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Competently incompetent

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

We all have areas of great competence and areas of lesser competence. As an ecologist, I have good competence but when it comes to any specialty subject, I lack desired competence. We all fit this scenario with strengths and weaknesses.

Recently I came up with the descriptor “Competently Incompetent” and it even fits organisms in nature niches. Each organism has adaptations that help it excel in limited areas. When working with groups, I sometimes have people get their eye close to a tree to look for insects’ eggs or insects in the crevices of the bark from one-inch distance. All is blurry and we are incompetent at the task of finding eggs or insects from that close. Brown Creepers successfully hunt from one-inch distance. Their small eyes can focus that close.

It is a little embarrassing when I present programs to groups like garden, butterfly, plant, or bird clubs, where I have been introduced as Michigan’s premiere Lepidopterist, botanist, or ornithologist, when some of Michigan’s true premiere specialists for those subjects are in attendance.

They are researchers that seldom present public programs but spend 40 to 60 hours a week working in their specialty area in the field or laboratory. Their work is the source of information for my programs, as well as Nature Niche articles. My field and laboratory time is split among geological, plant, insect, bird, amphibian, reptile, mammal, fish, weather, soil studies and more. I annually attend conferences for specialty subjects to develop a better knowledge.

The result is that I have developed good competency in many subjects and am able to apply the knowledge for how ecosystems function. When attending special subject conferences, I realize I am a nitwit among renowned specialists from around the country and world. Actually, I have developed their respect because they know I am “Competently Incompetent.” No one can be competent in all areas. I turn to specialists for guidance and help for my areas of incompetence and that has earned their respect. They know I have enough competence to know where I am incompetent.

In my research at Bryce Canyon National Park, I collected three virgin tiger moths. When studying them in my summer lab at the park, I could not determine the species. I took them to an international conference of specialists and requested help from three scientists that work with tiger moths. All scratched their heads and said they could not identify them beyond the Genus Grammia. One requested to take them for study. He was specifically working with this Genus Grammia. He studied body structures (morphology), dissected genitalia (regularly used to distinguish species), and did DNA sequencing (like human DNA testing for paternity and crime solving). Even though they looked nearly identical to known species, he found they did not match any. He gathered the physical evidence necessary to describe a new species.

His next step was to publish a paper describing the new species in detail where he named the species Grammia brillians. I was competent enough recognize that I could not identify the insect and brought it to specialists.

Like “Dirty Harry” said in one of the movies, “You need to know your limitations.” I am not pleased with my limitations but I also know I have a strong, broad competence to speak to many organizations. I have earned the title as one of Michigan’s premiere scientists for several subjects. I know I am not truly premiere. For most nature enthusiasts, I might appear premiere. Do not sell yourself short. I am sure each reader has specific knowledge I lack. Continue spending time outside absorbing sights, sounds, smells, feel, and taste of nature. Join me sometime to teach me your discoveries and increase my knowledge.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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