- Author: Greg Ira
A colleague recently posed a rhetorical question, “Why do we need naturalists?” It gets to the question, “Why is the UC California Naturalist program important?” a question we don't often ask ourselves or contemplate in part because its value is such an integral part of who we are, it's ingrained and deeply-held, and we don't often stop to fully articulate an answer. While it is easy to describe what we do and why that is important to us and the nearly 4000 certified California Naturalists in our community, it is a much bigger challenge to present a cogent and memorable case that resonates with those outside of the field.
As a starting point, here are just a few examples, ranging from the pragmatic to the personal, of why we need California Naturalists.
Without the California Naturalists . . .
- fewer people, in a new era of extinction, would understand the value of (intrinsic or otherwise) of our state's threatened biodiversity
- fewer observations, data points and discoveries would be made of the natural world to help us measure our impacts on it.
- fewer people would have the opportunity to build a positive identity with science or recognize the value of more holistic ways of thinking such as traditional ecological knowledge.
- fewer people would engage in environmental stewardship behaviors ranging from resource conservation to building resilience among vulnerable communities.
- fewer people would access, experience, and value the unique cultural and natural resources that our state's public lands offer.
- fewer people would volunteer to support the hundreds of organizations managing public or conservation areas, educating the public, and monitoring environmental change.
- fewer people would experience the joy, inspiration, discovery, camaraderie, and transformational learning that comes from taking a California Naturalist course.
- fewer people would enjoy the benefits of improved personal health and well-being derived from spending time in nature.
- fewer people would recognize the importance of the natural capital that our environment represents in the form of ecosystem services that sustain our economy and our spirits.
- fewer people would recognize the need to build the resilience necessary for our communities and ecosystems to not only survive but thrive in an changing climate.
We need naturalists for all these reasons and more.
There is a saying. “The frog in the well will never know the immensity of the sky.” The UC California Naturalist program broadens our horizons. It inspires people to engage in stewardship behaviors that make our home a better place to live and our communities more resilient to changes we face. We need California Naturalists because just as these challenges are the result of the cumulative impact of millions of people their solutions exist in the cumulative actions of people. More than anything else, the UC California Naturalist program builds a shared understanding, capacity, identity, and values that help us move in the same direction toward a common goal.
- Author: Sarah Angulo
Warning: this blog post discusses some creepy crawlies. If you have an insect or arachnid phobia you may want to skip this post.
It's spooky season, and we're getting in the spirit with some natural history, of course! Unless you're one of the entomologists with our sister program UC IPM, most people, including CalNat staff, find an aversion to least one type of invertebrate. Despite their their aversion inducing qualities, as naturalists we know that each creature fills an important niche within its ecosystem. Even the creepy ones. This Halloween we thought it would be fun to share the natural history of insects that give CalNat staff goose bumps.
The flapping of moth wings, which in some parts of the world can reach lengths of nearly a foot, can be frightening as the nocturnal species make their way towards a bright light in the night time. Once the comfort of daylight arrives, you may better see the diurnal species, busy fulfilling their ecological niches. Though some can be difficult to spot, as they amazingly camouflage or even mimic other animals. Moth species outnumber the more popular butterfly over 10 to 1. With thousands of moth species in North America, they serve multiple vital roles! Before metamorphosing into adults, moth caterpillars are an important food source for other animals. Adult moths are important pollinators for plants. Their fuzzy wings and bodies are excellent at capturing pollen.
The large 2-inch long size and human-like head of these crickets alone can give you the shivers. You can get way too up close and personal with these identification marks when one shows up every so often in your garden or dead on a sidewalk. Though for a curious naturalist, getting up close and personal offers a chance to make observations you normally wouldn't have. Their unique colors and patterns can't be missed. These crickets feed and tunnel underground during the night, helping to control insects as a part of their diet alongside roots and tubers. This tunneling can be really beneficial by providing aeration and nutrient cycling to the soil. They're a delicious snack for nocturnal animals like bats, coyotes, badgers, birds, skunks, and foxes.
There's more that unites us instead of divides us, and that includes fear of spiders. Up to about 6% of the global population has arachnophobia. Out of about 45,000 species of spiders, 200 have any venom that could cause harm to humans. Just like the humans that fear them, spiders are amazingly diverse. From size, to web shape and texture, jumping abilities, prey, colors, number of eyes, habitat, and more, they serve an important role in the web of life. It's thought that on one acre of woodland, a spider can eat 80 pounds of insects in just one year. Not all spiders use webs to catch their prey; though all spiders have the ability to create silk some species don't create webs. Next time you find one in your house, don't kill it! Try these UC IPM tips for catching spiders instead.
By the time you see maggots you often have a olfactory experience to reinforce the grossness. Without getting too far into the visual details, we'll focus on the natural history. About half of fly species have larvae known as maggots. Most maggots are important decomposers, feeding on a variety of decaying organic matter. Larvae excrement provide nutrients for molds and other types of fungi and plants. In addition, the bodies of larvae, pupae, and many adult flies are an important food source for animals.
Even though they may frighten us, as naturalists we can ultimately find an appreciation for these creatures for the important functions they each play in the food web. Use the curiosity of a naturalist and inquiry skills to learn more about them. They may surprise you - and not in a scary way!
- Author: Jeannette E. Warnert
UC ANR provides the California home of Project Learning Tree, a national program founded in 1973, during the height of an environmental movement sparked by Rachael Carson's seminal book Silent Spring.
“Everyone began to realize we were having an impact on the environment,” said Sandra Derby, Project Learning Tree state coordinator.
Project Learning Tree (PLT), working with the forestry industry, developed an environmental education program and trained teachers to present it to children in formal and informal educational settings. In California, the program is funded by CAL FIRE.
Another UC ANR program, UC California Naturalist, has collaborated with PLT since 2013.
“There is a lot of shared interest in environmental education, stewardship and service in our two programs,” said Greg Ira, director of UC California Naturalist (CalNat). The CalNat Program recruits and certifies a diverse community of volunteers across California to conduct nature education and interpretation, stewardship, participatory science and environmental program support.
During the coronavirus pandemic, CalNat offered PLT courses to school teachers, volunteer educators and parents online. Completion of the six-hour course over three days resulted in their certification for teaching PLT curricula. The book, aimed for children pre-kindergarten to eighth grade, includes 96 activities, with objectives, assessment opportunities, online teaching connections, and more.
The teacher training course offered by CalNat engages participants with the same activities they will employ when teaching nature appreciation to children.
Learning to appreciate the environment
Even though online training focuses attention on a computer screen, the PLT curriculum gets pupils outside. After writing about and discussing a favorite tree from memory, the participants were asked to go outside to gather a variety of leaves around their homes, classrooms or offices. They observed leaf details, and sorted them by observable characteristics.
The participants reconvened and shared their leaves, divided into categories onscreen: Leaves with rough edges, rounded, oval or palmate; rough, waxy, furry and thick; drooping down or reaching up.
Teachers can use additional activities outlined in the curriculum to help students understand natural variations and biodiversity by engaging with the leaves through observation and art. For example, if the training is taking place in person, the children can trade leaves and then look for the trees where their peers found them. Or they can put a leaf under a plain piece of paper and rub the side of a crayon across it to show the leaf's margin, veins and other details.
There are also activities related to common core skills and abilities. For example, different leaf characteristics can be charted in a Venn diagram, with leaves' common characteristics appearing in the center – such as green, pliable, veins – and singular characteristics in the sections that do not overlap.
Making environmental learning accessible
PLT advances environmental literacy using trees and forests as windows on the world, said Cynthia Chavez, PLT community education specialist in Southern California. The hands-on, engaging activities help “teach students how to think, not what to think” about the environment and their place within it.
“Environmental education could be taught in a daunting way,” Chavez said. “PLT opens the door to kids who are different kinds of learners. This is important for environmental education.”
PLT's comprehensive collection of activities have won the confidence of the education community. Curricula is only offered to teachers who have completed workshops so PLT can share a proven system of implementation.
“PLT training encourages students to care for the environment and be interested in pursuing careers in environmentalism. They learn science is not just in the classroom. They could become a field biologist, if that's the way their brain works,” Chavez said.
Expressing engagement with nature in words
Among the ways to connect with nature outlined in the PLT curriculum are reading, journaling and writing. To close the educator training, participants were given 10 minutes outside to draw inspiration from nature and write a poem – haiku, free verse, rhyming or other style.
Below are samples of poetic nature observations written on the fly by teachers who will inspire California young people to appreciate and help conserve the natural world with the help of PLT.
A droplet of sun
Planted firmly in soil
Linking earth to sky
I have botany blindness, always looking for things that scurry, not sway
But I am asked to acknowledge the tree, and I do
A lone palo verde
There's a chevron lizard on the trunk
A small, yellow verdin in the branches
A line of busy ants along the roots
So I am grateful for this tree, after all
It sways, and upon closer inspection, it scurries as well
A fly comes by
As wind hits my hair
Almost as if
It moved here and there
Then Winston, my dog
Hears someone bark
And a bird starts to chirp
Like a crow or a lark
Green Jobs Personality Quiz
Project Learning Tree offers a one-time free trial intended for adults to test its Green Jobs Quiz. The quiz helps kids learn what green job fits their personalities. You'll receive information about how to administer this quiz to youth you work with.
- Author: Cameron Barrows
A "Natural History Note" From UC California Naturalist's new lead scientist, Dr. Cameron Barrows.
Back in 2016 I published a paper that quantified the added value of volunteer community scientists contributing to field surveys of lizards in Joshua Tree National Park. The reason for the paper was that there was and, in some cases, still is a cultural bias ingrained in many professional scientists against the quality of the data that volunteers collect. If I was going to incorporate citizen scientists into my research, I needed to demonstrate that citizen science collected data were at least as accurate as data collected by “professionals”. For that study we sent a pair of National Park biologists to survey lizards on a half a dozen 300 x 300 m plots. Then I brought a group of 5-7 community scientists out to the same plots a few days later and together we resurveyed each plot. The results were unequivocal. On every plot the community scientists and I counted at least twice as many lizards. More eyes, even if those eyes did not earn a university degree in science, equal more sightings, and so a more complete assay of the lizard population.
Science is perhaps the only way of gaining knowledge that requires going back and repeating experiments to be sure that conclusions are robust. One experiment or one observation is not conclusive. So yesterday, back in the National Park, four community scientists (Tracy Bartlett, Larry Heronema, Jane Spider Fawke, and Pete Schwartz) and I set out to repeat that experiment once again. This time we changed things up a bit; rather than large square plots, we conducted linear surveys along an existing public trail (the Panorama Loop Trail – 7 miles from start to finish) out of the Black Rock campground area. My question was, walking single file along the trail, how many additional lizards were seen by each position in that line-up. I was always in the lead, so my counts were the same as if I was conducting the survey by myself. The 2nd through 5th positions were rotated among the citizen scientists to avoid any observer ability effect. Here are our results:
It should not be any surprise that the first person in line, whether it is me or someone else, would see more lizards. The interesting finding was that each and every position was able to contribute additional sightings, even the last person in line saw lizards that the first four had missed. The reason is that the first person will see the obvious lizards sitting out in the open, and those that move right away, but some lizards sit tight hoping their camouflage will protect them. But, as the next four people walk by, the lizards “lose their nerve” and dart for cover. How long it takes each lizard to dart, dictates which person in line sees it. But then how does that compare to my findings in the 2016 paper? It turns out that the cumulative addition of those four community scientists more than exceeded my count alone. Our combined count was more than double the number of lizards I would have seen if I were by myself – precisely the same conclusion of that I came to back in 2016.
There is no question that community scientists make a huge contribution. In another paper that I am in the final “polishing stage” on before submitting it to a journal for peer review, five California Naturalist community scientists will be included as co-authors because their contributions unquestionably warrant that honor. Not only are the data better, much better, but the discussions we have while counting lizards are tremendously helpful to me for clarifying what questions to address. Yesterday there was much speculation as to what seemed to be fewer lizards than we expected to see. It turns out those musings were right. Comparing surveys made in September-October of each year, in 2018, a drought year, we saw 42 side-blotched lizards. Last year, a wet year, we saw 76, and this year (also a wet spring) we saw just 37. Why? That's where those in-the-field group discussions get fun. We did notice a huge increase in California scrub jays this year; they are omnivorous and would be pleased to gobble down a small lizard. So perhaps successive wet years allow predator populations to build up and then create a top-down dampening of the side-blotched lizards' ability to build their populations. Another question to explore and just another way that community scientists contribute to better science.
However, this pandemic, which has created challenges at every level of our lives, has made it hard to do community-based science and keep everyone safe. We are finding ways that seem to work: small groups of folks who are taking their health and safety, and those of others seriously, masks, and physical spacing. Going forward, because this pandemic will not last forever, if any of you are interested in joining our “Community Science Collaborative” please let me know.
I am adding an image of a desert spiny lizard we saw along the trail.
Go outside, tip your hat to a lizard, and be safe.
- Author: Gregory Ira
The frequency of disasters doesn't diminish the pain they bring. With 28 major fires burning across the state and the greatest area burned in a year, the scope of this disaster is unprecedented even in the context of recent record breaking fire seasons.
Within the places directly affected by these disasters are California naturalists, staff from our partner organizations, their families and the communities that they serve. This year, everyone knows someone who has been affected.
For those of us spared the worst our thoughts turn to those who have been affected the most. It is difficult for us to reconcile our understanding of the ecological role of fire in California with the widespread devastation and personal loss across our state. Notwithstanding the resilience of Californians and California Naturalists, we know that impact from these fires will be painful and lasting. We also know that the most vulnerable will face the most difficult challenges and have the longest road to recovery.
During these times, our community rises to the challenge by sharing time, resources, and strength. We know these efforts can't replace what has been lost, but they are our way to connect with those affected, and connections are what define communities. There are many worthy causes to support and ways you can respond, many of which you already do through your volunteer service as a naturalist. As naturalists with a deep connection to our communities, our state and the entire west coast, this collective experience will unite us as we recover, rebuild and re-envision our future in these special places we call home.
Finally, we also know that no matter how difficult conditions get, we will endure. Beyond the lingering haze are blue skies, beneath the ash are seeds prepared to sprout, and behind much of the charred bark water and nutrients still flow through living tissue. Our community too will rebound. We know – now more than ever – that our work is vital to addressing the underlying influence that climate change plays in transforming natural hazards into disasters, and we will respond with a renewed sense of purpose.
Greg and the CalNat Team