By Pat Backwell
Associate Editor, Methods in Ecology and Evolution
Is it necessary to study animals in their natural environment? It is often hot, uncomfortable, tiring, and rainy. You come home with mosquito bites, sore feet and sunburn. Can’t you just collect the animals and study them in the laboratory?
Those of us who spend long periods in the field, watching real animals doing real things, swear by fieldwork. We claim it is an essential part of understanding nature. It is how we come up with our research questions; it is why we have such a thorough understanding of our species; it’s why we can discover new areas of investigation. For many of us, it is also why we stay sane: we get away from university administration, rules and obligations.
There is often discussion about how biology has become a laboratory science. With all the new advances in technology, there certainly is more laboratory work than ever before; but have studies of the behaviour of whole animals also become more laboratory-based and less based on long hard hours in the field? Looking at the percentage of publications in the journal Animal Behaviour over the last ±50 years suggests not. A sample of 200 papers (50 from each year) from the ‘80s; ‘90s, ’00 and 2014 show that the proportion of empirical papers that are based on field research has stayed fairly constant (40%; 50%; 40%; 42%).
There is also talk of how funding for field-based research is decreasing. In Australia, at least, this does not appear to be the case. While the overall success of Australian Research Council grant applications is low (±20%), and few grants are based solely on data collected in the field, there does not appear to be a decrease in funding for field-based projects. The numerous long-term field studies of birds are well funded, and there is a large amount of money allocated to climate change research, much of which is field-based. I have always found that reviewers of my grants comment specifically on the advantage of having a field-based study over studies on captive animals and believe, if anything, that it has helped my applications. And field studies are often the cheapest option for PhD students since they do not require major infrastructure and maintenance costs. In most of the top Australian research universities, there is a solid flow of funding for postgraduate field studies.
One area where there does appear to be good evidence of a decrease in fieldwork is in school and university education. The Field Studies Council of the UK has shown that the amount of fieldwork that biology students experience has dramatically decreased in the past decade. Most people agree that fieldwork experience is essential for high quality biology education. Professor Lord May believes: “Our young people are being let down if their science education does not include field experience”. In all my years as a biology educator, it is in the field where I see young people becoming inspired by biology. Although fieldtrips are difficult to organise, expensive and potentially dangerous, I believe we should all fight to keep them in our curricula. It is essential, now more than ever, to have an environmentally literate society.
Watching animals in their natural environment can tell us a lot about our world. And it means that we don’t have to house, feed, clean and medicate our animals every day. All that extra time can be spent scratching the mosquito bites.