Naturalist Technology

Article Published: Jul. 12, 2012 | Modified: Jul. 12, 2012
Naturalist Technology

When viewing the night sky, do you use your naked eye or a smartphone to tell stars from galaxies, like Andromeda?

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Picture this: You and a few friends drive out to Julian Price Picnic Area one July night to stargaze. It is a perfectly clear and beautiful night.

Your friends know that you are an amateur naturalist. You’d like to impress them by identifying the constellations, by pointing out which “stars” are really galaxies, like Andromeda, or by telling ways to navigate by looking to the sky.

However, under the pressure, you have lost your cool. You cannot even remember the difference between a star cluster and a nebula.

What to do? Should you just start making stuff up? Pull out your definitive astronomy guidebook? Maybe you brought your smart phone. For the price of the phone, you were able to download a “free” application. You hold the phone to the sky; it does the work for you.

I face this conundrum every day. Visitors expect the naturalist to know everything. Many interpretive rangers are turning to smart technology to help fill the gaps.

With park employee numbers on the downslide, some parks are also using the technology to do the work of interpretive park rangers. You hold your phone to the display; a YouTube video appears of a ranger interpreting the site.

Certainly, technology is greatly changing the way we experience our parks. It is a way for more people to learn about the sites and subjects. It is a way for techno-savy children to become interested in the outdoors.

Naturalists the world over are using their smart technology to instantly record and report their observations. This is aiding the scientific community to track changes and monitor natural occurrences.

My question this week came from a smart phone-possessing person who attended one of my wildflower hikes. I have been pondering it all week.

Ranger Amy, you know there is a free app that will immediately identify any of these flowers. Why don’t you have an iPad to help you on these hikes?
–Wildflower Wonderer

The truth is that I wanted one for a long time. I could not afford it.

Instead, I turned to my office’s library. Many of the books on the shelves are more than 30 years old. But you know what? Not much has changed in the natural world since 1980. The same wildflowers bloom, the same stars come out at night (there is just a little more smog blocking their view).

I learned to be patient with myself as I studied things in the natural world. I humbled myself by answering questions with, “I don’t know, let’s look that up.” I am now able to depend on my own identification devices: my eyes, hands, nose and brain.

Call me a “Luddite,” but I have grown to like my old-fashioned ways.

The only clouds I think about are in the sky, and my clouds rain when they fill up. With them I never wonder if my personal information is at risk or if the system might fail.

And, in contrast to the rare Earth metals found in the iPad, my body is fully recyclable. I am not made in China. And I only contribute a little bit to greenhouse gases.

However, I do know of another ranger who would love to accept your used iPad donation in return for a tax write-off. She is tall, blonde and can often be found leading wildflower hikes. She will be the one with the book in her hands.

If you have a question concerning flora and fauna, please email ( All of your questions will be answered. One will be featured next week. See you on the trails!

Amy Renfranz is an interpretive park guide on the Blue Ridge Parkway. She is a certified naturalist through the Yellowstone Institute and a certified environmental educator in the state of North Carolina. Her comments are made independently and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service.

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