New at Earlham: Nathen Peck is one of North America’s youngest certified animal trackers
November 19, 2020
No animals in sight? No problem. By examining a few pawprints or scratches on the bark of a tree, Nathen Peck is on his way to picturing an entire ecosystem.
Since the age of 16, Peck has become a skilled observer in animal movement and behavior by earning certification in wildlife tracking and sign notification by CyberTracker North America. The credential, which is shared by just about 1,000 people in the United States and Canada, is sought after by experts in the areas of ecology and conservation seeking to better understand the natural world.
“Tracking is like reading stories on a landscape,” said Peck, an aspiring ornithologist from Rathdrum, Idaho, who enrolled at Earlham earlier this year as part of the Class of 2024. “It’s not often that we cross paths with an animal or share space with them at the same time. It’s fascinating to see the traces they have left behind.”
Though the name CyberTracker might suggest otherwise, Peck is unencumbered by technology when he is in the wilderness. The organization is named after the software that was developed in the 1990s and used by indigenous trackers in southern Africa who were unable to read and write but used technology to document field observations and contribute to wildlife research.
“The CyberTracker name is misleading in North America,” Peck said. “There’s a real connection between the arts and sciences with the kind of tracking I do because a lot of knowledge and imagination is needed to understand animal behavior. It’s a more comprehensive and wider way of thinking about science.”
While his passion for animal tracking didn’t attract Peck to Earlham, a chance encounter with an Earlham graduate did. So did the Joseph Moore Museum, Earlham’s natural history museum.
“I was in line to board a ferry on the coast of Washington,” Peck said. “The guy in front of me had a Cornell lab of ornithology sticker on his car and I asked him, ‘Oh wow, do you like birds?’ He found out I was going to college and he told me he went to this place in Indiana called Earlham.”
Peck notes that he only considered colleges with natural history museums on their campus. Earlham was by far the furthest away from home that he applied to.
“I really enjoy biology and art and I knew that Earlham would let me study both,” Peck said. “I don’t know if I consider myself an artist, but museums are where that combination of science and art often come together.”
In his first year on campus, Peck has already been hired by the museum and will develop and lead eco tours for visitors as part of his duties. He hopes his new role will give the public a better understanding of what tracking is and isn’t.
“Tracking is often portrayed in movies by characters who lick the ground or smell the air to interpret nature,” he said. “That’s not necessarily how that works. There are a lot of ways to find clues in the wilderness.
“It’s also really nice to go out and track with other people,” he said. ‘If you only track by yourself, you’re always right. You may have one interpretation and someone may have another. It’s neat to merge different interpretations together.”
Despite the limited numbers of people who have earned certifications from Cyber Tracker, Peck said tracking is still accessible for everyday outdoor enthusiasts.
Meet more students from the Class of 2024
“I don't want tracking to seem like this thing that you need a lot of time and commitment to learn when there are so many layers to it, some being very accessible and introductory,” he said.
After growing up in a remote part of Idaho, Peck has also learned to appreciate a different part of the country not often celebrated for its wildlife.
“When people think about wildlife, they think of these really wild places like where I grew up in Idaho,” Peck said. “They think you have to have substantial forests where bears and cougars live.
“That’s not true,” he said. “It’s interesting to come to a larger city like Richmond and experience a more settled and urbanized wild. I can go out in nature and say, ‘Oh, this is where a cat was hunting frogs. This is where the racoons walk every day.’ I have grown to appreciate how smaller, city-like animals live.”
Brian Zimmerman, director of media relations