Russell Graham Russell Graham Russell Graham

A number of planned activities is necessary to the success of a field study. Ecology is not simply about going out and counting or measuring things. A successful study is designed to answer specific questions. These questions address different ideas or explanations about the way the world is. Without a clear plan about these ideas and the relationship between the questions you are interested in and the information needed to answer them, it is easy to do a study which will not achieve what you had in mind.

To try to prevent this problem, a field study should be divided into three different phases. Equal care and attention should be given to each phase. These Guidelines are aimed to help you to design, plan, do and interpret simple field study of animals or plants in different habitats. There are three general approaches, depending on whether you are interested in habitats or particular species. The different approaches investigate different questions. These are demonstrated below using particular examples but they can be adapted to different examples.

Rocky shores contain many unusual and interesting animals and plants. These are small, usually stay still or move slowly and are easy to see describe and count. People are usually interested in the habitat, rather than in specific animals and plants that live in it, although this is not necessarily the case. Questions asked about rocky shores usually revolve around How many? What? and Where? because the behaviour of the animals and their interactions with their surroundings are not easy to see. These sorts of questions and the methods used to answer them can be easily applied to other habitats such as mangroves, marshes, the forest floor and river banks.

Birds, on the other hand are large and mobile. They are only one component of any local habitat and often move between many different habitats. Birds interact in obvious ways with plants, with each other and with other animals so that their behaviour is often interesting. How much time do they spend in each place? What do they do when they are there? These are the sorts of questions you may be interested in. These questions obviously require different procedures from those needed to answer questions about habitats such as seashores. These procedures can easily be applied to similar studies of fish, lizards, mammals and people, perhaps even small insects like ants and bees, although birds and people are probably the easiest to observe.

Investigations of weeds in natural bushland may address questions about the "naturalness" of a piece of habitat compared to other habitats. It is essential in this sort of study to look at and compare a number of areas so that the status of the area you are interested in can be put in a larger context. You may need to measure what happens over time, perhaps because of a weed eradication programme in the area. Similar procedures can also be used to examine such questions as the amount of litter on beaches.

You should be able to see which types of approaches most suit your concerns. Are you interested in particular habitats or in particular species of animals or plants? Are you only interested in your particular neighbourhood, or do you want to know how it compares to other areas? Are you only interested in what is there now or do you want to know how it is changing? The more complex the questions you ask, the more information needed before you can begin to answer them. Hence, the need to network. This sort of information cannot be collected by a community group in its spare time or by individual schools. They need to share the workload through a network. The information you will get out of networking is well worth the effort put into it. Only with information from different times and different places will you really be able to see the natural world as it really is - changing, variable and unpredictable.

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Centre for Research on Ecological Impacts of Coastal Cities