For one thing, drawing makes you look more carefully at your subject....

  13. 9 The Evolution and Fate Botanical Field Books
    (pp. 187-200)

    BOTANICAL FIELD BOOKS ARE A DEEPLY PERSONAL CREATION. There is no model, standard, or requirement for creating or maintaining notes in these books. That they are valuable and useful goes without saying—to future researchers and historians—but even now they are rapidly fading from the traditional norm of handwritten words on pages in a bound book.

    My own effort began in 1958 as part of an advanced biology class at Sonora Union High School in California and continues today as I sit at a computer at Cornell University. My experiences probably are fairly typical of my generation of botanists....

  14. 10 Note-Taking for Pencilophobes
    (pp. 201-210)

    WHILE CANNOT CLAIM that I invented it, I am pretty sure that I have perfected the horizontal filing system for papers, books, or any other objects that are flat enough so that they can be placed upon one another without falling, at least until a certain critical height is reached. This system, also known as the stratigraphic filing method, is based on the simple principle, analogous to sedimentation and familiar to every geologist, that the oldest documents accumulate at the bottom of a pile, with the layers getting progressively younger as they are deposited at the top. Of course, like...

  15. 11 Letters to the Future
    (pp. 211-250)

    IT WAS DUSK in the mountains of California. As the midsummer sun slipped behind the rocky crags, the field team from the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ) conducted one of the day’s most important tasks. After a long day of checking traplines and preparing voucher specimens, their camp was quiet except for the gentle rasp of pens on paper as the team recorded the day’s details into their field notebooks. Upon their return to Berkeley, their field notes would be collected, bound, and archived along with the specimens that now lay neatly pinned upon the drying boards around camp. Perhaps,...

  16. 12 Why Keep a Field Notebook?
    (pp. 251-274)

    I STUDY ANIMAL BEHAVIOR and ecology, and I have kept field notebooks for as long as I can remember. My field notebooks contain data connected with a specific project I am working on as well as a hodge-podge of miscellaneous observations, questions that come to mind, notes to myself, and descriptions of interesting natural history. These field notebooks are crucial for my research projects. I find that they are also the main source of ideas that takes my research in new directions. I often return to them for the pure enjoyment of reliving special field experiences in some amazing corners...

  17. NOTES
    (pp. 277-284)
    (pp. 285-288)
    (pp. 289-292)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 293-298)