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Field Guides: The Bridge Between Wildlife and People

By: David Norman

March 03, 2020


David Norman painting for his book "Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians"

During the past years, I’ve been doing acrylic paintings of species of amphibians
and reptiles that live in two national parks in northwest Costa Rica. In some years I had more time
to paint, and in others much less, but the goal was to produce a lightweight and hopefully
inexpensive field guide to help people identify the species they find in these parks. The rangers and
environmental educators in one of these parks, Santa Rosa National Park, helped me immensely by
encouraging my efforts and by “testing out” some of the material with the local sixth graders that
visit in busloads every year. Through my friend Carolina Arias I discovered the publishing
department of the UNED university, who put my field guide on the shelves of their bookstores last
November.


Field guides are tools which bridge the gap between the knowledge held by scientists and
the general public. In the books’ organization and visual content they allow an ordinary citizen to
properly identify species of living organisms in the wild. Before the advent of field guides (one of the
first to have a big impact was illustrated and written by ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson in the
1940s in the United States), being able to identify wildlife was somewhat an “elitist” activity, in that
one had to have the financial resources to enroll in university courses or make long trips to confer
with museums and experts. By placing illustrations of many species on each plate with a short
summary of the traits that distinguish one species from another, they facilitate our ability to identify.
Another trick is showing the species on each plate to “scale”, which means that if, say, there is a
crow on the same plate with a robin, the latter will be half the size of the former (as they are in real
life).


Identifying what we see around us is important for many reasons. As Aldo Leopold wrote,
kids tend to go through a certain ontogeny in their transformation into conservationists and
responsable stewards of the land. They go from the acquisition of “trophies” (butterflies, rocks,
bird feathers, etc.), to recognition (identification and life listing), then to perception (the study and
greater understanding of nature) and lastly to participation, sound land husbandry and activisim.
Within this ontogeny is a need for materials that enable a person to identify what he or she is
discovering in nature. Working to correctly identify animals and plants in the wild is a challenge, and
can be great fun and a rewarding hobby. I still have my first Peterson bird field guide. When I put it
up to my nose it smells like old paper. It is a hardbound edition and the transparent waterproof
cover is torn and discolored. Its pages have been turned by the half frozen fingers of my high school
best buddy and me as we excitedly tried to identify the migratory ducks in December in wetlands
next to the Illinois River. Great times. But Richard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods:Saving Our
Children from nature-deficit Disorder” points out that kids are spending much less time in nature,
and this can have negative effects on land stewardship actions and the overall psychological well
being of coming generations. Field guides are one of several ways to help get people back into
nature.


Identification is also indispensable for understanding how ecosystems function. Two species
of little flies might look the same, but they pollinate very different species of plants and play
different roles in the local food chain. Both the boa constrictor and the cateye snake are brown with
darker blotches but play very different roles in the dry forest ecosystem, with the former growing to
over 3 meters in length and feeding on prey high in the food chain while the latter is basically a frog-
easter. Once the field guide gives us the animal’s scientific name, we can then delve into the literature in libraries and the internet to learn more about other aspects (natural history, population
status) of the species.


And, lastly, correct identification of species can enable local residents to contribute toward
our knowledge of distributions and abundances, and can also enable the correlation of such
information with changes in land use or climate change. Although the most well known of such
contributions by “citizen scientists” are the Christmas Bird Counts (which have given us important
information on the changes in bird species’ distributions and abundances), there are many other
efforts that use photography and field guides to register species on-line, such as the Carolina Herp
Atlas (with 698 registered users), and similar projects in Wisconsin, New York and Georgia. Maybe a
similar on-line herp atlas can be done here in Costa Rica.

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