Species seekers: crazies for the environment

The Takeaway

This story was originally covered by PRI’s The Takeaway. For more, listen to the audio above.

The environmental movement and humanity in general owes a debt of gratitude to “species seekers” — people who risk their lives to discover new species of plants and animals. Richard Conniff, author of the book The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth, believes these people are heroes. He told PRI’s The Takeaway, “They take tremendous risks, and they often do it for stuff the rest of us consider trivial and laugh at a little bit.”

They’re also crazy, according to Conniff, who worked with many throughout his 30 years writing about animals for publications such as National Geographic. He says, “I spent a lot of time out in the field with people who were actually doing species-seeking work, and I can tell you they’re crazy, from first-hand experience.”

He tells the story of one who wanted to bust through a flaming barricade, in pursuit of botany.

One species seeker particularly admired by Conniff was Thomas Say, who discovered the species of mosquito responsible for the malaria that plagued much of the Eastern United States. Others are responsible for the discovery that species can, in fact, go extinct.

“They wound up transforming all kinds of things about our view of the world and ourselves,” Conniff says. They’re even, in some ways, responsible for the theory of evolution. “We think that’s all Darwin, but in fact,” according to Conniff, “Darwin himself credited a huge army of species seekers who had discovered all kinds of species that he used in forming his research.”

The pursuit is also open to anyone. Conniff says it’s possible to “discover a new species in your backyard.” It’s been done before. At least one species of ant was discovered in the front yard of a museum. And new species are being discovered all the time.

“The Takeaway” is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what’s ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.

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