Back to nature

Joshua J. Tewksbury et al. make the case for restoring natural history’s importance to answering questions of public health, food security, and biology as a whole. They see citizen science projects as an important means of working with big data that can’t be developed in the lab or in silico.

As evidence of natural history’s contribution to public health, they relate the anecdote of a simple means of blunting cholera epidemics: filtering drinking water through the cloth of human garments.

The discovery that Vibrio cholerae has free-living populations associated with copepods and other zooplankton (Colwell and Huq 1994) forms the foundation of model predictions of temporal and spatial changes in human cholera outbreaks, because these models are based on the dynamics of the zooplankton and phytoplankton on which they feed. With this natural history in hand, public health experts now use satellite sensors to monitor phytoplankton chlorophyll as an early-warning system for cholera outbreaks. The same discovery also explains why filtering polluted water through cloth is surprisingly effective in reducing exposure to cholera: although the cloth does not capture V. cholerae individually, it filters out the zooplankton to which most V. cholerae are attached (Huq et al. 1996).

And, in the area of natural history and recreation and conservation, the Federal Duck Stamp program gets a shout-out:

It is often the collective focus on natural history by hunters, fishers, wildlife watchers, and conservationists that allows consensus-based management of fish and game species. The waterfowl conservation movement in the United States serves as an example. This partnership was set in motion in the early twentieth century by observations of large-scale duck mortality caused by botulism brought on by invertebrate die-offs in wetlands and by lead poisoning in high-intensity hunting locations. In both cases, observations by hunters and bird watchers alerted managers to the issue. The initial focus on disease was fortunate, because it provided a common enemy, and, at least for botulism, the most effective management centered on the designation of federal and state bird refuge areas in wetlands (Bolen 2000). More generally, the many groups that came together to change state and federal policies around these issues led to the creation of powerful hunting and conservation groups. These collaborations also led to a hunting license fee structure that supports the more-than-500-unit federal wildlife refuge system in the United States. The success of waterfowl conservation efforts, and the hundreds of other species that they support, comes in large part from the diverse interest groups that recognized the importance of basic natural history in setting management and policy objectives and that created a stable funding stream to support the collection of that information.

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