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15 Naturalists Who Died in the Field

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Biological fieldwork can be grueling—and often dangerous. Countless researchers and support staff have died in the pursuit of knowledge that could protect vulnerable places and species, and enable people to live safer, healthier lives.

Journalist Richard Conniff, author of The Species Seekers, has compiled a “Wall of the Dead” on his blog to memorialize scientists, naturalists, and conservationists killed in the field. We’ve picked out just a handful of the dozens of names from that list. They are people whose passion and dedication to their profession ultimately cost them their lives. In some cases, they anticipated the risks. In others, they most definitely did not. Visit Conniff's full list for a fascinating, and often somber, dive into the lives of these explorer-naturalists.

1. MARGARITA METALLINOU // ZAMBIA, 2015

Margarita Metallinou, a 29-year-old evolutionary biologist and herpetologist, had been working in Zambia’s Kafue National Park, studying the impacts of climate change on the area’s reptiles. While in the field with two colleagues one afternoon, she suddenly spotted an elephant charging toward them. Her scream warned the others, who were able to outrun the elephant. But Metallinou was trampled to death.

2. DIAN FOSSEY // RWANDA, 1985

Who killed Dian Fossey? The 53-year-old American primatologist studied and protected mountain gorillas on the Rwandan side of the border with a passionate love and ferocity that no one disputes earned her many enemies. Yet her 1985 murder in the Virunga Mountains remains unsolved more than 30 years later.

Fossey was known for confronting poachers, even going so far as to kidnap the child of a tribesman who had snatched a baby gorilla (both the child and gorilla were returned unharmed). One of Fossey’s student researchers and a former employee were ultimately charged with her murder. The student fled back to the United States; convicted in absentia by a Rwandan court after only a 40-minute trial, he has long insisted that he was a scapegoat. The tracker was later found hanged in his jail cell. But other theories emerged in the years following her death that cast suspicion on political elites involved in animal trafficking and those threatened by her opposition to ecotourism, which she feared would be detrimental to the endangered gorillas.

Fossey is often credited with bringing the plight of the mountain gorillas to the public. Through her research and engagement with media, she generated sympathy for gorillas and showed people that they were not the savage, violent beasts they’d been portrayed as, but curious, human-like creatures. Fossey’s legacy continues in the nonprofit conservation organization she founded, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. Three years after her murder, Fossey’s story was brought to the big screen in the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist, starring Sigourney Weaver.

3. JOHN CASSIN // UNITED STATES, 1869

A leading 19th-century ornithologist, John Cassin described nearly 200 bird species, several of which bear his name. He authored several volumes on birds identified in his travels, from North America to Chile to Japan. Cassin was a methodical taxonomist, working tirelessly as curator of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. He died at 55—not due to some misadventure in the field, but from arsenic poisoning, the result of decades of handling bird skins preserved with the chemical.

4. SAFARI KAKULE // DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO, 2009

In some places, conservation work is inherently dangerous. That’s certainly the case for the Congolese park rangers who protect endangered gorillas in Virunga National Park as violence flares endlessly around them. Since the 1994 Rwandan genocide prompted more than a million refugees to flee across the border and plunged the Congo into conflict, the park has been caught between armed groups seeking control of territory and generating revenue from deforestation, illegal crops, and poaching.

The rangers here do what’s been described as the most dangerous conservation job in the world: At least 140 have been killed in the past two decades, while hundreds more park staff and their families have been displaced. One of those killed was Safari Kakule, a young ranger who colleagues say showed the characteristic dedication of Virunga rangers determined to defend imperiled gorillas and other vulnerable wildlife despite low wages and constant danger.

In 2009, rebels attacked a ranger station in a section of the park that served as a refuge for 18 endangered eastern lowland gorillas. They killed the 33-year-old Kakule, shown here observing a male gorilla in the field the year before his death.

5. JEAN BAPTISTE AUGUSTE ETIENNE CHARCOT // ICELAND, 1936

Jean Baptiste Charcot left his career as a physician to become an oceanographer and polar explorer; this transition was made easier by the inheritance he had received from his father. At a time when interest in the polar regions was increasing, Charcot made several expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic. He charted South Pole islands and led a series of summer expeditions to the Arctic. In September 1936, at age 69, he was shipwrecked off the coast of Iceland during a storm. Only one man survived; Charcot perished along with more than 30 others.

6. JOY ADAMSON // KENYA, 1980

Millions of fans know conservationist Joy Adamson from her 1960 bestselling memoir Born Free and its subsequent film adaptation. The book and film chronicle how Adamson and her game-warden husband, George, raised an orphaned lion cub at a Kenyan national park and eventually reintroduced it to the wild to save it from being removed to a zoo. The book and film helped shift public opinion about lions from dangerous predator to noble, imperiled creatures. It also stirred some controversy about the ethics of returning a semi-tamed animal to the wild.

Joy Adamson’s life ended violently at 69: she was found murdered at her camp in Lake Naivasha, not far from Nairobi in the Great Rift Valley. A former employee, a teenager named Paul Nakware Ekai, confessed and was convicted of the crime. Almost a quarter of a century later, Ekai claimed he had acted in self-defense after Adamson shot him in the leg. He claimed he had been tortured into confessing. But the following year, Ekai changed his story again, denying any involvement in the murder.

Nine years later, her husband and his two Kenyan assistants were shot and killed by poachers who ambushed their Land Rover.

7. GREGORY FELZIEN // UNITED STATES, 1992

For most of the 20th century, federal predator control programs all but eliminated mountain lions [PDF] from Yellowstone National Park. But by the 1990s, a small mountain lion population had reestablished itself in the park. Gregory Felzien, a 26-year-old biologist, was part of a University of Idaho team studying the lions. He was killed in February 1992—not by a lion, but in an avalanche.

Felzien had snowshoed to the base of Mount Norris in pursuit of a radio-collared mountain lion he was studying. According to the book Death in Yellowstone, Felzien paused in a steep drainage when the avalanche, 100 yards long, 10 yards wide and five feet deep, buried most of his body. He died before rescuers reached him.

8. PLINY THE ELDER // PRESENT-DAY ITALY, 79 CE

Roman military commander and naturalist Pliny the Elder produced several major writings, the most famous of which is the 37-volume Natural History. This expansive set of texts includes vast explorations of astronomy, geography, zoology, botany, geology, and medicine. The encyclopedic collection was a mixture of fact, observation, and superstition, but for centuries it was considered the authoritative text on the sciences (until the scientific method called into question its more speculative conclusions).

Pliny was commanding a fleet in the Bay of Naples in 79 CE when word arrived of a strange cloud emanating from Mount Vesuvius a short distance away. It turned out to be the massive volcanic eruption that destroyed the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Pliny took to the shore to investigate and rescue a friend. He was killed by the powerful volcanic gases (or possibly a heart attack). He was 56.

9. NOEL KEMPFF MERCADO // BOLIVIA, 1986

On the fateful September day in 1986 when Noel Kempff Mercado landed in the Amazon Basin near the Bolivian border with Brazil, he and his colleagues thought they’d arrived at an abandoned air strip. The 62-year-old Mercado was a prominent Bolivian biologist and conservationist. He had traveled to the remote province to explore the newly-designated Huanchaca National Park, a vibrant wilderness area that contained an abundance of biodiverse habitats largely unknown to the outside world. Kempff Mercado had long advocated for its protection.

But the abandoned airstrip turned out to be a cocaine factory, and its guards killed Kempff Mercado along with a colleague and the pilot of their plane. The incident followed on the heels of scaled-up operations against cocaine labs by Bolivian authorities and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officials, and there was speculation that the guards had mistaken the men for law enforcement. The murders led to a public outcry, and two years later the park was renamed the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park in honor of its fallen champion. In 2000, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

10. RALPH HOFFMAN // UNITED STATES, 1932

Born and raised in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, Ralph Hoffman moved to California and directed the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History from 1925 to 1932. He was an ornithologist and avid plant collector who made dozens of collecting trips to the Santa Barbara Channel Islands, sometimes dubbed the “North American Galapagos” for their incredible plant diversity and endemism.

Hoffmann made many important contributions to the understanding of the islands’ unique ecosystems, and probably would have made many more. But on a summer day in 1932 while collecting on the remote, windswept island of San Miguel, Hoffmann fell to his death from a cliff.

11. DAVID DOUGLAS // HAWAII, 1834

The Douglas fir is one of about 80 flora and fauna named for David Douglas, the son of a Scottish stonemason who transcended his humble origins to become a highly regarded and prolific botanist. He left school at 11 to begin working as a gardener on a series of large estates. At the age of 20, Douglas was appointed to the botanic garden at Glasgow University, where he befriended leading British botanist Sir William Jackson Hooker. He became Hooker’s assistant, and Hooker later got him a job as a botanical collector for the Royal Horticultural Society.

Douglas made three collecting trips to the Pacific Northwest and California. In 1833 he sailed to Hawaii, enthusiastic to continue documenting the endemic plants of the islands he had first encountered three years before. It was to be his last expedition. While walking one morning en route to Hilo, Douglas apparently fell into a deep pit covered over with dirt and brush, commonly used at the time to trap wild cows. It appeared that the 35-year-old Douglas, who had poor eyesight, went crashing through, where he was crushed and mauled to death by a bull who had also fallen into the pit.

Some have speculated that Douglas was actually murdered. Suspicions fell on the shady former convict with whom Douglas had met earlier that day, but the charge remains unproven. Douglas was buried in Honolulu, and the place where he died is now called Kaluakauka, translated as the “doctor’s pit.” There is a memorial to Douglas on the island of Hawaii and in the churchyard of the Scottish village of Scone, where he was born.

12. ABEL FORNES // ARGENTINA, 1974

Fornes was part of a scientific team trying to prevent the spread of bovine rabies by controlling populations of disease-carrying vampire bats. As Fornes was collecting bat specimens roosting in a water well he had treated with cyanide gas, his gas mask leaked and he fell to his death.

13. ULDIS KNAKIS // USSR (PRESENT-DAY REPUBLIC OF KALMYKIA, RUSSIA), 1970

For thousands of years, the saiga antelope have roamed across the harsh terrain of the Eurasian Steppe, migrating by the tens of thousands between summer and winter pastures. Today they are critically endangered, largely due to oil and gas exploration, road construction, the encroachment of domesticated livestock and illegal poaching for their meat and horns, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Uldis Knakis was a young Latvian biologist who devoted his life to studying and protecting the saiga. The week before he turned 31, Knakis was shot and killed by poachers unhappy with his efforts to crack down on illegal saiga hunting. The murderers were never identified.

14. FERDINAND STOLICZKA // INDIA, 1874

Ferdinand Stoliczka, a Czech paleontologist, geologist, and naturalist, participated in several expeditions to the Himalayas. During a time of heightened tension between the Russian and British Empires, Stoliczka was selected to participate in an enormous diplomatic expedition to Central Asia’s Chinese Turkestan (today the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) that required thousands of horses and porters. He did not survive this final trip.

The expeditionary team succeeded in reaching their destination in Turkestan, but on the way back, the 36-year-old Stoliczka began to feel ill. He had extreme breathing difficulties and terrible headaches that intensified as they reached the barren Karakoram Pass, which straddles India and China at an altitude of 18,000 feet. According to accounts from others in his party, Stoliczka had frequently suffered from severe headaches during their mountain journeys. But this time, acute altitude sickness overwhelmed him. He died on the pass and was buried in Tibet.

15. KEITH CLIFFORD BUDDEN // AUSTRALIA, 1950

Only 20 years old, amateur herpetologist Keith Clifford Budden was in a remote part of Queensland searching for an extremely venomous snake, the coastal taipan. The snake is often described as the most dangerous snake in Australia, and although it prefers to slither away, when it feels threatened, it is prone to attack with a series of snapping bites.

Budden successfully caught the snake with his bare hands. But as he maneuvered it into a bag, the snake struck his hand. The following day he died from the powerful venom, which attacks the nervous system and interferes with blood’s ability to clot. Budden’s death was not completely in vain, however: researchers were able to “milk”—extract venom—from the live snake, a first step in creating the anti-venom necessary to treat victims of the coastal taipan.

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Courtesy of October Films
This Scientist's Idea of the 'Perfect' Human Body Is Kind of Terrifying
Courtesy of October Films
Courtesy of October Films

The perfect human body has the legs of an ostrich, the heart of a dog, and the eyes of an octopus, according to anatomist Alice Roberts. And it’s utterly terrifying.

With the help of anatomical artist Scott Eaton and special effects designer Sangeet Prabhaker, Roberts created a life-size replica of herself that fixes many design flaws inherent to the human body, Motherboard reports. Roberts unveiled the sculpture on April 23 at the Science Museum in London. On June 13, the BBC released a documentary about the project.

Among the flaws Roberts’s sculpture corrects are humans’ inferior ears, spine, and lungs. Roberts borrowed anatomy from reptiles, birds, and other mammals to create a Frankenstein-esque creature straight from the island of Dr. Moreau.

The sculpture of Alice 2.0, left, with Alice Roberts, right
Courtesy of October Films

The sculpture has legs like an ostrich because, as Roberts says on her website, the human knee is complex and prone to failure. Like humans, ostriches are bipedal, but they are far better runners. Bird-like lungs that keep air flowing in one direction, not two, make running and other aerobic activities easier for the perfect human to manage. And a chimpanzee’s sturdier spine and a dog’s heart (which has more connected arteries, leading to lower heart attack risk) make Roberts’s alternate self more resistant to injury and disease.

Roberts’s ideal human body also has skin like a frog that can change shades based on the environment, and large, bat-like ears that amplify sound. Roberts also fixed humans’ backwards retina, which produces a natural blind spot, by borrowing from octopus eye anatomy.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is the baby head poking out of the sculpture’s marsupial pouch. Roberts says marsupial pregnancy would be far easier on the human body and more convenient for parents on the go.

“This could be a human fit for the future,” Roberts says at the end of a trailer for her BBC documentary.

[h/t Motherboard]

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16 Facts About Migraines
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Unless you suffer from migraines yourself, you may think that having a migraine means having a really bad headache. But debilitating head pain is only one part of the medical condition called migraine disorder. Other common symptoms are nausea, dizziness, fatigue, sensitivity to light and sound, and even temporary blindness. The symptoms and causes of migraine look different in different patients, and researchers are only now beginning to understand what the condition is and how to treat it. Here are some of the most enlightening facts we know about migraine disorder.

1. IT'S THE THIRD MOST COMMON DISEASE IN THE WORLD.

Even if you don’t suffer from migraine, chances are you know someone who does: The disorder affects 14.7 percent of the population, or one in seven people, around the world. In the U.S. alone, roughly 39 million people are affected by the condition. Chronic migraine (experiencing at least 15 headache days per month over a three-month period, with over half being migraines) is more rare, impacting about 2 percent of the world population.

2. WOMEN SUFFER MORE THAN MEN.

Of the one billion people on Earth who have migraine disorder, three-fourths are women. Medical experts suspect this has to do with the cyclical nature of female hormones. According to research presented earlier in 2018, NHE1, the protein that regulates the transfer of protons and sodium ions across cell membranes, is a crucial component of migraine headaches. NHE1 production likely fluctuates a lot more in women than in men. When scientists looked at the brains of lab rats, they found that NHE1 levels were lowest when estrogen was at its peak. In general, female rats also had four times the amount of NHE1 in their brains as males. If the same holds true for people, that could explain why women are not only more likely to suffer migraines in the first place, but why they experience them more frequently and more intensely, and have more difficulty responding to treatment.

3. MIGRAINE TRIGGERS VARY WIDELY.

For doctors and sufferers, migraine triggers can be a source of confusion. They vary from patient to patient and often come from unexpected sources that have no relation to each other. Stress, too much or too little sleep, dehydration, alcohol, and caffeine are some of the most common triggers. Some people get migraines after eating specific foods, like cheese, and others are sensitive to changes in weather conditions like barometric pressure. Some people manage their migraines by pinpointing and avoiding triggers.

4. FOR SOME, AURAS ARE A WARNING THAT A MIGRAINE IS COMING.

Before the nausea, dizziness, and splitting head pain begin, auras warn some people that a migraine is on its way. Less than 25 percent [PDF] of migraine sufferers experience distorted senses, such as numbness or tingling in the hands or face, or blotches of light or darkness disrupting their vision. Auras usually occur 10 to 30 minutes before the migraine develops and last from five minutes to one hour.

5. SYMPTOMS CAN INCLUDE TEMPORARY BLINDNESS …

Unlike migraine with aura, retinal migraine is limited to one eye. Symptoms range from seeing twinkling stars to partial or complete loss of vision. The same eye is almost always affected, and the person typically regains their sight after 10 to 20 minutes.

6. … AND LOSS OF LIMB FUNCTION.

One of the rarest, and scariest, subtypes of migraine is hemiplegic migraine. People with this variant can experience weakness, numbness, tingling, or loss of motor function in parts of one half of their body, including their arm, leg, or face. Though sensations usually dissipate within 24 hours, they can last anywhere from one hour to several days. Sometimes they’re accompanied by typical migraine symptoms, such as head pain, but they can also occur on their own.

7. KIDS GET MIGRAINES TOO.

Migraine isn’t just a problem for adults—up to 10 percent of all school-aged kids are affected by the disorder, with reported cases coming from children as young as 18 months. According to the documentary Out of My Head (2018), migraine is the third most common reason for child emergency room visits. The symptoms of migraine in kids are similar to what’s seen in older patients: They may experience intense head pain, sick feelings, distorted vision, and sensitivity to sound and light. The major differences are that child migraines often develop suddenly and are shorter than they are in adults. In children, it’s not uncommon for the nausea and abdominal pain to feel worse than the actual headaches. Just as some sufferers don’t experience their first episodes until after puberty, some children with migraine grow out of it. According to one study, migraine symptoms disappeared completely in 23 percent of former child sufferers by age 25.

8. MIGRAINE MAY BE HEREDITARY.

For most people with migraine disorder, it runs in the family. Anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of migraine sufferers report having at least one family member who has it as well. If one parent has migraine, there’s a 50 percent chance their child will eventually have to live with migraine—and that risk shoots up to 75 percent when both parents have the condition.

9. MANY VETERANS RETURN HOME WITH MIGRAINES.

Genetics isn’t the only factor that contributes to someone’s chance of having migraine disorder. One study found that after a 12-month deployment in Iraq, 36 percent of veterans exhibited symptoms of migraine. The cause often stems from head or neck trauma sustained from explosions, falls, or other accidents during their service. While post-traumatic migraine goes away in most patients within a few months, in some cases it can develop into a chronic condition.

10. MIGRAINE IS LINKED TO THE "SECOND BRAIN" IN YOUR GUT.

In addition to the part of our nervous system that responds to outside stimuli, humans have an enteric nervous system: the part responsible for regulating digestion. Some medical experts believe that migraine is closely tied to this “second brain.” People with migraine are twice as likely to have IBS as people with tension headaches. Abdominal migraine, where the pain is concentrated in the stomach rather than the head, is one form the condition takes. It's most often seen in children, but it can affect adults as well.

11. DESPITE THE HIGH COST OF MIGRAINE DISORDER, RESEARCH IS UNDERFUNDED.

In 2017, the National Institutes of Health invested $22 million in migraine research. Asthma research received $286 million, breast cancer $689 million, and diabetes $1.1 billion.

12. THE DISORDER COSTS US UP TO $13 BILLION ANNUALLY.

Though migraine isn't life-threatening like these other conditions, it is widespread enough to have a negative impact on society as a whole. Workers with migraine often end up taking a lot of time off from their jobs, which can cost their employers. According to Out of My Head, it’s estimated that 113 million work days are missed annually due to migraine, adding up a to $13 billion loss.

13. MIGRAINE MAY HAVE INSPIRED PARTS OF ALICE IN WONDERLAND …

In the famous children’s book, Alice drinks a liquid that makes her grow many times her size and eats a cookie that shrinks her to tiny proportions. Migraine sufferers may recognize themselves in these passages. Possible symptoms of the disorder include micropsia and macropsia, or perceiving objects to be much smaller or larger than they really are. Some theorize that Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll suffered migraines and wrote his experiences into his story. The book’s connection to migraine is so famous that today the related symptoms are commonly known as Alice in Wonderland Syndrome.

14. … AND PLAGUED A FOUNDING FATHER.

Another famous person from history who likely suffered from migraines was Thomas Jefferson. His symptoms could last for weeks and often appeared during stressful times in his life. There was even an episode that coincided with one of the most important nights of his political career. One night in June 1790, he invited Federalist Alexander Hamilton and Republican James Madison to his home for a dinner party in the hopes of getting his peers to agree on a location for the new U.S. capital. Despite dealing with lingering head pain from a migraine, he successfully brokered the compromise that landed the capital at its current spot on the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia. In return, Madison agreed that he would not block Hamilton's plan for the federal government to take on state war debt, thus helping establish the young nation's credit.

15. MIGRAINE IS LINKED TO DEPRESSION.

In the U.S., up to 40 percent of people with migraine also have depression. Risk of anxiety, bipolar disorder, and panic disorder are also higher in migraine sufferers. Researchers are still figuring out the connections between mental illness and migraine. While the anticipation of painful symptoms can cause depression and anxiety in some people, experts believe that mental illness is often more than just an effect of living with migraine. The production of the brain chemical serotonin is involved in both migraine and depression. That’s why tricyclic antidepressants designed to increase serotonin levels are sometimes prescribed to treat migraine.

16. A NEW SHOT CAN TREAT MIGRAINE.

Many migraine therapies from the past few decades have been the result of trial and error. Medications designed to treat other conditions, such as antidepressants, epilepsy medicine, and botox, have all been prescribed to migraine sufferers, with mixed results. Earlier in 2018, the first-ever shot made to treat migraines specifically secured FDA approval. The shot, which blocks a peptide linked to migraine, is taken once a month and can improve symptoms or completely eliminate them in some cases. Before the new injection came along, the only other migraine-specific medications patients had to choose from were triptans, which stimulate the neurotransmitter serotonin. They can't prevent migraine, but they can help dampen symptoms by reducing inflammation and constricting blood flow. According to Out of My Head, triptans were first approved more than two decades ago—so new medication options are long overdue.

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