On the Importance of Expeditions to Science

21 April 2017
Posted by Iris Berger.

A biologist of the 20th century is stereotypically envisaged as a man with a beard and pith helmet, heroically fighting his way through uncharted lands to catch and describe new species. On the other hand, a biologist of the 21st century is pictured in a white coat, bent over a microscope, in a sterile laboratory. I frequently hear people say that the great age of biological exploration is over. This seems paradoxical to me, considering that the 1.9 million animal and plant species that have thus far been described represent a tiny fraction of the 8.75 million species that are estimated to live on our planet: there is clearly huge scope for further discovery. 

The most important difference between exploration in the 20th century and exploration today, is that we are now in a race against time. Due to climate change, overpopulation, overharvesting, habitat destruction, and poaching, ecosystems are being destroyed before they can be studied, and species are becoming extinct before they can be described. This is why it is absolutely vital to encourage young biologists to conduct high-impact expeditions. As a Biological Sciences undergraduate student, I am aware that fieldwork is limited within degree programmes. Field ecology courses are typically local, often within the university campus itself; thus, a holistic approach towards expedition planning and experimental design is often lacking. In many instances traditional taxonomy is barely taught, but being able to identify species in the field is vital to ecological and conservational studies. Receiving outstanding grades for theoretical courses at university, and producing excellent fieldwork, are two very different things. However, in order to be a great ecologist or zoologist, one must achieve both.

After my first year of study, I went on an expedition to the Peruvian Amazon, to investigate the effects of climate change on biodiversity. Whilst it was an absolutely fantastic experience, I felt that the knowledge I had acquired at university was not of much use to me in the field. Our Peruvian guides could spot and identify tiny camouflaged animals hidden in the green maze of trees, whilst my fellow students and I were oblivious. To me this illustrates two points: firstly, that local field assistants are essential to most expeditions, and receive far too little credit; and secondly, that becoming a skilled field biologist is dependent on your own initiative. If your dream is to do meaningful research in the least explored corners of our planet, then pack the toilet paper yourself, and plan your own expedition.

Straight after volunteering in the Amazon, I cycled across Bolivia. Whilst there was no academic aspect, it taught me a lot about the logistics of planning an expedition: what equipment to take, how much food to bring, were to find water sources, how to navigate, and how to deal with emergency situations in remote areas. All these skills turned out to be extremely useful when I went on my latest expedition: a “Megatransect” of Sumatra. This entailed walking across the Indonesian island, whilst recording all bird and mammal species encountered, to assess how changing land use affected species diversity. Our original plan was to spend part of the time in a remote unexplored valley in the Leuser National Park. This well-known reserve is home to tigers, orang-utans, elephants, and rhinoceros However, we had to abandon our original plan once we reached Sumatra, as the red tape required that we would have had to take three government officials with us - people with no field experience, who presence would have severely hindered the expeditions. We also heard rumours that illegal logging and poaching had occurred within the valley that we had planned to study. This demonstrates how unbelievably important it is to research vulnerable areas before they vanish without record. In light of this information, we decided to travel to a forest further north, an unresearched, and possibly completely unexplored area. During the two weeks that we spent in the forest we noticed its remarkable biodiversity, ranging from hornbills and gibbons to tiger paw-prints and endangered orchids. However, on our first day of hiking we encountered poachers: two young men with rifles and about thirty dead bulbuls - a brightly coloured forest bird - hanging over their shoulders. We were told to smile and keep walking.


My second encounter with poaching occurred whilst I was planning an upcoming expedition to study chimpanzees. I had originally hoped to study Bili apes, the chimpanzees of the Bili Forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which are larger and reputably more aggressive than the members of other chimpanzee populations. However, I was told that it is currently impossible to study the Bili chimpanzees, as research would lead poachers to the group, endangering the chimpanzees’ lives and mine. Instead, I will now be studying chimpanzee diet and tool-use in two forests in Uganda. The chimpanzee community in one of the forests is barely researched, but the forest they live in is shrinking at an alarming rate. Additionally, about 40% of the chimpanzees suffer from snare injuries caused by bush meat traps. Different chimpanzee populations have distinct cultures and unique behaviours, meaning that the disappearance of an unresearched wild population is not just a tragedy in its own right, but reduces our ability to learn more about the cultural and social evolution of our own species.

I am not saying that lab work and computer modelling are not essential to biological research, but that fieldwork has become undervalued at a time when it is most vital, and that thanks to technological advances it can now be conducted more safely and with greater academic impact than ever before. Young biologists should be inspired to study and protect the last unresearched places before human encroachment causes them to slip away unnoticed.

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