Danger and Data: A Life in the Rain Forest Smithsonian Researcher Louise Emmons - a Legend among Experts for Her Wildlife Observations - Is Perhaps the Only Scientist in the World Who Ventures Routinely into the Jungle at Night

By Clara Germani, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 1, 1991 | Go to article overview

Danger and Data: A Life in the Rain Forest Smithsonian Researcher Louise Emmons - a Legend among Experts for Her Wildlife Observations - Is Perhaps the Only Scientist in the World Who Ventures Routinely into the Jungle at Night


Clara Germani, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


VAST, damp, and noisily abuzz, the ecosystem of the rain forest in its delicate yet powerful rhythms is understood as dangerous.

But at night, few scientists or natives ever defy the darkness to venture into the jungle tangle.

Yet in the race to understand the world's rapidly disappearing rain forests, biologist Louise Emmons has chosen not to ignore that half of the life of the forest that begins after dark.

The featherweight Smithsonian researcher is perhaps the only scientist in the world who treks routinely into the nighttime maw of that giant organism, the rain forest.

She is legendary among rain forest experts for her meticulous observations. They marvel at how her scientific obsession seems like an invisible armor against the hazards of predators, disease, and falling branches.

Her radical style of "bottom-up" research, tracking a single animal during its whole waking day or night, has filled vacuums of knowledge about all kinds of species - "(with) the kind of thing you put in textbooks," says Patricia Wright, an associate professor of biological anthropology at Duke University who worked with Emmons in Peru's Manu National Park. It is a style that many scientists never even consider because it is so physically demanding, she says.

Dr. Emmons herself explains that a typical workday means locating radio signals from animals she has previously collared. Carrying a camera, notepad, radio receiver, binoculars, gun, and rain gear, she arrives at the den before the animal awakes, following it until it returns.

"I think you can learn a lot more by essentially seeing everywhere an animal goes," she says.

"I'm just walking up and down while it's looking for food. If it's hungry and there isn't much food available, it can run all day long. It's actually extremely interesting because you really get to feel firsthand what it's like to be a little animal out there without a fruit tree ... maybe a tree shrew that only weighs 50 grams (1.75 ounces) will be running several kilometers a day just looking for something to eat."

It is her effort to understand the rain forest as a whole - to make the linkages between, say, night and day or animal and plant - that has made Emmons one of the world's leading rain forest biologists.

"The next big advances we make in understanding tropical biology will be from scientists who work that way," says Ted Parker. "She always got me excited and made me ask questions. I started looking at plants to see what birds were around it ... it made me much more apt to wonder (about relationships within the rainforest)," he says. He works with Emmons on the Conservation International Rapid Assessment Program (RAP).

RAP is the sort of triage conservation science that uses the philosophy Mr. Parker talks about. Scientific teams go to unexplored areas of rain forest and inventory the biological diversity to determine conservation priorities.

There are only a handful of scientists in the world qualified to do this work and with Emmons's reputation, this program buys credibility for the new form of science, says Conservation International's Brent Bailey, who hired Emmons for the RAP team's four South American expeditions. "If Louise says something is there, no one will dispute it," he says. Broad-ranging career

Scientists traditionally have spent careers focusing on one species in one place, but Emmons has ranged broadly for 20 years on three continents studying numerous mammal species.

And while most scientists are tied to the lifeline - and time restraints - of university salaries, Emmons has traded financial security for the freedom to be constantly in the field, like the naturalists of a century ago. Her numerous scientific affiliations - the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, the Duke University Primate Center - are prestigious, but unsalaried. …

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