Creativity in Science


Illustration by Eleanor Lutz

Science is a creative endeavor.  There I said it.

It had to be said because people seem surprised when I tell them I am a biologist and part-time artist. Someone once asked, “What, so you took an art class, and now you make these?”  I replied, “No, I’ve just always made art.”

I cannot do science 24 hours a day.  I can’t do any one thing all the time.  I find that answers to a question I didn’t know I had come to me in a dream, or when I switch up the scenery, or when I put my hands to work on something else.  That is a creative process.

The other day I walked into my advisor’s office.  He was hand painting beautifully carved Horned Lark wooden models.  The plan was to put them into the field to lure these wily birds into his nets.  We had a short discussion of the various ways that creativity plays a part in science.

Problem solving is one.  You have to open your mind and think of a way to find a solution, especially when resources are limited.  I’ve been trying to capture nighthawks in my nets for years.  But, their eyesight is very keen, and they were able to stop short of falling into my nets.  Then I consulted with some nighthawk researcher buddies in Canada.  The answer was Maurice, a cardboard cutout of a nighthawk they placed in their net.  Nighthawks could still see the net, but their desire to rid their territory of an invading male superseded their caution.  And voila!  They fell into the nets.

Empathy is another.  This requires some creativity.  Opening your mind to what drives an animal to live like it does can help you understand it.  You have to think like a nighthawk to out-think a nighthawk.  It required some creativity and empathy for my northern colleagues to come up with Maurice.

Empathy and creativity also play a part in generating hypotheses. It helps to expand your thoughts to understand a process.  If you cannot do this, you encounter the pitfalls of scientific bias. See this excellent blog on the nine types of scientific bias.

Lastly, there is the ability to communicate.  Finding ways to convey what you do and why it’s important is crucial to reaching your audience.  Eleanor Lutz, with her blog and illustrations (including the one above), are an excellent example of creative communication.  Her illustrations explain in an economy of action and visuals what an onerous PowerPoint in a classroom cannot do.  Trust me, I know.


Diversity isn’t just a buzzword.


Rosalind Franklin (Source:

I’m a female graduate student in wildlife biology.  There have been many women in science over the years I count as my heroes.

Jane Goodall was my first hero.  Dr. Goodall was part of a cohort of women (that included Dian Fossey who studied mountain gorillas and Birute Galdikas Brindamour who studied orangutans) hired by famed anthropologist Louis Leakey to study wild apes.  He felt that women would have the patience to approach wild apes.  No doubt, the field of wildlife biology was probably filled with hunters and men who would want to bend these sensitive animals to their will.  But, approaching a wild ape requires a subtle approach.  Mere eye contact can change the interaction.  Sometimes, what is sometimes considered a weakness, empathy, can be a strength.

Ellen Swallow Richards is important, too.  A brilliant chemist who co-founded the Women’s Laboratory to support women in science, she was one of the first people to use the term “ecology”.  She used it in context of home economics in the 1800s when conservation of materials was not only frugal for the household but sustainable to the environment, no doubt in a time when foraging and farming required some thought as to not overworking the land.  This perspective has been lost in modern times for many people as we have separated ourselves from the land.

“The quality of life depends upon the ability of society to teach its members how to live in harmony with their environment–defined first as family, then the community, then the world and its resources.” – Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911)

Rosalind Franklin is another hero. Rosalind played a major role in the discovery of DNA.  Rosalind was overlooked in the days of chummy macho scientists when collaboration meant sharing a pint at the pub with the dude in the next lab.  Rosalind didn’t suffer fools gladly and eschewed the glad handing, and yet had the chops as a chemist and radiographer to help Watson and Crick take detailed images of the double helix structure.There’s an excellent hour-long documentary by PBS’ Nova posted on YouTube about her contribution and subsequent snubbing by the Nobel committee.  It seems like required viewing for any budding scientist.  In fact, we show this documentary in the introductory biology lab class here at University of South Dakota.

Each of these women had a unique perspective that enriched their respective fields.

Knowledge doesn’t stop sexism, of course.  I’ve encountered the attitude by students that women can’t teach science.  I’ve been told by my family that I should give up graduate school, hurry up, get married, and have children because family wouldn’t be around forever “to take care of me” even though I have been financially independent since the age of 15.

The tide is turning.  Women outnumber men in many undergraduate and graduate biology programs.  However, physical sciences and some biological sciences lag, and thus, women have formed Women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) organizations on campuses to support them. The Wildlife Society, at a recent meeting, held a symposium on promoting diversity (for women and minorities) in this field.

Diversity isn’t just a buzzword.  Having multiple points of view in any discipline is vital to staying relevant and innovative.  Years ago, I worked for Portland Parks & Recreation in Oregon when Charles Jordan was the director.  He was Portland’s first African American City Commissioner and was known for his innovative approach to government.  When he retired, he set out to make conservation more inclusive of minorities.

“What people don’t understand, they won’t value; what they don’t value, they won’t protect; and what they don’t protect, they will lose.” – Charles Jordan (1937-2014).


The One-Two Punch


Wooly Bear Caterpillar and Blazing Star forb, Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge prairie

I’ve talked about the decline of grassland habitat that affects Common Nighthawks and other Great Plains species. In the last 10 years or so, an area the size of Kansas has been converted from grasslands to row crop agriculture in the Northern Great Plains to feed the mighty beast that is biofuel production.

Added to the decline in natural habitat is the threat of rising temperatures.  Animals that live in open areas like prairies are especially vulnerable to climate change.  A recent paper in The Condor explains this trend.  With rising temperatures and drier conditions comes a loss of production in tall plants that support grassland ecology and the nesting sites for birds like Grasshopper and Baird’s sparrows.  With wild fluctuations in temperatures or rainfall come loss of vegetation.

So, loss of sheer quantity of available habitat is exacerbated by the changes in climate in temperate grasslands, the terrestrial biome at the greatest threat worldwide.

Why are ecological niches important?



An example of a niche model.  Horseshoe Crab eggs require a convergence of environmental conditions in which to incubate (source:

Last week, I talked about the decline in aerial insectivores, which includes bats, nighthawks, swifts and swallows.  Many of these animals provide great benefit in controlling insect populations around cropland and residential areas.

But who cares?  If we lose one of these animals, the others will fill in the gap, right?  Maybe.  Let’s talk about ecological niches.

What’s a niche? I like this definition below (even though it’s from a paid study aid web site, and I don’t endorse them).

“An ecological niche is the role and position a species has in its environment; how it meets its needs for food and shelter, how it survives, and how it reproduces. A species’ niche includes all of its interactions with the biotic and abiotic factors of its environment.”

Niche theory says that no two species can exist in the same niche.  Can a species reverse course and recapture a niche that were once held by a now-extinct species?  Sometimes.

So far, I have observed nighthawks, bats, swallows and swifts differ in their niche by time of day (i.e. bats are nocturnal, nighthawks are mostly crepuscular, swifts and swallows are diurnal), width of their mouths (which would limit insect prey size), where they nest (e.g. gravel rooftops, building cavities, nest boxes) and height in the air column they forage in (i.e. swifts and nighthawks are up high, and bats and swallows are lower). Some of these traits might be easy to switch, and others not so much.

The other challenge with loss of any one species in a guild is functional homogenization, in which organisms that have broad niches are filling in when others go extinct.  Problem solved, right?  Niches are filled.  Not exactly. This leading to an overall loss in biodiversity and genetic diversity. Then when environmental changes occur in the future, there are fewer species with lower genetic diversity that might enable them to respond.

Eventually, you’re left with these guys. Hey, but it makes bird identification easier, right? Ornithology students rejoice.


Aerialists in Decline

This might be a weird place to talk about the loss of circuses in our cultural history (Truzzi, Marcello. “The decline of the American circus: the Shrinkage of an institution.” Sociology and Everyday Life. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall(1968): 314-322).

And you would be right to say so.  So, instead of talking about aerialists, let’s talk about aerial insectivores.


Since 1980, aerial insectivorous birds have declined in numbers throughout North America. As a guild, aerial insectivores have experienced a greater decline than songbirds (Sauer et al., 2007). The decline of aerial insectivores potentially has large-scale ecological impacts, since insectivores provide important ecosystem services, such as agricultural and residential pest control.

Aerial insectivores include bats, swallows, swifts, and Common Nighthawks.For example, Purple Martins have declined by as much as 15% annually in some areas since 2002. For Chimney Swifts, this annual decline since 2002 is as much as 7%. For Common Nighthawks, this number is 14%.

One of the greatest challenges to insectivores is their prey, of course.  Indiscriminate pesticide use in agriculture and horticulture is the likely cause of arthropod declines worldwide.  This can pose a threat to overall biodiversity and to efforts to control agricultural and residential pests, since many of the insects that die are predators of insect pests.

Much of the aerial insectivore population trends can be linked with the prevalent and recent use of neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides (that has also been linked with honeybee declines). Other pesticides, like DDT (banned in North America but is still used in some Central and South American countries where insectivores overwinter) have been linked with shifts in population numbers.

Other threats include loss of nesting sites.  Common Nighthawks use open forests, sandbars, grasslands, and gravel rooftops (all habitats are in decline where dams are built along rivers, or where grasslands have been converted to row crop, or in urban areas where other roofing materials are becoming more prevalent).  Chimney Swifts that use chimneys for nest sites are increasingly being excluded from their historical nesting grounds.

Asynchrony with insect populations poses another challenge.  Climate change causes warmer and earlier springs in northern latitudes, which causes insects to hatch earlier.  This might be causing long distance migrants (like aerial insectivores that overwinter in the tropics) that use growing photoperiod (length of day) as a signal to migrate north (and not weather patterns like the insects do) to miss out on greater abundances of insects that would be feeding them during migration and breeding.

For bats, they face a greater challenge, white nose syndrome, a fungus that has decimated bat populations throughout eastern North America and is heading west.

So, why do we care if one of these species is lost?  Won’t the other species fill in the gap?  Maybe, maybe not.  There’s a concept in ecology called resource partitioning wherein animals become species by specializing to the point of forming a niche.  But, I’ll leave that for another day.