What is a naturalist?

13 March 2014 by Christopher Buddle, posted in Biodiversity, Natural History

I recently finished a truly amazing book by Bernd Heinrich called The Snoring Bird. In Chapter 24, the following sentence resonated with me, and prompted me to consider this question about 'what is a naturalist':

"...he instilled in me the mind and the values of a naturalist: to be open to all possibilities, to be a close and careful observer, to discipline my interpretation with facts, and to work hard at my passions so that they might bear fruit" 

I did a google search for "what is a naturalist*" to see what else has been written. Here's what I got as the first hit:

A naturalist studies the natural environment, generally with a broad range of interests, rather than with a particular specialty

Hmm - a bit disappointing as I think many naturalists do have a specialty.  Then I found this site, and thought this definition was a little closer:

A naturalist is a person who studies and appreciates nature.

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This topic and this definition matters a great deal to me.  I spend a lot of time teaching about natural history (which can be defined as the search for, and description of, patterns in nature), I read a lot of books about natural history; I admire many of the people who write these books, and I have a networks of colleagues and friends who I would consider to be incredibly gifted naturalists.  Bates, Wallace and Darwin were naturalists and they fundamentally changed the way we think about nature, evolution and biodiversity. They did this by first observing, taking careful notes, having an incredible amount of appreciation and motivation, and they spend time thinking about what they were seeing.

Many naturalists have no formal training in biology, and don't have advanced degrees. They may have binoculars, probably have paper and pen, and they have an ability to observe carefully and critically and feel joy and appreciation about what they are observing. They are the elderly, they are children. My eldest son (when he was about 5 years old) collected, pinned and labelled some insects from our neighbourhood, and I consider that to be an activity of a naturalist.

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It's a critical time for naturalists: as we face a biodiversity crisis we need people who watch, record, and appreciate nature. We need the passion and motivation of naturalists. We need their knowledge, we need their observations. Naturalists can contribute to on-line databases to increase knowledge about what species are where, via sites such as e-butterfly, or by taking part in Christmas Bird Counts.

What qualifications do you need to call yourself a naturalist? We can probably agree that Dr. Eleanor Spicer Rice is a naturalist. She is an expert on ants, and spends time watching them, and and shares this knowledge effectivelyDr. Barbara Frei has an encyclopaedic knowledge of birds - she can identify them by sight or sound, knows their biology, and she always has a smile on her face when talking about the magnificence of red-headed woodpeckers. There's a woodworker in my town who knows everything about our local trees. Although he doesn't have a PhD, he's a naturalist.  He shares this knowledge with local kids:

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But where does that leave people who observe and appreciate 'nature' in decidedly non-natural places?  What about a man sitting on a bench on a busy street appreciating the potted petunias?  What about when Jenny observed a sparrow inside an airport, in Canada, in the winter?  Is she a naturalist?  If you stare at some ducks in the river as your train whizzes past, are you a naturalist? What about my daughter collecting (non-living) sea shells, or my youngest son with his continued obsession with collecting piles of sticks? Humans are animals, what if we people-watch while sitting in a shopping mall for lunch?

Is everyone a naturalist as long as they have a moment of 'observation and appreciation' with some element of the natural world?

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I propose that yes, we should call all these people naturalists: I think we should celebrate it whether you are an observer of the plants in your backyard, urban wildlife, birds in Honduras or a collector of jumping spiders. We should celebrate and praise anyone who falls under the broad category of 'naturalist' and encourage them to teach us what we know. If you are good at observing mushrooms, or east African wildlife, this should be shared with those around us, whether it's a grandfather, niece, graduate student, or fellow traveller.

For the record, I am a pretty crummy naturalist by some standards (despite efforts, for years, I can't identify all those darn warblers!), but a reasonably good naturalist in other ways (I can identify most of the spiders in this part of the world). I think varying expertise is the norm naturalists - we all have strengths and weaknesses, but the latter shouldn't be a deterrent for increasing the knowledge base. In fact, I think that one important addition to the definition of a naturalist is someone who is eager to learn more.  A good naturalist embraces their lack of knowledge about nature on the road to developing their own expertise. 

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Although I think we are in a bit of a revival period for naturalists, it's not been an easy road. About 15 years ago Doug Futuyma wrote one of the best essays about naturalists, and made the argument that naturalists are fundamental to success and progress in biology, but are often looked upon as 'old-fashioned' and antiquated. Natural history as a science isn't grounded in theory, and isn't experimental enough.  I think some of these biases against natural history persist (my colleague Terry Wheeler wrote an excellent post on this), and we do need to continue to foster, appreciate and embrace natural history as an important science. It will help if we can broaden our definition of a naturalist:

Naturalists are curious, observant, and passionate about the world around them, with a particular fascination for nature. Naturalists often document what they see, enjoy sharing their knowledge, and are motivated to continually expand their knowledge.

*Note: a naturist is sometimes confused with naturalist; a naturist is someone that runs around naked. If it's your thing, I think it's possible to be both a naturist and a naturalist.


Futuyma, D. 1998. Wherefore and whither the naturalist? The American Naturalist 151(1): 1-6

Heinrich, B. 2007. The Snoring Bird. Harper-Collins


19 Responses to “What is a naturalist?”

  1. Leslie Brunetta Reply | Permalink

    Wonderful essay, Chris. While writing our book, it became clear to me that the only way we will fully understand evolution is through the work of naturalists, taxonomists, systematists, molecular biologists, and all the rest intersecting. Take any discipline out, and things fall apart. One good example: spiders often behave differently in captivity than they do out in their natural habitat. If we assume "facts" based on their behavior in the lab, we may be sorely misled.

    • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

      Thanks Leslie! I totally agree ... Naturalists can inform lab studies, and vice versa. I think think there enough cross-pollination between the two.

  2. Naturalist David Mizejewski Reply | Permalink

    As a professional naturalist, it makes me happy to see this. Most people don't really know what a naturalist is, or that you don't get a degree in "naturalism." Or that anyone can be a naturalist if you get out into nature with a keen eye for observation. But one thing that I personally think is important for any naturalist is the ability to communicate effectively about what you've learned and observed in nature.

    • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

      Thanks for the comment, David! I really appreciate your feedback, and I couldn't agree more: communicating both the passion and knowledge is central to being a naturalist.

  3. Africa Gomez Reply | Permalink

    Wonderful post Chris, full of useful links too. I consider myself a naturalist before any other real qualification. It always surprise me when people do not share my appreciation of the natural world whenever I am, I totally sympathise with the airport birdwatcher!

  4. Barbara Reply | Permalink

    Brilliant post Chris! Being a naturalist is a lifetime goal for me, since there is always more I can learn & learn to appreciate. One of my favourite thing about scientific communication is that it is a two-way conversation - I learn as much from those I 'teach' about ecology or science as I teach them, maybe even more. Who better to inspire my research questions that the farmer or landowner that has generations of knowledge as a soil scientist, agronomist, wildlife biologist, and climate change specialist? A child's curiosity will lead to a question so simple and perfect that I never saw it coming! I believe natural history is the foundation of ecology, and without a strong foundation the theoretical and quantitative skills and knowledge that are built upon it may be constructed on shaky ground.

    • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

      Thanks Barbara - I agree that natural history is the foundation of ecology, and that any discussion about natural history is a two-way street. Discussing nature is about knowledge exchange.

  5. Charlie Davis Reply | Permalink

    A naturalist is most efficient and effective when they explore with others having common interests. You can connect to others at the Natural History Network http://naturalhistorynetwork.org/
    And in Maryland through the Meetup site of the Natural History Society of Maryland http://www.meetup.com/marylandnature
    And in Baltimore join the Community Naturalist Network
    There are specific skills that can help you be a better naturalist and they are explained in the Coyote's Guide http://www.coyotesguide.com/

    • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

      Thanks Charlie - you comment is much appreciated. I did link to the Natural History Network in the post - it's an amazing initiative. I didn't know about the Coyote's Guide, thanks for pointing me to that! Looks very interesting.

  6. JoeAmateurNaturalist Reply | Permalink

    I call myself an 'amateur naturalist', that is, I don't know the scientific names or genus etc. for all the flora and fauna I see, but I certainly know a lot about most of them nonetheless, much more than the average person. I also have actively helped protect species and places continuously, via the net, or letters, or petitions, or conservation groups for years. This is the really important factor that helps save nature. Many people 'love nature' but fail to actively and continuously help it.

    • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

      Thank you for the comment! You raise a really interesting point in asking whether a naturalist holds some responsibility for playing an active role in conservation. I do think you are correct in that many of the people best positioned to take a role in conservation initiative are the exact same people who spend time in nature and are naturalists. That being said, I think there's also a place for people to be naturalists without engaging in conservation.

  7. Marianne Alleyne Reply | Permalink

    Chris, I read this post last week but today I came across this article when preparing a lecture and blog post about Maria Sibylla Merian. Impressed about how this female artist/entomologist/naturalist changed how we view natural history. Thought I'd share:

    "Maria Sibylla Merian and the metamorphosis of natural history" by Kay Etheridge. Endeavour Vol. 35 No.1 (2010) doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2010.10.002
    Greetings, M.

  8. Tanja Reply | Permalink

    I just came across your post and was delighted to see that someone had taken the time to look into this and to explain what the definition actually is. BTW Bernd Heinrich has many good books on this type of subject matter.

    If everyone could even do just one small thing to help Nature, the world would be a better place.
    Thanks for sharing this with everyone.

  9. Staffan Lindgren Reply | Permalink

    Interesting read. Many scientists are naturalists, but sometimes refrain from calling themselves that for a variety of reasons. In his autobiography "Naturalist", E.O. Wilson provides many good arguments for the importance of being a naturalist. I call myself a naturalist, because my interests are very broad. Expertise is not a pre-requisite, IMO. Someone excellent at identifying birds, but not interested in anything else is a birder, but not necessarily a naturalist in my mind. So broad interests should factor into the definition.
    As to your last comment, the Prince George Naturalists were once denied a liquor license for an event, because the authorities didn't feel that liquor and nudity was a good mix. So the term does cause some confusion at times.

  10. Dr Gellar Reply | Permalink

    Good post :) very impressed by your understanding and thought

  11. Adam Reply | Permalink

    Don't take name identity or lack of in your case, as a big deal. Imagine that nature doesn't identify itself with names nor the inhabitants that live on this beautiful planet. A naturalist is a person who "sees"what is generally the unseen, our reality and our natural function. Houses, cars, money all fall away when you embrace the realization that we are naturally part of this planet and it is a part of us. labeling helps us learn and become aware but we were more aware at one time before knew how to label. naturalism, in a word, is awareness.

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