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Inside The American Natural History Museum’s Plan To Double Down On Exploration

The globe might already be mapped. But in the midst of an extinction crisis, there’s still untold wildlife to discover. Can scientists catalog life on Earth before it’s too late?

The American Museum of Natural History that I and a large group of other explorers call home was established in a mid-19th-century world very different from ours today. Although by 1800, the global human population had reached 1 billion, the planet still seemed expansive, mysterious, and even intimidating. Large portions of the globe, including the continent of Antarctica, were poorly known or not known at all. Many important species, such as the Sumatran rhino, the blue whale, and the score of early fossil hominids directly related to our own species were yet to be discovered and scientifically described.

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Museums thus sponsored elaborate expeditions to exotic locales, the essence of the so-called “Golden Age of Exploration” that marked the 1800s and carried on into the first three decades of the 20th century. Exploration was feverish and productive, leading to the great collections of animal and plant specimens, the stupendous dinosaurs and other fossils, and the extraordinary treasures of human cultures that museum visitors can see on exhibit today. Yet the frontiers for exploration seemed boundless.

The research vessel Alucia explored the waters, mangrove forests, and coral reefs of Solomon Islands in 2013. © AMNH/J. Sparks

Things are clearly different now. In 2012, world population hit 7 billion, and, although the growth rate is declining, most models predict an increase to between 9 and 10 billion people by mid–century. Moreover, the consumption demands of this growing population—for food, shelter, land, water, and energy—have converted this planet into a gigantic, but suboptimal, human support system.

There’s even an oversized human footprint on the world’s most remote terrain. Antarctica, the coldest, driest, windiest, and most isolated continent, is now studded with field stations from 31 countries. Earth’s highest point, Mount Everest, a mountain so high it pokes into a layer of thin air that can barely sustain human life, has been climbed over 6,000 times. The Amazon rainforest, the greatest crucible of diverse species of animals and plants on Earth, is now threaded with roads leading to cities, farms, and logging operations. In the process, it’s lost over 300,000 square miles of pristine forest in the last 35 years–an area larger than Texas.

So, what does exploration mean today? What lies beyond the ranges in this familiar world? These are questions we grapple with every day, and to answer them, we need a new sense of the unexplored. At the Museum we have encapsulated this new adventure in a strategy called Explore 21, an effort to re-define and re-arm the 21st-century explorer with new technology that allows entry into secret worlds.

A green biofluorescent chain catshark (Scyliorhinus retifer) © AMNH/J. Sparks, D. Gruber, and V. Pieribone

The Museum has always been a center of exploration, the base camp for some 100 expeditions a year. But these efforts largely have been made by one or a few curators and small teams that represent a selected field—for example, ornithology or paleontology.

Explore 21 brings greater resources to large team, multidisciplinary efforts. These teams set out for destinations that represent highest priorities for exploration, such as areas barely, if ever, explored previously, areas of high biological diversity, or areas that contain highly endangered habitats and species that urgently require our attention. This allows us to tackle some of the broadest possible questions that relate to the goals for modern exploration: What are the major drivers of the evolution of diversity? What are the effects of global climate change on a diversity of species in habitats or regions? Why are the tropics so richly endowed with species?

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Operators observe submarine deployment from Alucia’s command center. © AMNH/E. Kim

What we’ve realized is that, as a scientific community, we seemed to have raced over foreign terrain in many cases too fast without (sometimes literally) looking at the ground. In 1812, the great naturalist Baron Georges Cuvier had declared that no more large mammals would be discovered in any part of the world. But the saola, a large deer-like creature, was discovered in the depths of a Vietnam forest in the 1990s. Likewise, today in the Amazon there are still myriad species left for science to discover, study, and describe.

Indeed, we estimate that the planet is the home to an unknown number of species, perhaps 10 million, or nearly 10 times more than we have entered in the great catalogue of life first undertaken by Aristotle. Our lack of this biological knowledge has been called a cultural embarrassment. (This becomes even more a deficit when we think of all the microbial organisms that form the endlessly humming, biological engine of the planet. How many of those species live out there? Or in us? We have no clear idea.) Clearly, there is still much to discover in places already formally explored, and science, armed with new technology, is the key to probing unknown territory.

Our inaugural Explore 21 expedition in 2013, consisting of over 20 scientists and technicians on a six week cruise onboard the research vessel Alucia, arrived at the remote Solomon Islands in the Pacific. The Solomon Islands were a perfect mission target for the team, which included scientists from the museum as well as from the City University of New York and Yale University.

R/V Alucia’s Triton 3300 submersible.© AMNH/CUNY/D. Gruber

The surrounding waters harbored pristine, virtually unexplored marine habitats. Onboard, scientists worked in laboratories equipped for isolating and studying microorganisms and collecting and storing DNA. For the first time, they could survey the invisible species vital to the ecosystem of these marine waters. Below the sea’s surface, the Alucia’s submersible vehicles, outfitted with cameras newly designed to capture bioluminescent and biofluorescent species, allowed scientists for the first time to record a whole new undersea world in unprecedented scale and detail.

Exciting and important results have already emerged from the journey. In a January 2014 publication, researchers reported over 180 species of biofluorescent fishes, attracting international media attention (see more in the video below). And because scientists currently know very little about the role that biofluorescence plays in the marine environment, these findings have both opened up a new field of scientific research and uncovered potentially novel fluorescent molecules that could one day advance biomedical and scientific research. Researchers are already planning the next phase of this work, which will involved integrating survey work, state-of-the-art scanning and imaging technology, and molecular analysis to reconstruct the evolutionary history of these new species and discover novel fluorescent proteins.

Our second Explore 21 expedition, a six-week expedition in the dense rain forests of Papua New Guinea that is wrapping up this November, is a combination of traditional bushwhacking and reliance on technology to access areas hardly reachable by explorers in the Golden Age. On the island, we’re using time-lapse photography to record the intricate social behaviors of certain bird species and other vertebrates for the first time. Inferred cameras will also give a window into the activities of many poorly known or yet unknown mammals that are active at night. The team is also collecting virus parasites in bats and other mammals and studying disease transmission, work that has important biomedical and evolutionary implications.

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Most importantly, this region in New Guinea surely promises to produce new and extraordinary species not found elsewhere, and for the first time, researchers will study them at the molecular level (a new flower discovered there in 2011 is the only night-blooming orchid out of the 25,000 known species of orchids and is only known from one plant!). Historically, New Guinea has been the site of important field studies of extraordinary bird groups, such as birds-of-paradise and orb weavers, that led to key insights concerning the broader process of how new species evolve and distribute themselves within an island ecosystem. Nonetheless, the target region of our new expedition is virtually unexplored: For example, based on surveys to date, we estimate that we’ve only discovered less than half of the species of reptiles and amphibians on the island.

The sub has a large acrylic sphere that houses the cockpit, giving scientists a wide range of vision. © AMNH/CUNY/D. Gruber

All of this is just a start. We recently started accepting proposals for our 2015 Explore 21 expedition, and the current plan is to support at least one such project each year. Discoveries of living species, important fossils, new geological phenomena, and buried archaeological treasures still await in many places around the world, even places that are often assumed to be familiar territory. In the case of biodiversity projects, this is not just a matter of taking a census; we are not just interested in what these species are and how they distinguish themselves, but how they have evolved, how they secure energy, how they interact with other species and thus how they perform the services to ecosystems that are vital to life, including human life.

Modern exploration is also a matter of urgency. Explore 21 and other such enterprises are spurred by the desire to know more about the natural world before it is too late. For example, the reefs of the Solomon Islands are susceptible to the pollution due to increasing industrial activities onshore and coral bleaching due to the increase in ocean temperatures that comes with global warming. New Guinea’s forests are being invaded by logging and mining operations of major scale, and poaching of rare and precious animals and plants is a constant problem.

The destruction of rain forests, coral reefs, and wetlands in these locales and others worldwide means the loss of many species alone. This loss is multiplied by the coming double-whammy of global climate change. Scientists predict that we could lose anywhere from 30% to 40% of all species on Earth by the end of this century, a mass extinction event comparable to the great extinction events of past, including the catastrophe that wiped out all the dinosaurs (except their bird descendants). Climate change also has impact on human survival, sustainability, and even human cultures. Museum anthropologists are studying the ways in which the sea level rise is affecting the lives and traditions of peoples that inhabit small, low-lying islands in the Pacific.

Modern exploration is thus more than an effort to move science forward. It is a way of seeing the world for what it is, a reality check in this the most important environmental century of the history of the human species.

About the author

Michael Novacek is Senior Vice President and Provost of Science and Curator of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. His research interests, which primarily concern the evolution and history of mammals, has taken him on field expeditions to places such as Mongolia, Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Africa, and the Rocky Mountain region of the United States.

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