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Dying for Discovery

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 17, 2011

Members of the Dutch Commission on route to New Guinea

The second column in my “Specimens” series, based on my book The Species Seekers, appears today in the New York Times

Almost 20 years ago now, in western Ecuador, I traveled with a team of extraordinary biologists studying a remnant of forest as it was being hacked down around us.  Al Gentry, a gangling figure in a grimy t-shirt and jeans frayed from chronic tree-climbing, was a botanist whose strategy toward all hazards was to pretend that they didn’t exist.  At one point, a tree came crashing down beside him after he lost his footing on a slope.  Still on his back, he reached out for an orchid growing on the trunk and said, “Oh, that’s Gongora,” as casually as if he had just spotted an old friend ona city street.

The team’s ornithologist, Ted Parker, specialized in identifying bird species by sound alone.  He started his work day before dawn, standing in the rain under a faded umbrella, his Converse sunk to their high-tops in mud, whispering into a microcassette recorder about what he was hearing:  “Scarlet-rumped cacique … a fasciated antshrike … two more pairs of Myrmeciza immaculata counter-singing.  Dysithamnus puncticeps chorus, male and female …”

Gentry and Parker come to mind just now because I’ve been thinking about how often naturalists have died in the pursuit of new species.  A couple of years after that trip, the two of them were back in the same region making an overflight when their pilot became disoriented in the clouds and

flew into a mountaintop forest.  They lingered there overnight, trapped in the wreckage, then died in the morning.  “It was beautiful forest,” a survivor, Parker’s fiancée, later told a reporter, “and they were very happy.  Lots of birds.”

In truth, the history of biological discovery is a chronicle of such hazards faced not just willingly, but with a kind of joy.  In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, young naturalists routinely shipped out for destinations that must have seemed almost as remote as the moon is to us now, often traveling not for days, but for months or years.  They went of course without GPS devices, or anti-malarial drugs, or any of the other safety measures we now consider routine.

Disease was the unrelenting killer.  But death also came by drowning, shipwreck, gun accidents, snakebites, animal attacks, arsenic poisoning, ritual beheading, or almost any other means you care to name.  In California on his honeymoon, one birder rigged a safety rope and climbed a tall pine tree to reach a nest.  But the rope slipped when he fell and he choked to death as his bride looked on.   On expeditions to what is now Indonesia for the Dutch Natural History Commission, 11 naturalists died over a period of 30 years.   Zoologist Gerrit van Raalten, for instance, miraculously survived an attack by a Javan rhino, only to succumb a few years later to one of the usual ignominious tropical diseases.   Heinrich Macklot became so enraged, on seeing his collections destroyed by fire during a Chinese insurgency in Java, that he launched a counterattack, in which he was speared to death.  And yet other naturalists soon followed to take up the cause.  (See slide show.)

Survival had its own perils:  Rumphius, a seventeenth century naturalist in the East Indies, was struck blind at 42, lost his wife and daughter to an earthquake, saw his collections destroyed by fire, sent off the first half of his magnum opus on a ship that sank, and finally, after re-doing his work, found that his employer meant to keep it proprietary.  (Happily, Rumphius’s Ambonese Herbal will be published in English for the first time this spring, only 300 years too late.)

No doubt the species seekers undertook such risks partly for the adventure.  (“Hunted by a tiger when moth-catching,” one wrote. “Hunt tigers myself.”)   They also clearly loved the natural world.   “I trembled with excitement as I saw it coming majestically toward me,” Alfred Russel Wallace wrote, of a spectacular butterfly in the East Indies, “& could hardly believeI had really obtained it till I had taken it out

Wallace's prize butterfly

of my net and gazed upon its gorgeous wings of velvet black & brilliant green, its golden body & crimson breast … I have certainly never seen a more gorgeous insect.”  Naturalists were also caught up body and soul in the great intellectual enterprise of collecting, classifying, and coming to terms with the diversity of life on Earth.

It would be difficult to overstate how profoundly they changed the world along the way.  Many of us are alive today, for instance, because naturalists identified obscure species that later turned out to cause malaria, yellow fever, typhus, and other epidemic diseases; other species provided treatments and cures.   And a month after capturing that butterfly, Wallace pulled together the ideas that had been piling up during his years of field work and, trembling with malarial fever, wrote Darwin the proposal that would become their joint theory of evolution by natural selection.

This brings me to a small proposal:  We go to great lengths commemorating soldiers who have died fighting wars for their countries.  Why not do the same for the naturalists who still sometimes give up everything in the effort to understand life?  (Neither would diminish the sacrifice of the other.  In fact, many early naturalists were also soldiers, or, like Darwin aboard HMS. Beagle, were embedded with military expeditions.)  With that in mind, I constructed a very preliminary Naturalists’ Wall of the Dead for my book The Species Seekers, to at least assemble the names in one place.

But it also occurs to me that they might prefer to be remembered some other way than on a stone monument, or on paper  So here is another idea:  On their first trip as part of Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program, Gentry and Parker helped bring international attention to an Amazonian region of incredible, and unsuspected, diversity.  (Parker found 16 parrot species there and projected that it might be home to 11 percent of all bird species on Earth.)  As a result in 1995, Bolivia created the Madidi National Park, protecting 4.5 million acres, an area the size of New Jersey, and all the species within it.  Peru soon designated the adjacent slope of the Andes as the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, protecting an additional 802,750 acres.

Like many species seekers, Gentry and Parker did not live to see their discoveries bear fruit.    But I am pretty sure that this would be their idea of a fitting memorial.

Honoring the dead is good.  We can start by protecting the living.

6 Responses to “Dying for Discovery”

  1. Lili Bartes said

    What a wonderful article. I was simultaneously sadden and awed.

  2. Sohan said

    Brilliantly written!

  3. Here’s a photo series of Gentry and other naturalists in the field in 1978. Typically, Gentry is getting stitched up in front of a restaurant:

  4. […] Species Seekers, Rogues, and Heroes in the News Dying for Discovery […]

  5. susan archer said

    Is Steve Erwin of Australia and the world not considered a naturalist? He certainly died while at work.

  6. AZHAR AZIZ said

    Any One Has Pictures Of Gibbons, John R.H. (1946-1986), herpetologist, described several species of lizards in Fiji, including the spectacular Fiji Island iguana. Died, age 40, along with his entire family in a boating accident off the island of Lekeba

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