Remembering 2 U.S. ecologists and their work for the environment

Thomas Lovejoy in poncho next to huge branch with long green leaves in rainforest (© Antonio Ribeiro/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images)
Biologist Thomas Lovejoy in Amazonia, Brazil, in August 1989 (© Antonio Ribeiro/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images)

Two U.S. scientists who made major contributions to our understanding of the world and its ecosystems died at the end of 2021.

Edward O. Wilson, often called the heir to Charles Darwin, died December 26 in Massachusetts at 92.

Thomas E. Lovejoy, an ecologist and biologist who coined the term “biological diversity,” died from pancreatic cancer December 25 at his home in Virginia. He was 80.

Wilson, his ants and the environment

Edward Wilson posing beside ant images with ant models in his hand (© AP Images)
Edward O. Wilson, co-author of “The Ants,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, poses for a portrait June 10, 1991. (© AP Images)

Edward Wilson worked to build understanding of our “biodiverse planet in order to protect key species and avoid unintended destruction of the ecosystems that sustain our lives,” according to his foundation.

Wilson received a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1955 and joined its faculty in 1956. From there, he led research on the natural world, including some of the smallest life-forms.

Part of Wilson’s legacy is a greater understanding of the biological behavior of ants and the link between their genetic makeup and their social instincts.

“Each kind of ant has almost the equivalent of a different human culture,” he told PBS’s Nova in 2008. “So each species is a wonderful object to study in itself. In fact, I honestly cannot understand why most people don’t study ants.”

His groundbreaking book The Ants won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991. It was his second Pulitzer, following one for On Human Nature in 1979. In 2008, he also established the Encyclopedia of Life, a website to document each of Earth’s species.

Lovejoy: Advocate for rainforest conservation

Thomas Lovejoy posing for photo with sea turtle image behind him (© Dallas Kilponen/SMH/Fairfax Media/Getty Images)
Thomas Lovejoy, in Australia to discuss the problems with the world’s oceans as a guest of the World Wildlife Fund, on October 26, 2005 (© Dallas Kilponen/SMH/Fairfax Media/Getty Images)

Thomas Lovejoy was known for his work to conserve the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.

Lovejoy visited the Amazon rainforest for the first time during his Ph.D. research in biology at Yale University. There he was inspired to study the ecology of birds, leading to his lifelong work in environmental conservation.

“It was sheer fascination, and I gradually began to move from just doing science to doing science and environmental conservation,” he told a Brazilian scientific journal in 2015. “The Amazon is one of the most important places to work in the world.”

During his career, Lovejoy served as a U.S. Department of State science envoy from 2016 to 2018, focusing on biodiversity and wildlife conservation, with trips to Peru, Brazil, the Philippines, Malaysia and Colombia to speak with government officials, scientists and students. Lovejoy also worked with the Smithsonian Institution, the World Wildlife Fund and George Mason University, where he had been a professor since 2010.

Perhaps his most important work was the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project, a collaboration between the U.S. Smithsonian Institution and the Brazilian National Institute of Amazonian Research. The project began in 1979 and is, to date, the world’s largest and longest-running ecosystem experiment.

Lovejoy was also a major contributor to the first report of the Science Panel for the Amazon, which was presented at the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Climate Change Convention (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021.