W. S. Cooper Award profile
"I became interested in ecology after reading The End of Nature by Bill McKibben as a freshman in college. I spent the next year on a leave of absence working in a forest reserve in Costa Rica, and when I went back to college I switched my major from the humanities to ecology.
I received an undergraduate degree in ecology from Princeton in 1993 and a Ph.D. in botany from Duke in 2000. My apprenticeship in identifying tropical trees began with years of trial-and-error in the National Herbarium of Ecuador with Gentry’s field guide to South American plants and continues today in Peruvian forests and museums.
I owe a lot to Steve Hubbell and John Terborgh, my undergraduate and graduate advisors. Robin Foster, Al Gentry, and a dozen other tropical plant taxonomists and ecologists blazed the trail for the work I do now, and my colleagues in South America and elsewhere have taught me a great deal. None of our work would be possible without the plant specimen collections maintained by herbaria, especially the National Herbarium of Ecuador, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Field Museum of Natural History.
I’m in the middle of a long field season in Amazonian Peru. In June, Miles Silman and I completed an inventory of emergent trees in a square kilometer of forest in Manu National Park. In July and August, John Terborgh, Percy Núñez, and I will be establishing new tree plots in poorly known areas of Ucayali province. From September onwards, I’m joining Ecuadorean and Peruvian colleagues to set up a series of tree plots along a 400-km transect between Yasuní, Ecuador and Iquitos, Peru. All this field work is aimed at filling gaps in what we know about the structure, composition and diversity of tropical tree communities, and at sketching a first map of forest composition and diversity across the western portion of the Amazon basin. Separately, I’m helping a large team of colleagues evaluate the distribution, abundance, and conservation status of plant species endemic to Ecuador and Peru.
Results for the 4,011 Ecuadorean endemics were published in 2000 as Ecuador’s first comprehensive endangered species list. Results for the >6,000 Peruvian endemics are scheduled for publication in 2004. Based on the data collected so far, Peter Jørgensen and I have estimated that an additional >100,000 plant species throughout the tropics deserve to be listed on the IUCN’s global red list of threatened plants, pushing the proportion of the world’s flora threatened with extinction to 30-47%. If predictions of coming mass extinctions in the tropics over the next few decades turn out to be correct, this is the sort of basic, species-level information we`ll need to detect and understand them."
It's worth remembering that William Skinner Cooper was a magnificent plant ecologist and conservationist. Among other things, from 1916 to 1925 he spearheaded efforts to establish Glacier Bay Nacional Monument, which now protects 3.3 million acres of Alaskan wilderness. The photo is of Cooper and climbing buddy John Hubbard outside Long’s Peak Inn, Colorado, in 1906—two years after he made the first ascent of that mountain. More on his admirable life here.