The Loss of Field Biology Skills

Warning of a serious decline in college graduates with sound natural history identification skills.

It is widely accepted that the decline in field biology skills has reached crisis point.  But so what?  The ability to identify bugs, flowers and birdsong may be viewed as all rather quaint.  It is estimated that each year there are fewer and fewer graduates who are proficient enough in field identification skills to be employable.

There are probably a number of reasons that have contributed to the decline in field biology.  These include the loss of teachers competent and comfortable in the field, and the general decline of students steeped in the outdoor experience.  However, a key factor has to be that the skills involved have been distinctly unappreciated. In fact, we would argue that, in educational circles, this lack of appreciation goes much deeper.  Educationalists have been guilty of formalizing a gross undervaluing of the complexities involved in field biology.  This has occurred through a naive adherence to an incredibly damaging dogma that has influenced so much of modern educational practice.

The lowest levels of cognitive skills involve recognizing, identifying, naming and memorizing.  These abilities are considered inferior to the higher levels such as critically analyzing, evaluating, criticizing and reviewing.  This sort of simplistic analysis results in field biology skills being excluded from university degrees time and time again as being too “simplistic.”  However, ask those responsible for dropping these courses to distinguish Galium saxatile from Galium sterneri and they might just start to appreciate that identification skills are not so simple after all.


It is not a trivial skill to be able to differentiate between closely related plants.  It is not a simple memory test.  Rather, it requires critical analysis and many other higher skills.  It demands logical thought processes and the review of a host of information.  The final answer is usually arrived at on a balance of probability based on evaluating the likely underlying ecology of the site where the plants were found.  A field biologist who has read a landscape, reviewed the other co-occurring species and concluded that the specimen was probably G. saxatile, may wish to corroborate this by using a hand lens to determine in which direction tiny hooks along the leaves point.  To the naked eye, these two plants look virtually identical.  This level of complexity is why taxonomists generally take years to hone their skills, supporting our argument that identification is not a low-level cognitive skill.

Real taxonomists know that there are always cases when things are not black and white.  Some things cannot be condemned to belong to one species or another by rote.  Taxonomists still need to learn this lesson.  Sometimes, what appear to be low-level cognitive skills are actually highly complex multi-factorial tasks.

We have already lost a generation of field biologists.  Moreover, the lack of attention to identification skills has permeated down to elementary schools.  It seems that natural history field studies is not something to be taken seriously in this technological age.  So university students have had this dismissive message reinforced right through their schooling.  If the skill set is not totally to be lost, we need to act to overcome this inertia and identify identification as a worthy and noble set of complex skills.

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