On your receipt of the E.O. Wilson Naturalist Award in June you commented that E.O. Wilson has always encouraged you to stay the course as a real naturalist. What defines a real naturalist in your view?
Travis: In my view a real naturalist is someone who has studied nature, pays close attention to nature in his or her work, and uses that knowledge of nature as a guide to identifying and answering interesting questions. For example, a real naturalist is someone who understands the role of different kinds of soil on plant distribution, and that you can actually see this for yourself by walking around and looking at where certain plants grow. A real naturalist is someone who notices clear patterns in the association of certain insects with certain plants, or that you can learn to identify plants from the structures of their flowers. A real naturalist is someone who feels at home wandering around in the woods, or in the marsh or grasslands just watching—watching birds forage, watching insect flight patterns, watching patterns of phenology in plants over time. A real naturalist is someone who is really engaged with the processes and observations of nature and who notices things and raises questions about what they see.
Source: Florida State University.
You studied biology as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. What prompted you to choose biology as a major?
Travis: The honest answer is that it seemed like fun! I started college without much inclination as to what I wanted to study. I began my freshman year thinking maybe I’d major in English because I liked reading novels and plays and I liked to write, or maybe I’d major in history because I liked to read about history, or maybe I’d major in something in science because it seemed like a lot of fun. In my very first semester I took a course from Bob Ricklefs called Biology 101: Introduction to Environmental Biology. At that time, the University of Pennsylvania Biology Department had a four-semester introductory sequence in place of the typical Bio I and Bio II two-semester sequence. The first semester was environmental—which meant that it encompassed ecology, evolution and behavior, the second was organismal, the third was molecular and cell, and the fourth was developmental. So I took the course because ecology and evolution seemed like an interesting topic and biology was my favorite science course that I took in high school. By the end of that semester I was all but hooked; it was a great, great course. I just enjoyed every minute of it; I enjoyed the way Bob taught you to think about science and biology, and from that point on I was a biology major.
And then, later, what prompted you to study in Trinidad?
Travis: The work I’ve been doing there in the past few years has really been the outcome of my 37-year friendship with David Reznik. David came to the University of Pennsylvania as a first year graduate student to study with Bob Ricklefs in the same year I was a senior undergraduate. We took a course in field ecology together which was a really interesting course taught by three faculty members and in which we were in the field all the time. I’m not sure what we accomplished in terms of projects and academic work, but we sure as heck had a lot of fun and David and I became friends. So when he began his dissertation work in Trinidad I followed his work and we exchanged ideas, corresponded, visited with each other, and even reviewed each other’s papers and grant proposals. We had a close association over a very long time and, when the FIBR (Frontiers in Integrative Biological Research) Program was announced, David approached me and said “I’ve been trying to get you to work with me in Trinidad for years and here’s an opportunity to work on something you’ve thought about for a long time, which is the role of evolutionary and genetic processes on ecological issues. Do you want to finally get involved?” I jumped at the opportunity and that’s how it all got started.
What do you feel are the most important lessons for biologists that have emerged from your studies of guppies and their effects on ecosystems?
Travis: Let me make sure the credit goes to David Reznik for working on the system for 35 years. And John Endler before him and so many others. I’m a late-comer to this system, but a lot of my own work has been in other kinds of systems with similar questions. One of the major lessons from all of this work is that, in many cases, ecological and evolutionary processes unfold on the same timescale. The early ecological geneticists like E.B. Ford, Sir Ronald Fisher, and David Pimentel turned out to be focused on a really important point. Ford argued in Britain in the 1930s that numerical dynamics of populations were intimately entwined with the genetic dynamics on the same timescale. That is to say, as the numbers fluctuated on a scale you could measure, generation to generation, so would allele frequencies, and a process of evolution would unfold in front of you as dynamics unfolded.
The real demonstration of this was in Fisher and Ford’s 1947 paper on Panaxia dominula where they actually showed this was true. Now that particular paper had the wrong explanation for what was driving the genetic dynamics, but they showed beyond a shadow of a doubt that genes fluctuate in frequencies and turn over in the same timescale as does the number of individuals. From Ford’s point of view this meant that evolution could be studied experimentally in the here and now. But if you turn it on its head and say that, if evolution can be studied, that also means that ecological processes can be influenced by evolutionary ones on the same timescale, that gives you a different insight into the role of evolution in ecology. If there is one thing I hope I’ve contributed toward advancing the field of natural history over all these years it’s contributing to that particular insight.
What is your assessment of the current state of natural history research, both in the US and around the world—is it healthy?
Travis: It’s very healthy but it’s healthy in a funny kind of way. There’s a lot of great natural history but it doesn’t get the exposure in scientific circles that it perhaps deserves or that it ought to. And I say that because you can certainly see lots of great natural history being done and a lot of people having their research informed by insights from natural history, but most scientific journals are publishing papers that are hypothesis-driven tests of theory or hypothesis-driven planned observations motivated by a concept or idea. They’re not publishing what people consider classic natural history, like descriptions of flowering phenology or narratives of animal behavior. But natural history is alive and well because you can see an appreciation for its motivating the testable hypotheses in the work of many people.
If you look at all of John Avise’s work on phylogeography and genetic population structure, you ought to be astounded by how much he actually discovered, by how many interesting patterns of genes he has documented, and the brilliance of much of what he has articulated as the reasons for those patterns. John is a superb natural historian. I once had a graduate student say something to me along the lines of, “Gosh, how does John Avise do it? How does he come up with these ideas? Everything he touches turns to gold!” I said, “You think this happens by chance? You think he’s guessing? John Avise is a really good naturalist and he draws on that knowledge and intuition for his inspiration.” Beneath the surface of John’s papers you can see really beautiful natural history because you don’t get those ideas and hypotheses without it. So natural history is alive and well in that sense. There are many people who lament the absence of natural history in frontline journals like Evolution and Ecology but I contend it’s actually there motivating a lot of the good work that’s being done; it’s lurking, if you will, just below the surface, because a lot of the people who repeatedly do the best work are really very good naturalists.
Looking to the future, what are the most important questions you’d like to see natural history researchers address over the next twenty years or so?
Travis: I think one of the most important questions that’s both interesting in a scientific sense and important in a practical sense is the spatial scale in which ecosystem processes are connected and the long timescale of influence. For example, if we want to understand the shrimp numbers, scallop numbers, and oyster numbers in the Apalachicola Estuary in north Florida, we have to understand water flow out of the Appalachian Mountains and the water drawn by the city of Atlanta for its citizens to use, because there is a direct and demonstrable statistical connection between water flow in northern Georgia and productivity of the estuary many hundred miles to the south.
A good natural historian knows that water has to go someplace and that if it starts up in northern Georgia and flows all the way down to the Gulf, then it’s carrying things with it. Ideally, it carries nutrients (which it does in this case) and not pollution. Anyway, those long range connections are very important for us to understand because not only do they connect ecosystems, they connect human actions and decisions in one place with consequences elsewhere. We have water wars in which the states of Florida, Alabama, and Georgia have fought over the water use patterns in the Appalachicola River system. The contention that flow is important for the productivity of the estuary is the sort of thing that, were it not backed up with solid scientific data, would have lawyers arguing it ad nauseum. So I think one of the biggest challenges for natural historians is to expand their scope of thinking from the local woods, the local ponds and lakes, the local rivers, to think broadly on a bigger scale and consider the natural history of extended systems that are connected over long distances, and also how we as a species are going to co-exist with these extensive ecosystems into which we are embedded.
What advice would you give to students who might be interested in pursuing a career in natural history?
Travis: : I think one of challenges is to find clever ways to give students good training in natural history. For twenty years I taught a course in biology of the lower vertebrates - a combination ichthyology and herpetology class—and a lot of our time was spent in the field doing natural history. I told the students that we’d organize our field work around learning which fish occur in which kinds of waters and which herps could be found where. But once you have them outside, you can show them all kinds of stuff. You can say, “Why do you think the water here is so acidic? What do you think about this litter? Why don’t you lick this leaf here and see what it tastes like…it’s bitter isn’t it? Yeah, let’s talk about decomposition of leaves and tannic acid in the water.” You begin to teach students natural history by going out in the field with them and teaching them to observe and ask questions about what they see and perceive. So, one thing we should do as teachers of biology is to find ways to teach students good natural history by taking them out in the field and also by making sure we offer field courses that are not just explorations in quantitative exercises.
The introduction to tropical ecology course, offered by the Organization for Tropical Studies, that many of us took as graduate students is an excellent model for this. The class would show up at a particular location like the La Selva Rainforest Station and you’d have three days of all-day hikes where the instructor would just teach you the names of things and show you the lay of the land. Then you’d do a couple of projects over the next two or three days, but there was always a significant amount of natural history. We, as instructors, as faculty members in universities and colleges, need to teach natural history more and emphasize it more. At the same time, students should take every opportunity to learn it. When I was a graduate student one of the things I tried to do was to be a field helper for any of my fellow graduate students that would put up with me. I bagged flowers, dug grass tillers, electrofished for catfish, rolled logs for salamanders, trapped mice; I did pretty much everything one of my fellow graduate students was doing just so I could get the exposure and experience and learn from them. And that’s what students need to do. You can learn a lot by just exposing yourself to natural history and, of course, once your curiosity gets whetted by things you observe or see, that motivates you to read a little more, go out a little more, and to keep doing it, and the more you do the better you get at it.
Should students be making a deliberate effort to acquaint themselves with newer biological techniques that we don’t ordinarily think of as being common in the field of natural history?
Travis: They must. Natural history is the underpinning of all of our questions in ecology, evolution and behavior, but it’s not a sufficient route to answer those questions. The first paper I ever published was on downy woodpeckers foraging randomly in summers but very selectively in winters on trees with rough, furrowed bark. And it’s one of those things I just sort of noticed; I liked watching birds and said, “Boy, you know, every time I see them on winter days they’re just on certain types of trees. I wonder if that would actually be true if I were to quantify my observations.” So the question was motivated by the observation. Now in order to get the answer, I actually devised my own rather crude method for measuring how furrowed the bark was so that there would be an objective, repeatable measure of “furrowedness” and not a subjective claim based on what I thought I was seeing. To do this required me to understand what the trees looked like, decipher what “furrowedness” actually implied in terms of a measurement, as well as some basic statistics that would allow me to test the idea objectively. So natural history was the foundation of the question I was interested in, but knowing the natural history wasn’t enough to get the answers in a scientific sense. You have to do experimentation, you have to measure some things objectively that can be very subtle, and you have to be able to keep up with the latest techniques of doing so because those techniques help you answer age-old questions.
Nothing illustrates this better than the development of sequencing technology in genetics and the development of computational power over the last 25 years. We can solve problems we couldn’t solve before, but those have raised questions we didn’t even think to ask before. So, yes, I think students need to familiarize themselves with newer biological techniques in order to obtain answers to questions that emerge from their observations in natural history.