Four Environmental Scientists Who Changed Our Understanding Of The World

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Jane Goodall, Primatologist

When Jane Goodall entered the forest of Gombe for the first time, the world knew very little about chimpanzees. Equipped with little more than a notebook, binoculars, and her fascination for wildlife, she braved a realm of unknowns to give the world a remarkable window into humankind’s closest living relatives. She took an unorthodox approach in her field research, immersing herself in their habitat and their lives to experience their complex society as a neighbor rather than a distant observer, and coming to understand them not only as a species, but also as individuals with emotions and long-term bonds.

Her discovery in 1960 that chimpanzees make and use tools is considered one of the greatest achievements of 20th century scholarship. Through more than 50 years of groundbreaking work, Dr. Jane Goodall has shown us the urgent need to protect chimpanzees from extinction and redefined species conservation to include the needs of local people and the environment.

Sylvia Earle, Oceanographer

Sylvia Earle speaks of our oceans with wonder and amazement. She has spent more than 7,000 hours underwater — exploring, documenting, learning and raising awareness about ‘the blue heart of the planet’. Earle has led more than 80 expeditions in the ocean and she was the captain of the first all-female team to live underwater in 1970. She has done pioneering research on algae, probed the ecology of coral reefs, and tracked marine mammals.

In 1979, Sylvia Earle walked untethered on the seafloor at a lower depth than any living human being before or since. In the so-called Jim suit, a pressurized one-atmosphere garment, she was carried by a submersible to the depth of 1,250 feet below the ocean’s surface off of the island of Oahu. Today, she’s lobbying to establish a global network of marine protected areas.

Biruté Mary Galdikas, Conservationist

Biruté Mary Galdikas was the first to document the long orangutan birth interval which averaged 7.7 years at Tanjung Puting. She observed flanged adult males in combat, consortships and even wild orangutans giving birth. For four decades, Galdikas has studied and worked closely with the orangutans of Indonesian Borneo in their natural habitat, and has always been concerned with their conservation. Over the years, the rehabilitation program she first set up in Kalimantan led to the release of over 450 wild born ex-captive orangutans into the wild.

Today, the situation facing wild orangutans is far more complicated than when Galdikas first began her studies. As a result of poaching and habitat destruction, viable orangutan populations are on the edge of extinction and could be gone within the next 20 years. Biruté Mary Galdikas continues to work to save orangutans and forests, and to bring orangutans and their plight to the attention of the world.

Nancy Knowlton, Coral Reef Biologist

Nancy Knowlton’s research interests lie in determining the biodiversity of coral reefs and in protecting these fragile habitats. Her work has taken her across the tropics, from the Caribbean to the Cape Verde Islands, and from the Red Sea to the remote reefs of the Central Pacific. The Census of Marine Life project, of which Knowlton is a partner, is striving to find standardized and easily automated methods to take a global census of the biodiversity of coral reefs and results so far suggest the diversity is truly enormous.

Knowlton’s current research uses state-of-the-art genetic methods combined with globally standardized sampling to explore the hidden diversity that has been ignored by traditional approaches. And this is a race against time as increasing ocean temperatures and acidification are devastating coral reefs around the world.

By The Beam Editor-in-Chief Anne-Sophie Garrigou.

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