When I was growing up, most kids spent summer days unsupervised. At age 7, living in a rural community loosely organized around a grocery store and a beer joint, I played with a gang of kids who spent hours at the creek. To get there, we'd cross the highway, walk down a gravel road, and sometimes wander along railroad tracks. That route led me to rock collecting. Though I can't claim to have gained great knowledge from my collections, I did know more than most kids—enough to pick my favorites: tungsten, feldspar, quartz, and mica. I learned that I could crack open the most ordinary-looking stones with a hammer and discover mini-landscapes of iron red, sea green, and butterscotch.
One day as I prepared to pound a stone on the sidewalk, I swung back my hammer and split open the forehead of a 5-year-old boy. Scared by that accident, I gave up the hammer; and my collector's curiosity waned. But another lesson remains: Collecting and examining ordinary things leads to discoveries.
Collecting things from nature is good for kids. And it's fundamental to science and to the formation of scientists—as stories in this issue suggest.
"The Scoop on Minnows" includes a short profile of master minnow collector Konrad Schmidt. As a teenager, he drove all over the state to fish for darters and minnows to stock his aquariums of native fish. Now, as a DNR ichthyologist and volunteer curator of the Bell Museum of Natural History collection of 41,000 fish specimens, Schmidt and assistant curator Jay Hatch are writing a book on Minnesota fish, including 46 minnow species. In the field, they have studied a rare minnow not mentioned in our story: the Topeka shiner (Notropis topeka), Minnesota's only federally endangered fish species.
Topeka shiners hunt their prey by sight. As European settlers converted prairies into pasture and cropland, soil eroded and muddied the spring-fed streams where shiners live. Today, the species survives in only 20 percent of its historic sites. Yet, Schmidt and Hatch found the beautiful minnow thriving in oxbows and pools off the main channels of streams in Minnesota's southwestern corner. Although it is declining sharply in other states, here—at the northern edge of its range—the Topeka shiner is doing well. In fact, Minnesota might have more Topeka shiners than the other Great Plains states combined.
All kinds of biologists started as young collectors. In an interview with National Geographic, famed naturalist Edward O. Wilson recalled hours of childhood wandering in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. At age 13, he discovered the nation's first fire ant colony in Mobile, Ala. Today, at age 76, Wilson has an office in Harvard's zoology museum, which has pinned specimens of about 6,000 ant species.
This issue presents the thoughts of another biology professor and eminent collector, David Czarnecki, who died this past May. In "A Great Small Universe," he wrote about the beginnings of his passion for microscopic examination of creatures in slimy freshwater. As curator of the Freshwater Diatom Culture Collection at Loras College in Iowa and visiting professor at Itasca Biological Station, Czarnecki scrutinized algae and other life forms in more than a million drops. Keep looking, he advised, especially at the microcosm.
It is easy to underestimate the importance of small things, to fail to recognize how big and extraordinary they really are. Altogether, the world's ants weigh about as much as all humans, says Wilson. He describes ants as principal soil turners, scavengers, and predators of small animals.
This principal collector of ants concurs with Czarnecki that humans have barely begun to know what exists. On a recent trip to the Dominican Republic, Wilson and other ant specialists were "discovering new species at every mountain site." Estimating that we know just half the world's ant species and perhaps 10 percent of all animal species, he says, "We're just beginning exploration."
Like other passionate collectors—amateurs and experts alike–Wilson expresses endless fascination: "I never saw an ant I didn't consider an object of beauty."
Rocks, minnows, ants, algae—there's no end to objects of beauty for the eyes of eager beholders.
Kathleen Weflen, editor