From magnifying glasses to smart phones: A naturalist in the modern world

Picture a naturalist and what comes to mind?

It’s likely the image you just conjured was of a white-haired old man hunched over a microscope, identification manuals and preserved specimens strewn across his desk. Or perhaps an eccentric character jumping excitedly over spotting an uncommon bird through a pair of worn binoculars.

These are stereotypical images of the traditional naturalist and though they are often accurate (I admittedly love my identification manuals and worn binoculars), what it means to be a naturalist today is quickly shifting to something entirely new.

A naturalist is simply someone who studies or appreciates nature. Our very understanding of the natural world and the ways and techniques in which we view and study it are ever-changing. So too then, is the image of the modern day naturalist.

Even since as recently as a decade ago, our understanding of the natural world has grown with the development scientific technologies. Where once we may have only been able to identify, say a warbler bird, to a taxonomic level, now we can get a glimpse into it’s very genes. Technology has widened our view of nature across scales, from electron microscopes illuminating the smallest of particles to advanced telescopes shedding light across the cosmos. The rapid growth of science and technology is quickly shaping the image of those who appreciate and study the natural world.

Today, you are more likely to come across a field biologist toting a tablet or imputing their data on a smart phone than carrying clumsy notebooks and hefty manuals. There are quite literally apps for identifying bird and other species on-the-go, as well as the ability to post findings on social media platforms where others can lend a hand in the identification process. Where once a naturalist might write a book, today they might write a blog. This increasing presence on social media and a reliance on modern technology has morphed the concept of naturalism from a solitary practice into something more social and collaborative.

This is not to say that the techniques of the traditional naturalist will be lost, but instead the toolbox of the modern day naturalist has expanded to include everything from magnifying glasses to smart phones.

Now picture a naturalist and what comes to mind?

Join me as I delve into what it means to be a naturalist in the 21st century, while I explore topics from hornworts to humpback whales and everything in between.