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.
Alexander 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.