Lessons learned from 20 years of rattlesnake field studies: a perspective on why studying animals in nature is critical for understanding biological systems

Clark, Rulon W.


Department of Biology

San Diego State University

San Diego, California USA

As several prominent herpetologists have argued previously, the field of natural history (i.e., observational or basic research on the behavior or ecology of organisms in nature) is in trouble. It is increasingly difficult to find funding or institutional support for non-applied research, especially at the organismal level. This problem stems in part from an underappreciation for the value of natural history research. Controlled experimental studies are useful only when scientists have developed a deep enough understanding of a natural system to be able to formulate relevant and testable hypotheses. The understanding of natural systems itself comes from observational natural history research (which can be quantitative or qualitative), but studies of this type do not often get disseminated in the scientific literature. In this talk, I hope to illustrate with examples that natural history often provides the raw material that is refined into empirical research, and discuss ideas for increasing the quantity and quality of natural history research.