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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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The Elements
9 Essential Facts About Carbon
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How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
 
 
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.

1. IT'S THE "DUCT TAPE OF LIFE."

It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.

2. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE.

It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.

3. IT'S NAMED AFTER COAL.

While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.

4. IT LOVES TO BOND.

It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.

5. NEARLY 20 PERCENT OF YOUR BODY IS CARBON.

May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.

6. WE DISCOVERED TWO NEW FORMS OF IT ONLY RECENTLY.

Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

7. DIAMONDS AREN'T CALLED "ICE" BECAUSE OF THEIR APPEARANCE.

Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.

8. IT HELPS US DETERMINE THE AGE OF ARTIFACTS—AND PROVE SOME OF THEM FAKE.

American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.

9. TOO MUCH OF IT IS CHANGING OUR WORLD.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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8 Myths About Dead Bodies You Probably Think Are True
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Bodies are weird enough, but it's the dead ones that hold real intrigue. The fact that most of us just don't spend that much time around them means it's hard to separate truth from fiction; corpses have been thought to be responsible for plagues, as well as to carry magic healing properties. Below, some dead body myths that won't give up the ghost—and explanations for the real-life science behind them.

1. HAIR AND NAILS GROW AFTER DEATH.

Corpse under sheet with hand sticking out

Not true! The cell division driving hair and nail growth stops when the body dies and the heart no longer pumps oxygen-filled blood throughout the circulatory system. It does look like things keep growing, though. When a dead body's skin loses hydration, it retracts—and retraction along the nail bed makes it appear as if the nails are getting longer. As for hair, drying skin on the face and head "pulls back towards the skull, making stubble appear more prominent," writes Claudia Hammond for the BBC. "Goosebumps caused by the contraction of the hair muscles can add to the effect."

2. DEAD BODIES ARE DANGEROUS.

There's no science to back up the idea that a dead and decomposing body is harmful to the living just by virtue of its being dead. This might sound obvious, but the belief that disease came from breathing in air infected by corpses was once common.

Miasmatic theory, as it was called, was a widespread belief among members of the medical profession (and the public) in the 19th century. Miasma, an ancient Greek word for "pollution," was the bad air coming from "rotting corpses, the exhalations of other people already infected, sewage, or even rotting vegetation" and was thought to be responsible for the spread of disease. Fortunately, this belief was eventually replaced by germ theory.

3. … AND MULTIPLE DEAD BODIES ARE EXTRA DANGEROUS.

In a publication from the Pan American Health Organization (a division of the World Health Organization), Donna Eberwine explains that the belief that dead bodies spread disease "remains a chronic problem in disaster relief efforts." After natural disasters, there is often a hysteria around dead bodies and a rush to immediately bury them, which distracts relief efforts from more pressing concerns. "The microorganisms that are involved in decomposition are not the kind that cause disease," Eberwine writes. "And most viruses and bacteria that do cause disease cannot survive more than a few hours in a dead body."

There are some exceptions. The level of Ebola virus in dead victims remains high, and their remains should only be handled by people in protective gear (and buried quickly). HIV can live for up to 16 days in a body held under refrigeration, and other blood-borne viruses like hepatitis, along with tuberculosis and gastrointestinal infections, can pose a risk. "The risk of contagion can be minimized with basic precautions and proper hygiene," Eberwine writes.

4. EMBALMING MAKES DEAD BODIES "SAFER."

Egyptian sarcophagus

"Embalming provides no public health benefit," according to the Funeral Consumer's Alliance (a nonprofit focused on affordable death care), citing the Centers for Disease Control and Canadian authorities. While individual morticians might say that a body must be embalmed before viewing, burial, or cremation, the process is generally not legally required. Moreover, since a dead body is usually not in itself harmful, embalming does not make it any safer. On the flip side, embalming chemicals are actually quite toxic, and embalmers must cover their entire body and wear a respirator while working. 

5. DEAD BODIES SIT UP ON THE MEDICAL TABLE.

This horror-movie trope just isn't real. During decomposition, a body might twitch or make small movements and noises due to the gas and waste released by bacteria. A decomposing corpse can definitely move a little, but sitting straight up is just not going to happen.

6. BURYING A BODY WITHOUT A COFFIN OR VAULT MEANS IT WILL CONTAMINATE THE GROUNDWATER.

Nope! Burials usually occur at 3.5 feet below the surface, whereas water can be 75 feet underground. "Mandatory setbacks from known water sources also ensure that surface water is not at risk," the Green Burial Council explains [PDF]. Additionally, because microorganisms living in the soil will break down the chemical compounds that remain in a dead body, we actually give out "more toxic chemicals during a day of living than a whole body will decomposing."

7. CREMAINS ARE "ASH."

Wall of cremation urns

Though we often talk of "scattering ashes," cremains are a little more complicated. Once a body intended for cremation has been burned in what's called a retort, what's left will be put in a cremulator. Sort of like a blender, the cremulator uses ball bearings or rotating blades to pulverize the bones and other remnants into a "grayish, coarse material, like fine gravel," as HowStuffWorks puts it.

8. ALL IN ALL, MAYBE DEATH ISN'T AS SCARY AS WE THINK.

According to psychological scientist Kurt Gray, it's possible that death isn't quite as terrifying as we think it is. Gray studied the responses of death row inmates and terminally ill patients as well as those of people asked to imagine they had untreatable cancer, and found that "while it's natural to fear death in the abstract, the closer one actually gets to it, the more positive he or she becomes," as New York Magazine explains. This may be due to something called the "psychological immune system," a term coined by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness. According to Gray, our psychological immune system is engaged when bad things happen. "So when one is faced with death, all sorts of rationalization and meaning-making processes come in," he told New York Magazine. That may sound like your brain's trying to give you a cop-out, but it's much better than living in terror.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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