Did field guides help you develop a passion for natural history?

Does this happen to you? …. I get a warm fuzzy every time I see that stack of field guides on my bookshelf:

Some field guides on my bookshelf

This has me thinking about what sparked my interest in biology and more specifically, natural history. A lot can be attributed to my childhood – which was idyllic. I grew up in Lakefield, Ontario, and spent a lot of time playing in streams, old fields, and forests, and summers always included canoeing and camping. I recall, from a very young age, that my father would always point out ferns, mosses, trees, birds, dragonflies, etc. After pointing out these plants and animals, he would then proceed to pull a field guide out of his backpack and together we would flip through the pages and learn about what we were seeing. My father was not fixated on any one group of plants or animals, and his collection of field guides reflected this. Sometimes he would bring along a guide to birds, other times it would be for mosses and ferns. It didn’t matter which one he happened to bring along – they were all amazing.

Now, as an entomologist/biologist, and as someone with a career in the field of natural history, I can say with confidence that this exposure was really important. Although my father had the most significant influence on my interest in biology, I do think that the field guides played a role in sparking my passion for natural history. The field guides opened the door to a world of diversity, and allowed a young boy to recognize a variety of sophisticated concepts about species: white pine trees are widely distributed and they looks similar (but not identical) to other species of Pinus, some butterflies are common while others are rare, the common loon is only around in the summer because it migrates, species have many names (including one that is difficult to pronounce, and that has two parts to it). A field guide is a treasure-trove of dense, concise and attractive biological data, and ‘real’ field guides help children appreciate biodiversity to an impressive level of detail. I think this is why part of my proposal for a ‘backyard biodiversity project‘ included the purchase of authentic field guides.

We can learn a lot from field guides, and I am a little concerned that the digital age is changing the way people interact with “guides” to nature. Mobile apps, and other on-line tools are wonderful (e.g., the Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification) and provide access to a large audience, but they don’t allow for the tractable hands-on process of flipping through a guide without an agenda and without focus. The physical process of using a field guide allows you to (accidentally) learn about species that you may not have otherwise searched for. Having a variety of field guides on the bookshelf, and out on the coffee table, can really spark an interest in natural history and potentially change someone’s life.

I am very keen to hear other stories about field guides… do you attribute your own passion about natural history to a past connection with field guides? Please share your experiences!

(you can comment, below, and/or use the hashtag #fieldguides on Twitter)

                                                                 Thank you, Dad.

At the Arctic Circle, with my Dad.

The beauty of museums: whales, birds, biophilia and a tweeting Dinosaur

A HUGE inflatable whale at the Canadian Museum of Nature

This past weekend, I traveled to Ottawa to visit the Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN) with my family. I’ve been to the CMN a few times before, and each time there are new things to see – this weekend it was the special exhibit titled “Whales Tohora“.  The content for this exhibit was effectively presented and we spent a long time learning about whales.  I was particularly impressed with how the exhibit dealt with the difficult issue of “whale strandings” i.e., when whales sometimes get stranded (sometimes in large numbers) on beaches or other low-laying coastal areas.  It’s a tricky situation because we (the all-knowing and all-powerful humans) want to save them, but it’s not always possible, nor is it always appropriate to do so.  The exhibit showed how some people and cultures see these strandings as a ‘gift’ from the ocean whereas other people are deeply saddened by such events and rally to save the whales.  The CMN did not shy away from tackling this issue, and they did it in a way that all three of my kids (ages 8, 10 and 12) were able to appreciate.

The rest of the whales exhibition was also enjoyed – from the tiny Hector’s dolphin skeleton to the life-sized blue whale heart (a plastic model, of course!), and we all learned about ambergris (and got to see and smell it, too).  I think I can now properly articulate the differences between porpoises and dolphins thanks to a huge poster illustrating all the groups from a phylogenetic perspective. And my kids were thrilled to learn how whales were terrestrial before they were aquatic. Go, Evolution!

Part of the CMN bird gallery

Whenever we go the CMN we always visit our favourite exhibits and the Bird Gallery is one of these.  This gallery is bright and expansive, and is filled with stuffed, dead birds. I must be honest – I really enjoy seeing all those dead animals.  This may sound morbid, but this kind of display really resonates with me.  The best way to illustrate biodiversity is to have biodiversity on display, in an open, and accessible way.  Specimens are needed to bring people closer to understanding and appreciating biodiversity.  I did observe some people playing on the interactive computer terminals and reading some of the content on the poster boards. Most people, however, were simply staring intently into the glass cases and looking in awe at the shapes, sizes and colours of bird biodiversity.  This happens in the bird gallery, but also in the mammal exhibit, where some terrific dioramas illustrate species in their natural habitats.  The CMN has got it right with these kinds of displays.

Being a good entomologist, we made sure to stop by the Animalium (too bad it is a bit hard to find, tucked away in the basement next to the theatre) to see some live Arthropods (and slugs and amphibians, too):

Up close and personal with some bugs and slugs

I am glad that they have live Amblypygids (aka tailless whip scorpions) to view (they are so bizarre-looking!), and seeing people squirm in fascination at the tank full of wriggly mealworms is terrific.  When seeing these reactions, I am reminded of E.O. Wilson’s arguments about the “Biophilia” Hypothesis. This is the innate and instinctive connection that people have with the natural world.   It is so obvious when you go to a natural history museum, especially somewhere like the Canadian Museum of Nature, where you can see a displays about the death of whales in one corner, stunning dioramas in another, and live cockroaches in the basement.  People wander through the galleries, and when they see displays of nature that make them feel good they have smiles on their faces.  They recoil and squirm at other times – and it is with the usual suspects (e.g., spiders, snakes, bats).  This visceral and squeamish reaction is STILL a reaction and this fills me with hope.

The day that Museums are empty and people have no reaction to biodiversity will, to me, represent a world that has completely lost its way.  Let’s keep supporting museums and help maintain biophilia.

A small part of a grassland diorama at the CMN

I can’t talk about a museum without mentioning the Dinosaur gallery.   It is very well done and the CMN, and you could hear the squeals of delight from a hundred feet away.  And I was pretty excited to get a tweet from “Vic the Dino“.  You can follow this mighty beast on twitter @VicTheDino

The Biodiversity Challenge: A “backyard biodiversity” project for your local elementary school

Earth Day is approaching and it is, therefore, an appropriate time to think about ways to share the wonders of biodiversity.  Here is a proposal that was accepted by my local elementary school last year.   This proposal is about an inexpensive and effective way to make biodiversity science accessible and fun for a LOT of children. Please use this approach at your local school! Think big: let’s get schools across the country involved in a “Backyard Biodiversity Challenge”. All it requires is a few hours of your time, and most anyone that works in the field of biodiversity science can pull this together without much difficulty.  A small investment with potentially huge payoffs for our planet.

What is below is text that was used for part of formal proposal to my local elementary school – it needed to be approved through a number of pathways – please take this text, and modify it to meet your needs.  This exercise can be done without the purchase of field guides, but I felt having ‘real’ field guides available to the students was important.  In part, because such field guides were very influential in my own life, and helped to draw me into a life-long passion for biodiversity.

A 'biodiversity' card, done by a student in Grade 1

Backyard Biodiversity

Biodiversity is all the living things around us. Biodiversity is Life. It’s important for our well-being, and helps make a healthy planet. Biodiversity can be discovered by anyone at any age, and I would like to propose a school-wide activity about discovering biodiversity in your own backyard. An activity about biodiversity is also linked closely to Earth Day, Green Team activities, and helps promote a strong environmental ethic in students.

Learning Objectives:

• Hear about the concept of biodiversity, what it means and why it is important.
• Discover biodiversity “hands-on”, and in proximity to your school.
• Observe nature and write or draw about it.
• Produce a school-wide mural of biodiversity.
• Enrich environmental thinking for all students and staff.

The activity will have two components. First, Chris Buddle, a Professor at McGill University, who works in the field of Biodiversity Science, will deliver a school-wide 30-40 minutes presentation about Biodiversity. This presentation will help define the concept in an accessible manner, and will illustrate why biodiversity is important to all of us, and to the well-being of the planet. The presentation will include a photographic journey about biodiversity, from the rainforests of Panama to the high Arctic tundra. At the end of the presentation, Chris Buddle will outline the second component: a school-wide biodiversity challenge. The challenge will be an individual-based activity in which students will produce a natural history card about a species of interest. Each student will receive an index card, upon which they will discover a species in their local environment and write/draw about it. There are many different options, from birds they see in the schoolyard, to trees, to butterflies passing through, to grass on the playground.

Another example of a Natural History card, this one done by a Grade 3 student.

Different grades can adopt different approaches to the index cards: kindergarten students can simply draw a picture of their species; Grade 6 students can write the species name, draw a picture, and provide natural history facts (e.g., where it is found, what it eats, its biology). If teachers are willing and interested, the challenge can be adopted as a classroom project. For example, within a class, each student can be challenged to find and describe a different species so the class will have its own diversity of species. The activity will conclude several weeks after the challenge is initiated. Each index card from each student can be taped to a visible and accessible wall in the school; they can be arranged by obvious groups (e.g., plants, birds, insects) and left up for all to see.  In this way, all students can see the wall and the diversity of species can be easily viewed. It will be visually stunning, and will allow students to make a direct link between the individual species they discovered compared to what others have discovered.


The biodiversity presentation can be linked as close as possible to “Earth Day” in April, and the challenge can start from then and run until later in the spring. It will be important to have the start of spring align with the challenge.


• The presentation will be free; all is needed is some organization by the school about timing, planning, and technical assistance (e.g., a projector and screen would be required)
• Teachers will need to be willing to facilitate the preparation of the index cards. The idea is to document as much biodiversity as possible; to be effective, it would be ideal if teachers can help students find/explore different parts of biodiversity. Again, this activity could be linked directly to other parts of the curriculum.
• Index cards
• Field Guides: two sets of scientific field guides for a wide range of plants and animals. One set will be for the library; the second set will be housed with the Green Team. Students can access these field guides to help them discover biodiversity. Investment in “real” (i.e., professional style) field guides is potentially a life-long investment since some students will carry the love of biodiversity through their entire life. Many biologists trace the root of their career to flipping through field guides when they were young. The following field guides are suggested (approximate prices in Canadian dollars, are from http://www.amazon.ca):
o National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (~$21)
o Kaufman Field Guide to Mammals of North America (~$16)
o National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees-E: Eastern Region (~$16)
o A Field Guide to Wildflowers: Northeastern and North-central North America (~$17)
o The ROM Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Ontario (~$16)
o Mushrooms of Northeast North America: Midwest to New England (~$18)
o Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America (~$16)
o A Field Guide to Insects: America North of Mexico (Peterson) (~$17)
o A Field Guide to the Beetles of North America (Peterson) (~$17)

Total Cost: approximately $154 x 2 = $308


The concept of Biodiversity is central to the health of the earth, and is linked very closely to a larger environmental ethic for society.  Yours is a perfect school to adopt this kind of school-wide activity; it’s small, close to nature, has an active Green Team, and is in an environmental conscious town. This activity may also draw positive press from the local media; it will be visually appealing, and has the benefit of student engagement at all grades and ages. The students will remember their “species” forever, and the school, overall, will gain awareness about biodiversity in their own backyard.

Note:  I originally posted this text about a year ago, on the Biological Survey of Canada’s blog about “Hosting a Biodiversity Event”, found here