Seven Influential Naturalists You Need to Know

Everyone’s heard of Muir, Dar­win, Cousteau, and Audubon. They’re right­ly famous for rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing our under­stand­ing of the nat­ur­al world and bring­ing it into our dai­ly lives. But here are some oth­er nat­u­ral­ists who are also impor­tant, but their achieve­ments are much more obscure.

Alexandre_humboldtAlexan­der Von Humboldt
The Hum­boldt Pen­guin, the Pacific’s Hum­boldt Cur­rent, and a region of California’s north coast are named after him, but we still sell this 1800s-era Pruss­ian noble­man short. He sailed with a Span­ish expe­di­tion to south and cen­tral Amer­i­ca, and his explo­rations and dis­cov­er­ies were so stag­ger­ing that it took him 21 years to doc­u­ment them all. He was the first to notice that cen­tral Amer­i­can vol­ca­noes fol­lowed geo­graph­ic lines and the­o­rized that they were fol­low­ing sub­ter­ranean fis­sures, which we now know to be sub­duc­tion zones. He was the first to describe the ori­gin of igneous rocks not­ed that the change in plant com­mu­ni­ties at alti­tude fol­lowed a sim­i­lar pat­tern at lat­i­tude, spent four months and 1700 miles find­ing the source of the Orinoc­co, dis­cov­ered elec­tric eels, and climbed to over 19,000 feet on Mount Chim­borz­abo, a record for 1800.

Archibald_MenziesArchibald Men­zies
If we know Archibald at all, it’s from the Latin name of the Pacif­ic Northwest’s icon­ic tree, the Dou­glas Fir, pseudot­suga men­ziesii. (You all mem­o­rize Latin names, right? And more on the Dou­glas part lat­er.) Serv­ing in the British Navy, he was the botanist on George Vancouver’s jour­ney up the west coast of North Amer­i­ca, but was pressed into ser­vice as the ship’s sur­geon when the sur­geon fell ill. On one of Vancouver’s win­ters in Hawaii, he made the first record­ed ascent of Mau­na Loa, a trail now known as the “Men­zies trail.” He was the first to describe the Pacif­ic Madrone and the South Amer­i­can Mon­key Puz­zle Tree to science.

stellarGeorg Steller
Just get­ting to Vitus Bering’s expe­di­tion to Alas­ka and the far north was quite the jour­ney, let alone the expe­di­tion itself. Meet­ing the expe­di­tion involved cross­ing the Russ­ian Far East from St. Peters­burg, then cross­ing Kam­chat­ka in win­ter by dogsled. When Bering’s expe­di­tion land­ed in Alas­ka in 1740, Bering only want­ed to stay long enough to replen­ish fresh water. Steller argued fierce­ly and was final­ly grant­ed ten hours to explore. He thus became become the first non-native to set foot on Alaskan soil. Dur­ing this time he record­ed sev­er­al new species: Steller’s sea lion, Steller’s jay, and Spec­ta­cled Cor­morant. Steller also gath­ered berries and tried to con­vince his ship­mates to eat them to pre­vent scurvy. They scoffed at the idea, but should have lis­tened: most of the crew was soon dis­abled, lead­ing to the under­manned ship to wreck on Bering Island. Dur­ing their strand­ing, Steller also described the now-extinct Steller’s Sea Cow. In 1742 they built ships and returned across the Bering Sea.

Marie TharpMarie Tharp
In 1948, Tharp was work­ing at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, using pho­to­graph­ic data to try and find downed air­craft from the Sec­ond World War. Not long after, she began using sim­i­lar tech­niques to map the ocean floor. Over the course of 18 years, she and Bruce Heezen mapped the bot­tom of the entire Atlantic. Since women were banned from ship­board work, Tharp did most of the analy­sis research until she was final­ly allowed aboard in 1965. The map of the Atlantic rev­o­lu­tion­ized our under­stand­ing of the globe as a con­nect­ed unit: mid-ocean ridges, plate tec­ton­ics, con­ti­nen­tal drift, under­sea vol­ca­noes, and deep-ocean vents are all things we’d nev­er have found with­out Tharp.

Ed RickettsEd Rick­etts
You prob­a­bly know Ed from his fic­tion­al alter ego, Doc from John Steinbeck’s Can­nery Row. Doc was based on Ed Rick­etts, the own­er of Pacif­ic Bio­log­i­cal Lab­o­ra­to­ry in Mon­terey. With rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle aca­d­e­m­ic train­ing and lit­tle respect from his east­ern peers, Rick­etts wrote Between Pacif­ic Tides in 1939, a book still read today. He applied a new eco­log­i­cal con­text to tide­pools. While most zool­o­gy was most focused on sim­ply describ­ing species, Rick­etts described the inter­con­nec­tions between tide­pool organ­isms and was the first to put his fin­ger on why life in tide­pools is orga­nized into zones, at a time when con­cepts like habi­tat and niche were rel­a­tive­ly new. He also formed a famous col­lab­o­ra­tion of hard-drink­ing, and explor­ing intel­lec­tu­als: his lab became the scene for many a late-night phi­los­o­phiz­ing par­ty between Rick­etts and close friends John Stein­beck and Joseph Cam­bell. Stein­beck and Cam­bell would lat­er explore the coast of Baja with him on a col­lect­ing expe­di­tion that Stein­beck described in The Log From the Sea of Cortez.

David_Douglass00David Dou­glas
The son of a stone­ma­son in rur­al Scot­land in the ear­ly 1800s, it’s amaz­ing that David Dou­glas had the chance to become a nat­u­ral­ist at all. But some­how he became the appren­tice to the gar­den­er at the seat of an Earl, which cat­a­pult­ed him to study­ing at var­i­ous botan­i­cal gar­dens in Scot­land and Lon­don. From there the Roy­al Hor­ti­cul­tur­al Soci­ety sent him on three sep­a­rate trips to North Amer­i­ca: to Hawaii, the Pacif­ic North­west, and the east­ern seaboard, bring­ing back count­less spec­i­mens, includ­ing icon­ic north­west trees like his name­sake, the Dou­glas Fir, Sit­ka Spruce, and Pon­derosa Pine. Had he not died young—under some­what mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances, falling into a pit trap on Man­ua Kea at 35–he may have dis­cov­ered even more.

Thomas_NuttallThomas Nut­tall
While John James’ Audubon’s brought birds and their beau­ty into the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion, Nut­tall sys­tem­ized our under­stand­ing of winged crit­ters. After trav­el­ing on the Arkansas Riv­er, he embarked on a major expe­di­tion in 1834: across the Rock­ies, down the Snake and Colum­bia Rivers, and then by ship to Hawaii. His 1932 Man­u­al of the Ornithol­o­gy of the Unit­ed States and of Cana­da cre­at­ed a sys­tem­at­ic way of describ­ing and observ­ing birds, cre­at­ing a cohe­sive way of cat­a­loging many species new to sci­ence due to west­ward expansion.