A naturalist’s brain exercise

The online game Lumosity has been touted as being beneficial in keeping an aging brain from seizing up. The company that has marketed the game has gotten themselves in a bit of trouble because of marketing tactics and a general lack of evidence that the game actually works, however. Gaming has never been something I have enjoyed a great deal, although I have to admit that my wife and I did enjoy some of the Nintendo racing games when our kids were young. There was also the game we referred to as “bubble fart” (some kind of falling balls that exploded) which I used to get ahead of my wife in, only to lose when the speed exceeded my capacity to react fast enough. Unfortunately, my lack of interest is definitely not genetically based as both my children are avid gamers.

The activities I prefer nowadays are bird watching and (somewhat sporadically) insect identification. I have been thinking about why bird watching is such a popular activity in North America for some time. Obviously it has some clear benefits, like getting outside (although I can do a fair bit of birding from my living room window). Personally, I also get a lot of joy from just watching birds. For as long as I can remember the arrival of swallows in the spring has always lifted my spirits. Hummingbirds always make me smile, and a flock of bushtits likely make somewhat silly, staring at them with a big grin. With respect to the latter, it is in part that they are cute, but also that they don’tBushtit Garden April 2017 -7703 fight over the food. Having 10-15 of them all on one suet feeder is always a joyful experience for me. But bird watching also requires that you focus and pay attention.And recording a new, unexpected species is always exciting.

Some groups of birds are not that easy to identify, e.g., gulls. I am just starting to tackle the challenge of separating the many gull species that occur along the coast of Vancouver Island, which becomes quite a task when you start including hybrids and immatures. But the satisfaction when managing to identify a species with confidence is worth the effort for sure. Similarly, learning the songs of local birds is a different type of challenge. When I was a kid in Sweden, I knew the songs of most of the common song birds, but I have only now started to focus on BC birds. I use a recorder to reinforce what I learn, and I also use an app (yes, there is an app for that – several in fact) when I try to match what I hear to one of (usually) several suspects.  I also try to get photographs of birds, which is easier said than done as the little blighters often refuse to sit still! But on occasion even a less than perfect photograph helps with the identification. I am not a hard core birder, however. I don’t go traveling for miles to see some “lifer”, although I will occasionally travel up to 50 km or so if a bird is particularly interesting to me. Particularly interesting birds are owls and some of the more unusual song birds, like orioles, for example. I am not obsesses about the species count either, although I have done fairly well. Using eBird to report the birds I see also helps me keep track of the species without obsessing over them. An added bonus is that it contributes to data acquisition for various citizen science projects. This is something I have been engaged in since I was a kid although I wasn’t really aware of it then. The Swedish young naturalists (Fältbiologerna) collected data on migrant bird arrival dates and other phenological events in nature, which is obviously citizen science. This makes me FEEL useful, if nothing else! There is of course a social component to it as well, particularly when participating in Nanaimo bird walks, Christmas Bird Counts and other similar activities.

Insect identification is a bit more solitary, but every bit as challenging for the “little gray cells”. Over the past year or two I have volunteered for the Royal BC Museum in Victoria to bring some order to their ant collections. I am not particularly skilled at ant identification, but I know enough to be dangerous. I initially became interested in ants because they have fascinated me since I got a book about ants by famed Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson. (It is quite amazing how many scientist have at one time or another done something ant-related.) I then started doing some research on ants in Camponotus herculeanusthe central interior of BC based on the flawed logic that “there can’t be that many species, so it should be an easy group to work on”. Anyway, identification of ant workers can be very frustrating, particularly as (surprisingly for such an important group) the status of Canadian ant taxonomy is not where it should be. Thus, resources (=taxonomic keys) are scattered and geographically more or less irrelevant (i.e., species may be missing from the key or many species do not occur where the specimen was collected). Add to that genera that are in dire need of revision (e.g., Myrmica), and you have a problem at your hands. As keys are generally based on major workers, singletons can be particularly difficult to pin down (pardon the pun). In some cases ants have to be mounted in certain ways to allow proper identification, but they rarely are. For example, some Lasius pallitarsis, one of the more common species is keyed by the arrangement of the basal mandibular teeth, which means that mandibles should ideally be open, and for Formica fusca group ants the initial couplet relies on the presence or absence of metasternal processes that require removal of legs and mounting upside down of at least one ant from a nest series. So I may only get to genus or species group on many of them. As with bird watching, finding an unexpected species among the samples is an exciting and rewarding experience. So the brain gets to work overtime to figure out what is under the microscope!

My point after this long-winded explanation is that, in my humble opinion, being a naturalist beats Luminosity as brain exercise fodder any day. It brings brain exercise, happiness and a sense of worth.

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About cinnabarreflections

B. Staffan Lindgren is Professor Emeritus at UNBC. Living in Nanaimo, BC. Jack of all trades trying to stay relevant.
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2 Responses to A naturalist’s brain exercise

  1. sleather2012 says:

    Interesting that you have got into birds. They have never really grabbed me. On the other hand it was ants that sparked my entomological interest way back when I was knee high to a grasshopper 🙂

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    • When I think about it, I guess birding is just very accessible. In fact I enjoy pretty much anything I see, whether mammals, marine organisms or whatever. Birds are just always there, aren’t they. All you need is a decent pair of binoculars, and the resources to help with identification are easy to access. I guess that’s why butterflies and dragonflies tend to be the birds of the insect world. In addition, growing up in Sweden kind of made me a naturalist by birth I think. Not sure that is the case anymore, but that was the case when I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s! I was also into spiders in a big way, by the way. That was a bit more on the nerdy side of things!

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