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groovedaddy Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jan-17-11 02:45 PM
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Dying for Discovery
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 didnt 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, thats Gongora, as casually as if he had just spotted an old friend on a city street.

The teams birder, 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 sneakers 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 Ive 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, and died in the morning. It was beautiful forest, a survivor, Parkers fiance, 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 18th and 19th 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 G.P.S. devices, or anti-malarial drugs, or any of the other safety measures we now consider routine.
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