Sunday, March 25, 2012

Field Guides: Help or Hindrance?

Here is a question I find myself wrestling with on a regular basis; are field guides good for the SCIENCE of botany? The more botanically aware I become as a scientist the more convinced I am that they are very often used by the wrong people and for the wrong task.

Famed bryologist Paul Redfern once said that "keys [floras] are written by people that don't need them for people who can't use them". There is a sad truth to this and it is often the mechanism that turns more and more people to field guides. But is this a good thing?

My understanding of field guides is that they are intended for non-professionals (hikers, wildflower enthusiasts, etc.) but I know many professionals that use them as primary references. I fear that this dumbs-down the profession or at the very least gives non-botanist professional scientists a false sense of what it really takes to know a flora.

Anyway, I figured that GYBO has such a mix of professional and nonprofessional botany/ecology people, that it would make for an interesting conversation. Please share your thoughts.


Rob said...

Field guides with pictures of flowers in bloom work fine for me, especially when the flowers are divided into colors. Field guides that use text keys are worthless to me because I am not fluent in the botanical language.

I'm just now trying to learn leaf terminology. Trouble is, there seems to be no authority on leaf shapes. You'd think there would be great photo examples of leaf margins but searches have compounded my confusion of the terminology. For example, Crenate margin versus Sinuate margin. The example photos of real life leaves that mimic those margins seem to be conflicting. If you know of a site that uses real life leaf photos for examples to teach the leaf lingo, feel free to share. Thx.

Another thing about keys is they always use the metric system which most Americans are not comfortable using. 2-5 cm doesn't mean much to the average person. 0.75 - 2 inches I can visualize instantly.

The language of keys is a tough language to learn...

Scott Namestnik said...

Field guides are not intended for use by professionals, and professionals that are using them are missing out on a lot. They are, however, quite useful for enthusiasts who want a better idea of what can be found in a given area. With a field guide should come an understanding that not all plants in a flora are included. I look at all of my field guides for things like amphibians and reptiles, butterflies, etc. and know that without them I would be lost. I know that I am not a herpetologist or an entomologist, but I still find a lot of benefit in having these field guides. Field guides also promote a love of nature in non-professionals, and this is essential to science because their tax money goes to programs that ultimately support science.

DenPro said...

Scott beat me to the punch, but I'll share some thoughts anyway. The biggest problem with field guides, they are not comprehensive, plain and simple. I hate reading what I think is the species, and then seeing "there are 3 others that look similar". Then there is nothing discussed about the differences, very frustrating.

"Keys were made by people who don't need them, and for people who can't use them". Very famous line, the solution? Rewrite the keys! That's what I do. As an educator by profession, and a naturalist by trade, I have to bridge the gap between both worlds. It's sad to see beginning students close a book because a key says "ovate to obovate to orbiculate" in the same sentence. Crenate? How about wavy instead. To some it's dumbing down, but you have to remember how to turn people on to learning. Speak in plain words and use associations people are familiar with. Field guides do this.

Higher education stills stresses mathematical modeling, biostats, significant figures, etc., but written and oral interpretive skills be damned. I know many scientists (in all fields), who still feel it's only important to impress their peers. Zoos, museums, and natural resource agencies learned years ago to do more for the public. Without it you go under.

Butterfly, dragonfly, herp, and bird folks learned how to do it right, why not botany? I know, you have a lot more species to deal with. Then publish field guides in multiple volumes. Some states have done so. I can't imagine lugging around Britton and Brown in the old days, much less Illustrated Gleason & Cronquist today. The key word here is 'illustrated', which is another topic deserving a discussion.

Try Entomology. You can't be complete with a guide above the family level. Then it is so specific and costs so much, nobody buys it. So what is the solution to affordable comprehensive guides? I'm afraid it's coming to strictly on line publishing. Gees, I'm ranting, better quit.

Marianne, aka Ranger Anna said...

When I was a budding field ecologist in college, we had to have a Gray's and anything else that worked for us. The 'anything else' was a field guide of our choosing which covered Michigan, and a 'trees in winter' guide. We started with the field guides then had to translate that into Gray's. Sometimes our prof would speak Gray's to us and we had to translate into you know, a real language like English.

Newcomb's came out the year I graduated (of course) and my prof really went for it, since mere mortals, such as undergrads, could more quickly get their botany on.

In the real world, we need both.

Keith Board said...

Field guides are wonderful for beginners and casual observers of plants. It's likely that all of us start out using a basic field guide, but as we learn and grow we should be willing to move on to botanical keys and descriptions IF we plan to let people call us “botanist.” Anyone calling themselves plant taxonomists or botanists should be thoroughly familiar with keys, descriptions, and terminology. Otherwise, ghastly mistakes can and will be made, and these could lead to errors in the management of natural areas as well as inaccurate delineations. I once heard of a large colony of Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) being sprayed with herbicide because someone misidentified it as “Devil’s Weed” (Viper's Bugloss?). One of the most outrageous things I've ever heard came from a grad student being paid by a grant, doing a plant study in a state park. The student was going to identify sedges "to the genus," as if Carex buxbaumii = Carex hirta! What possible value could that report have to anyone, and who would pay for something like that?!

It takes commitment to learn descriptive terms well enough to use keys and descriptions accurately, but it can be done. Put on some instrumental music, if necessary, and begin reading! One thing I've found is that the more we learn, the more we are able to learn, and the easier it becomes, in the manner of a snowball effect.

Remarkably, two of the finest botanists that ever lived, Charlie Deam and Floyd Swink, had no college degree (before receiving honorary degrees). But they became leading authorities in their respective regions and devised their own keys for the floras that they wrote, and these floras still are used extensively. They were able to learn the language, and so can we.

On a side note, even with experience it is sometimes very difficult to figure out what Fernald's keys are talking about in his revisions of Gray's Manual.

Steven Rolfsmeier said...

I've never seen a conflict between field guides and floras, since one serves a purpose of narrowing down available choices, while the other is designed to get you to the precise answer. I see no reason why keys can't be constructed using "plain English", but for far too many botanists, especially of the old school, there is a tendency to see a term such as "wavy" as being imprecise, rather than "understandable". Fortunately there are a few very useful descriptive keys that aren't overly reliant on jargon (the original Steyermark's Flora of Missouri comes to mind), and now that we have a number of supplemental online resources with plant photos, keying out plants shouldn't be as intimidating as it might have been at the time of the Redfern quote.
Nonetheless, I find it baffling that "professionals" would make use of field guides as a primary identification source. Part of this might be due to folks not being aware of the distinctions between a flora and a field guide (I'm reminded of this any time I see a review dissing a flora for being 'too large to haul into the field'), though much might also be due to an attitude that proper identification "isn't important" that is becoming alarmingly more prevalent among many of our ecologist peers.

Keith Board said...

Two excellent resources to help learn descriptive terms are:
1. The book "How to Identify Plants" by Harrington and Durrel, and,
2. The beautifully illustrated glossary in the profoundly excellent flora, Plants of the Chicago Region by Swink and Wilhelm (1994). The illustrations are grouped, so leaf margins are on one page, leaf bases on another, leaf apices on another, etc.

Both of these make it very easy to learn the descriptive terms used in botanical keys. Using keys properly makes it possible to learn the grasses, sedges, and all other plants, and this makes botany a lot of fun. Keying pressed plants is a great way to spend winter evenings, especially when January howlers are moving through.

Scott Namestnik said...

Another very good reference for learning botanical nomenclature is Plant Identification Terminology: An Illustrated Glossary by James G. Harris and Melinda Woolf Harris.

Daricia said...

both field guides and plant keys are only as good as the education of the people using them. i've seen people sure of an id when the plant and the plant in the book had little more in common than color (or some other nearly meaningless feature). keys give you more information and help you get more specific; learning how to use them is important. but, field guides (and google) can point you in the right direction. and, for hobbyists, they are more fun, which is also important.

Scott Namestnik said...

I couldn't agree more with your first point, Daricia.