• field work
    Scientists root out the data from trees in the field.

    Photograph by James P. Blair

    Field Work, One Cubic Foot at a Time
    Photographer David Liittschwager crafted a 1-square-foot metal cube and placed it in a range of ecosystemsland and water, tropical and temperate, freshwater and marine. Over several weeks at each location, Liittschwager and a team of biologists found, identified, and photographed small creatures that passed through the cube. The result of their field work is an inventory of ecosystem diversity at our planet's surface and just below. The photos of these smaller, often unseen, species are showcased in the February 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine.

    Field work is the process of observing and collecting data about people, cultures, and natural environments. Field work is conducted in the wild of our everyday surroundings rather than in the semi-controlled environments of a lab or classroom. This allows researchers to collect data about the dynamic places, people, and species around them. Field work enables students and researchers to examine the way scientific theories interact with real life.

    Field work is important in both the social and natural sciences. Social sciences, such as economics or history, focus on people, culture, and society. Natural sciences, such as biology or chemistry, focus on physical characteristics of nature and natural environments.

    Social Science

    In anthropology, a researcher may do ethnographic field work, studying and describing the customs of different communities and cultures.

    Ethnographic field work dramatically changed the purpose and methods of anthropology. Early anthropologists collected ethnographic data from outside sources, usually leaders of the group they were studying, and then compared it to their theories. With this information, anthropologists tried to explain the origins of the cultures customs.

    By the early 20th century, however, anthropologists began to spend long periods of time in a particular community or geographic area. Rather than relying on outside sources, the anthropologists themselves recorded the activities and customs of local people. They listened to the peoples stories and participated in daily events. Anthropologists became active field workers, experiencing the everyday life of their subjects in order to explain the purpose of local institutions and cultural beliefs and practices.

    The National Geographic Society supports a variety of social science researchers and projects that use field work as a method of collecting data. One of National Geographics Explorers-in-Residence, Dr. Wade Davis, is an ethnobotanist. An ethnobotanist is someone who studies how different cultures understand and use plants as food, medicine, and in religious ceremonies. Davis spent more than three years in Latin America collecting and studying the plants that different indigenous groups use in their daily lives.

    Field work can be conducted by groups of people as well as one individual. Participants in National Geographics Enduring Voices Project conduct field work by visiting and documenting areas of the world where indigenous languages are in danger of becoming extinct. Field workers in the Enduring Voices Project have recorded indigenous languages in places as diverse as Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, and Siberia.

    Davis and the Enduring Voices Project use field work to document and preserve local knowledge so we may all better understand the diversity of human experiences around the globe.

    Natural Science

    Field work is also used to understand how natural environments function. A researcher in the field of ecology, for example, may conduct field work to understand how specific organisms, such as plants and animals, relate to one another and to their physical surroundings.

    The work of Charles Darwin on the Galapagos Islands is an important example of field work in the natural sciences. After observing that finch populations on different islands had different types of beaks, Darwin theorized that each type of beak was adapted to the birds environment and diet. These observations, along with many others made on his voyage around South America, would lead Darwin to propose his theory of evolution by natural selection, a pillar of modern biology.

    A number of National Geographic-supported researchers and projects conduct field work to better understand Earths natural environments. Dr. Jenny Daltry, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2005, is a herpetologist, someone who studies reptiles and amphibians. Daltry has traveled to remote regions of Cambodia and the Caribbean, observing and documenting rare species such as the Siamese crocodile and the Antiguan racer snake, known as the rarest snake in the world. She spent more than 400 nights camping on the Caribbean island of Antigua in order to understand the snakes' habitat, behavior, and predators. Daltrys field work helped establish the Antiguan Racer Conservation Project, which has successfully reintroduced the snake into the wild.

    A field work team from the Ocean Now project, supported by National Geographic, is studying and cataloguing information about healthy coral reef ecosystems. They are doing research in the Southern Line Islands, a remote island chain in the central Pacific Ocean. The project aims to better understand how healthy reefs function in order to help conserve reefs that have been endangered by human activity and climate change.

    Field work in the natural sciences, like that conducted by Daltry and the Ocean Now project, document the importance, complexity, and fragility of Earths natural environments.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    adapt Verb

    to adjust to new surroundings or a new situation.

    amphibian Noun

    an animal able to live both on land and in water.

    anthropologist Noun

    person who studies cultures and characteristics of communities and civilizations.

    anthropology Noun

    science of the origin, development, and culture of human beings.

    Encyclopedic Entry: anthropology
    Antiguan racer Noun

    endangered species of snake found on the island of Antigua.

    beak Noun

    hard, protruding jaws of a bird.

    behavior Noun

    anything an organism does involving action or response to stimulation.

    biologist Noun

    scientist who studies living organisms.

    biology Noun

    study of living things.

    Charles Darwin Noun

    (1809-1882) British naturalist.

    chemistry Noun

    study of the atoms and molecules that make up different substances.

    climate change Noun

    gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.

    Encyclopedic Entry: climate change
    community Noun

    group of organisms or a social group interacting in a specific region under similar environmental conditions.

    complex Adjective


    conservation Noun

    management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.

    Encyclopedic Entry: conservation
    coral reef Noun

    rocky ocean features made up of millions of coral skeletons.

    cultural belief Noun

    faith or custom created and supported by a community's traditional behavior.

    culture Noun

    learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

    custom Noun

    a way of doing things that has been handed down from one generation to the next.

    data Plural Noun

    (singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.

    diet Noun

    foods eaten by a specific group of people or other organisms.

    Encyclopedic Entry: diet
    dynamic Adjective

    always changing or in motion.

    ecology Noun

    branch of biology that studies the relationship between living organisms and their environment.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ecology
    economics Noun

    study of monetary systems, or the creation, buying, and selling of goods and services.

    ecosystem Noun

    community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem
    ecosystem diversity Noun

    number of ecosystems present in a specific area.

    Enduring Voices Project Noun

    research project focused on studying, documenting, and preserving endangered languages.

    environment Noun

    conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

    ethnobotanist Noun

    person who studies how plants are used in different cultures for food, medicine, rituals, clothing, construction, etc.

    ethnographic Adjective

    having to do with the study of individual cultures and customs.

    evolution Noun

    process of how present types of organisms developed from earlier forms of life.

    extinct Adjective

    no longer existing.

    field work Noun

    scientific studies done outside of a lab, classroom, or office.

    Encyclopedic Entry: field work
    finch Noun

    small, common bird.

    food Noun

    material, usually of plant or animal origin, that living organisms use to obtain nutrients.

    Encyclopedic Entry: food
    fragile Noun

    delicate or easily broken.

    freshwater Noun

    water that is not salty.

    habitat Noun

    environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: habitat
    herpetologist Noun

    person who studies reptiles.

    history Noun

    study of the past.

    indigenous Adjective

    native to or characteristic of a specific place.

    institution Noun

    established organization or set of organizing principles.

    inventory Verb

    to list or evaluate.

    island Noun

    body of land surrounded by water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: island
    lab Noun

    (laboratory) place where scientific experiments are performed.

    language Noun

    set of sounds, gestures, or symbols that allows people to communicate.

    marine Adjective

    having to do with the ocean.

    medicine Noun

    substance used for treating illness or disease.

    National Geographic Society Noun

    (1888) organization whose mission is "Inspiring people to care about the planet."

    natural science Noun

    study that focuses on physicial characteristics, nature, and natural environments.

    natural selection Noun

    process by which organisms that are better adapted to their environment produce more offspring.

    observe Verb

    to watch.

    organism Noun

    living or once-living thing.

    origin Noun

    source or ancestry.

    particular Adjective

    unique or special.

    physical characteristic Noun

    physical feature of an organism or object.

    pillar Noun

    a structure used for support.

    plant Noun

    organism that produces its own food through photosynthesis and whose cells have walls.

    predator Noun

    animal that hunts other animals for food.

    process Noun

    natural or human actions that create and change the Earths features.

    propose Verb

    to present an idea for consideration.

    purpose Noun

    goal or aim.

    relate Verb

    to interact with or respond to.

    religious ceremony Noun

    rituals performed surrounding spiritual or supernatural beliefs.

    rely Verb

    to depend on.

    remote Adjective

    distant or far away.

    reptile Noun

    animal that breathes air and usually has scales.

    Siamese crocodile Noun

    freshwater reptile native to southeast Asia.

    social science Noun

    study that focuses on people, culture, and society.

    society Noun

    large community, linked through similarities or relationships.

    temperate Adjective


    theorize Verb

    to formulate and propose a group of ideas to explain a scientific question.

    theory Noun

    explanation that has not been proven as fact.

    tropical Adjective

    existing in the tropics, the latitudes between the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the Tropic of Capricorn in the south.

    variety Noun

    diversity or many different types.

    voyage Noun

    long journey or trip.

    Wade Davis Noun

    (1953present) Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist.

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