John Acorn holding and inspecting a rock in a creek bed
Karen Kwan

Just for Fun

Take a Walk on the Wild Side

John Acorn, a.k.a. the Nature Nut, shares tips to embrace the great outdoors this summer

By Karen Kwan

July 21, 2023 •

Even before heading down the gravel path that leads to the Whitemud Creek Ravine, John Acorn, ’80 BSc(Spec), ’88 MSc, pauses to admire the dragonflies hovering overhead. A little way along the trail, he spots a subtle movement in the creek water — a leafy clump of green floating toward a beaver lodge. “There’s a muskrat carrying some sort of vegetation. It must be using the beaver lodge, along with the beavers.”

Acorn is a biologist and naturalist who teaches at the University of Alberta. From this ravine in the middle of Edmonton — one of his favourite local spots to seek out nature — his enthusiasm for nature is clear. He has researched and written extensively about the natural history of North America — and, in particular, Alberta — for more than 40 years. 

But it was the hit television program in the 1990s, Acorn: The Nature Nut, that made the lifelong Edmontonian an icon to people across the country and beyond. With his folksy charm and sense of adventure — along with a good dose of humour and original music — Acorn introduced viewers to ecosystems around the province and as far away as Costa Rica. He encouraged them to get outside and explore the world around them. 

Now, the much-loved series is seeing new life on YouTube and bringing its charms to a whole new generation, along with Acorn’s bird-watching series, Twits & Pishers

“Enthusiasm and excitement surrounding a topic breed more enthusiasm and excitement,” says Sydney Worthy, ’18 BSc(EnvSci), ’21 MSc, an entomologist for the City of Saskatoon. She is one of many U of A grads Acorn mentored as students over his 25-year teaching career. Worthy credits him with nurturing her fascination with insects.

“There’s a whole world of diversity out there, and I think he’s sort of a gateway into that.” 

Here are five ideas from the original Nature Nut to get you and your family excited about the natural world this summer.

Anyone can be a nature enthusiast 

“I think focusing on one aspect of the world at a time is a good approach,” says Acorn, who began studying butterflies and beetles before moving on to other species. Though, he cautions, it’s impossible to learn it all. In the Whitemud Creek Ravine, for example, he says there are more than 150 bird species alone. “We all finish up with a super partial understanding of the whole thing.” 

Enrich being outdoors with a little knowledge

By sharing his enthusiasm and knowledge through his TV show, Acorn says his goal was to spark an appreciation for nature: “Love or awareness or awe, just some kind of reaction, because most people walk along a trail like this and what do they see? They see the path and they see trees and that’s about it. … There’s just so much more going on here.” A walk is much more interesting, he says, when you recognize the whistle of a yellow warbler or the tiny holes in the ground tunnelled by tiger beetle larvae.

Try some tech 

Technology can boost our knowledge about nature, says Acorn, whether on an everyday walk or in a research study. Smartphone apps such as iNaturalist, for example, allow users to upload photos and observations about plants and wildlife to identify species. In his own research with students in the Department of Renewable Resources, he’s using drones and hydrophones to capture images and sound underwater, including the crackling and squeaking of plants during photosynthesis. And with cameras that can record fast-moving wildlife in ultra-slow motion, he’s discovered that local butterflies display a great range of flight styles, previously undetected. “I love that there’s so much technology available, relatively cheaply, that allows us to extend our senses.”

Share your enthusiasm

When Acorn reflects on a distinguished career and various accolades, including a Distinguished Alumni Award in 2005, he says sharing knowledge has been the most meaningful to him. Writing scientific papers isn’t the only way for scientists to contribute to their fields, he adds. “Providing moments — whether that’s exposure to certain things, to the world around us or exposure to ideas or particular kinds of questions — those are so important. Those are experiences that can change people’s trajectories.” He says the impact of such experiences often outlasts the importance of a scientific paper in a journal.

Watch out for wild things

Acorn, whose interests began with collecting bugs as a child, sometimes keeps creatures in his home for research. Right now, most of them are water beetles. Responsible husbandry of unusual pets, he says, can teach you all sorts of things about biology. It’s not without its hazards, though. “Years ago, I lost a beautiful gray-banded kingsnake in the house for almost a year,” he says. Then one day the three-foot-long reptile reappeared at the bottom of the stairs, healthy and happy. “Well, we never had any mice,” he laughs.

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