Ecologist Tom Lovejoy is being remembered for his decades of research and bringing people together to protect the Amazon rainforest and other ecosystems on the planet.

Remembering Tom Lovejoy, champion of biodiversity and the Amazon

Tom Lovejoy, along with his colleague EO Wilson, shaped humanity’s understanding of biodiversity and the importance of keeping vital ecosystems intact.

Living on Earth

Ecologist Tom Lovejoy is being remembered for his decades of research and bringing people together to protect the Amazon rainforest and other ecosystems on the planet.

Courtesy of Carmen Thorndike

Biologist Tom Lovejoy, who dedicated his career to studying tropical rainforests and communicating the biodiversity crisis to the public, died on Dec. 25, 2021.

Over the years, Lovejoy hosted politicians — including Vice President Al Gore, and celebrities, such as Olivia Newton-John and Tom Cruise — at Camp 41, a research station deep in the Amazon, where people slept in hammocks to reduce the odds of scorpions creeping into their sleeping bags.

Lovejoy first went to the Amazon as a graduate student. His initial work focused on birds, but he fell in love with the entire rainforest, says Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist and Oregon State University distinguished professor who worked with Lovejoy for over 50 years.

At the time, logging was increasing in the Amazon and Lovejoy quickly understood the potential threat it posed to the health of the rainforest ecosystems, not only to the birds that he cared about, but to the mammals, insects and trees, Lubchenco says.

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Lovejoy was inspired by the work that EO Wilson, Robert MacArthur and Dan Simberloff had done on island biogeography, and he started wondering how the size of forest parcels that remain in the rainforest after logging affects biodiversity.

At the time, there was a "raging controversy" in the conservation world, called the SLOSS debate," Lubchenco says. SLOSS is an acronym for "Single Large Or Several Small" parcels. “The question was, if you are in a position of creating habitat for biodiversity, is it better to have one single large parcel — let’s say 10 acres, just for the sake of argument — or 10 smaller, 1-acre parcels,” she explains.

One side argued that if land is conserved as a single parcel, then wildfire and disease could wipe out the whole thing. If conserved land is divided up into smaller parcels, then at least some of them might persist. The opposing idea posited that some of the large, mobile creatures — panthers, for example — might need a large habitat to survive. Dividing the land into smaller parcels might lead to the loss of these big, charismatic species.

“Tom said, ‘Let's test this idea,’” Lubchenco says. “This is the scientific approach. So he worked with colleagues in Brazil, worked with landowners and the government, and created this experiment that is still ongoing today.”

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The experiment, called the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project, began in 1979 with the support of the Smithsonian and Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research.

“[Tom's] experiments have given us a huge amount of information about how size of the parcel affects the type of species that are there and the health of the whole system."

Jane Lubchenco, deputy director for climate and environment, US White House

“The experiment was essentially to create parcels that were one, ten, or a hundred hectares, and then follow them through time and see how the biodiversity changed in those parcels,” Lubchenco explains. “Those experiments have given us a huge amount of information about how size of the parcel affects the type of species that are there and the health of the whole system. And in fact, there is no doubt that larger parcels are better. So, that early experiment of Tom's has yielded a huge amount of information that is guiding conservation action today.”

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Lovejoy was a gifted communicator who understood people and how to connect with them, Lubchenco notes.

"Part of Tom's legacy is this gift that he had for sharing the excitement, enthusiasm and passion that he had for nature with others, and training them in this vision of respecting nature, protecting nature, living with nature.”

Jane Lubchenco, deputy director for climate and environment, US White House

“He understood what would be of interest to someone, and he would very carefully make an argument to someone about why they should be interested in the Amazon or biodiversity or birds or whatever it was,” she says. “So, part of Tom's legacy is this gift that he had for sharing the excitement, enthusiasm and passion that he had for nature with others, and training them in this vision of respecting nature, protecting nature, living with nature.”

Lovejoy also understood the importance of connecting with local people, Lubchenco adds. He conducted much of his work in the Amazon alongside Brazilian students and Brazilian scientists, and he invited Brazilian politicians to Camp 41.

“So, it was not a nature vs. people thing. It was very holistic,” she says. “Now there are many, many young Brazilian scientists that are spectacular, in part because they sort of got their start with Tom.”

Lubchenco spent a lot of time with Lovejoy at his home, which he named Drover's Rest, in McLean, Virginia.

“It was a very special place,” she says. “He often would have dinners there. Fantastic food, great wine. … He would gather unusual groups of people together and have these engaging conversations. Always a fire in the wintertime, a fire going in the fireplace in this old cabin that had a lot of character. Tom was such a gifted host. Everybody would be comfortable, but he had given a lot of thought to the people he was introducing to one another, so it wasn't just the same group.”

“[Tom] was always matchmaking, and always with the idea of stimulating conversation that would be intriguing, interesting — we could learn from one another — but also result in some higher purpose focused on conservation, on nature, on big ideas, on getting something done.”

Jane Lubchenco, deputy director for climate and environment, US White House

“Oftentimes, when I would be there, everybody was new to me or I might know only one other person,” she continues. “He was always matchmaking, and always with the idea of stimulating conversation that would be intriguing, interesting — we could learn from one another — but also result in some higher purpose focused on conservation, on nature, on big ideas, on getting something done.”

In addition to Lovejoy, Lubchenco worked with another influential naturalist who died just a day apart from him — EO Wilson. Both were gifted scientists who took very different paths, she says.

“Ed was an academic who [made] just one discovery after another after another, and then he came around to appreciating the biodiversity crisis and being a leader in saving biodiversity,” Lubchenco says. “[Tom] was more a scientific adviser, a scientific communicator, an instigator of new conservation-oriented things. So, different paths, but they ended up very much in the same place — of being champions for biodiversity and eloquent communicators through their writings, through their speaking, to motivate people to care about nature and to help be part of the solution.”

This article is based on an interview by Steve Curwood that aired on Living on Earth from PRX.