Interview: Tropical paleontology and being #BlackInNature | NOVA


Paleobiologist Melissa Kemp says people have been introducing species to the Caribbean since lengthy earlier than Columbus arrived—and he or she’s serving to piece that historical past collectively.

Melissa Kemp with a Puerto Rican crown-giant anole (Anolis cuvieri). Picture courtesy of Melissa Kemp

Paleobiologist Melissa Kemp spends lots of time overturning assumptions. Her excavations don’t contain digging bleached bones out of windswept deserts, however in search of partially preserved lizard fossils in darkish, dank jungle caves. Final month, she revealed a research monitoring human-driven species introduction within the Caribbean by way of the area’s 7,000 years of human habitation—difficult the concept “restoring” Caribbean biodiversity means taking it again to the place it was earlier than Christopher Columbus arrived within the so-called New World round 530 years in the past. 

Kemp, who runs a lab and teaches integrative biology on the College of Texas at Austin, opened up on Twitter final week about her expertise as a Black scientist and outdoorswoman, below the hashtag #BlackInNature—as a part of persevering with conversations about race in America following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and the harassment of Black birder Christian Cooper. She spoke with NOVA about decolonizing environmental restoration, tropical fossil quirks, and the fun of time outdoors.

Alissa Greenberg: Let’s begin with the hashtag #BlackInNature, which you’ve utilized in tweeting about your love of spending time outdoors. What’s vital about that point in nature for you? What do you are feeling prefer it does for you bodily and emotionally?

Melissa Kemp: I like spending time in nature. I stay in Austin now, in a way more city surroundings than I used to be raised in. Nevertheless it’s nonetheless very rejuvenating simply to go outdoors and have a look at the sky, have a look at the crops, discover animals on the property and simply see that there is life there. Even once I’m doing my area analysis, there’s bursts of energetic work the place we’re mountain climbing by way of the rainforest attempting to get to our website. However then after we get there, it may be very gradual. The work that we’re doing could be very meditative. So nature could be very therapeutic for me. It’s performed an important position for me personally and professionally.

Significantly enthusiastic about the COVID disaster, so many individuals are looking for solace in nature throughout this time. And I feel, now greater than ever, it actually must be accessible to everybody, with every thing that is happening—not solely to make discoveries in and study, however simply to get pleasure from and to really feel snug having fun with it.

The hashtag #BlackInNature was used to rejoice Black nature fans on Could 31, the primary day of #BlackBirdersWeek.

AG: You mentioned in a tweet that you just grew up exploring outdoors on land your great-great-great-grandfather purchased after emancipation. So your loved ones has been there ever since?

MK: Sure. I grew up in Maryland, outdoors of Baltimore. Not likely that removed from any metropolis, however very, very rural and located close to a state park. And due to that, I had lots of nature at my disposal. I grew up listening to tales. My mother and my aunts and uncles would inform tales about how they’d exit within the woods and discover. So I all the time had a connection to nature. I by no means questioned that connection as a result of I felt like I lived in it—even simply figuring out that my household had been there for thus lengthy. The church cemetery was throughout the street, so I might go within the woods and see the graves of my ancestors.

AG: You additionally talked about in that very same tweet that your grandmother taught you to mark recapture, the biology approach to assist estimate animal populations.

MK: Particularly throughout the summers when my cousins can be there, and my grandmother had all these youngsters to cope with, we’d go round in search of animals. We all the time discovered turtles, jap field turtles. We might write our initials on them in nail polish, which we actually most likely should not have been doing, and deal with them for an evening, then launch them. She would all the time inform us, “Search for your turtles,” and we might discover them once more. Generally years later, we’d discover a turtle and be like, “Wait, that is MK, that’s my turtle!” She actually inspired us to simply go on the market and discover. I feel it actually rubbed off on me.

A portray by Melissa Kemp of a part of her household’s property. Picture courtesy of Melissa Kemp

AG: How did you find yourself working in integrative biology? And why did you select to deal with islands?

MK: I did not come into science in probably the most conventional manner. Once I was rising up, I all the time thought I used to be going to be an artist. I went to artwork magnet faculties as a child and skilled at a very excessive degree, principally portray and drawing. I nonetheless strategy science in a manner that’s just like how I strategy artwork. This diligence of engaged on one thing for a really very long time and in addition being open to suggestions from others to make the work higher. Artwork is a really iterative course of. It will possibly take years earlier than a bit is completed, and it is not a dash, it is a marathon. I feel lots of the identical ideas apply to science as nicely. And my eye for element perhaps helps me discover nuances in supplies I have a look at. Once I’m working with fossils I am consistently taking a look at completely different shapes and in search of variations in constructions of the completely different fossils I am dealing with.

I research how biodiversity in tropical areas originates each by way of processes of extinction and diversification, in addition to colonization. Significantly, I am all for how adjustments within the surroundings then affect the completely different communities of organisms that we now have. I am all for these previous situations of change that we are able to see by way of the fossil file, as a result of it is the important thing to actually understanding the biodiversity that we now have at the moment, but additionally helps us perceive how biodiversity may change sooner or later.

Islands particularly are actually fascinating biologically, and there’s been a wealth of research of various life-forms of islands, notably lizards. However we do not actually have as a lot literature on fossil occurrences of lizards. That is why I began specializing in islands, as a result of we actually haven’t got an intensive understanding of how we bought to current day biodiversity.

Human-driven biodiversity change within the Caribbean didn’t begin in 1492. There’s a 7,000-year legacy of change.

AG: You lately revealed a paper that delves fairly deeply into that matter. Are you able to summarize what you have been in search of and what you discovered?

MK: We have been actually all for investigating how people have modified the biota of the Caribbean, notably by way of which species they’ve launched. This paper is actually enthusiastic about what we’re including to the islands—and what are the impacts of what we’re including? How do these introductions scale throughout time? We developed a database of species introductions by going by way of the archaeological literature, in addition to the paleontological literature, to get a way of what we find out about species introductions, after which additionally what we do not know.

I feel one of many largest takeaways is the truth that people have been engineering the panorama for millennia, notably these locations that we consider as just lately perturbed. Human-driven biodiversity change within the Caribbean didn’t begin in 1492. There’s a 7,000-year legacy of change. Now we have these phrases that I don’t suppose are consultant of the biodiversity of the Caribbean, like “New World.” They’re actually phrases steeped in European colonization, referring again to the Caribbean as one thing being “new” to Europeans, when folks had been residing there for a really, very very long time.

After we take into consideration what the Caribbean used to appear to be, when you ask anyone on the road that query, they’re most likely going to consider earlier than Columbus and Europeans got here. And we’re undoubtedly all for that interval, very a lot so. However we’re additionally all for what it seemed like earlier than any people arrived. And we actually wish to acknowledge how Indigenous teams within the Caribbean moved round, what species they have been bringing, how they have been utilizing species, and the way their manipulation of the panorama modified biodiversity within the Caribbean.

AG: Why is it vital to ask these questions? Not simply culturally but additionally scientifically?

MK: Now we have to be practical about what’s really possible. The best restoration goal most likely within the head of lots of people within the public can be what the surroundings was like earlier than we got here and messed all of it up. Nevertheless it’s not a sensible goal, partially as a result of we have misplaced so many species that have been within the panorama earlier than people arrived.

What we see in lots of techniques after an extinction of 1 animal is that you’ve got an extinction cascade the place different issues go extinct as a result of organisms are interconnected with each other. They do not exist in silos within the panorama. So, if we take away a pollinator, the crops that have been pollinated by it may additionally bear decline. They may additionally go extinct. And which may have an effect on soil erosion, for instance. Possibly their roots offered vital construction for soil. And when you’re eroding soil, perhaps you’re interrupting one thing else’s habitat. So we’d wish to restore this technique in order that that plant is there, and in order that that plant is pollinated by an organism within the system—but it surely may not be attainable to do all of these issues. So, we now have to consider, what’s it that we hope to perform by way of restoration? 

Melissa Kemp excavating a cave website on the island of Marie-Galante, Guadeloupe. Picture courtesty of Melissa Kemp 

Possibly one other takeaway from our analysis can be enthusiastic about introductions of species and what they imply biologically. There’s lots of completely different terminologies that we use for launched species—I feel one of the widespread one is “invasive,” as a result of we regularly take into consideration the detrimental impacts of species introductions. Actually there have been situations the place species had very, very detrimental impacts, however then there are additionally situations the place species are not having a detrimental affect on the surroundings and perhaps are literally doing good issues for these ecosystems.

The Caribbean had lots of endemic mammals previous to human colonization. There have been monkeys and lots of actually distinctive mammals—like these animals known as Nesophontes, that are these shrewlike insectivores which can be now not there. We expect that lots of them have been actually vital pollinators within the ecosystem that have been then misplaced. However with the introduction of latest birds to the Caribbean, for instance, it is attainable that a few of that lack of pollinators, that ecological service, could have been restored.

AG: I’ve learn that paleontology within the tropics is especially troublesome. What makes it so arduous?

MK: The surroundings of the tropics shouldn’t be actually conducive to fossilization processes. You want secure temperatures, ideally, chilly temperatures and dry climate, to get good fossilization—and issues lined up actually shortly. The tropics are highly regarded and really humid. It is simply so scorching, it is so moist, that it should erode away in a short time in comparison with one thing that is within the Arctic, for instance. There’s way more speedy disintegration when it is scorching and humid. Microbes breaking issues down is actually a part of it. Additionally publicity to UV gentle—there’s bodily harm being accomplished to the fabric in addition to organic harm.

So we do not have lots of fossilization within the tropics, however we do have some, notably in environments the place the fabric is considerably shielded. Virtually all the work that I conduct is completed in caves. We’re going by way of typically closely forested areas, in limestone landscapes the place the humidity and precipitation cuts by way of the limestone and creates cavities. Normally supplies get in there by way of water move—when, as an example, there is a hurricane.

A number of it is vitally fragmented bones. We’re not getting a full lizard, with the pores and skin eliminated and the bones in good place. A few of them have options which can be identifiable, a few of them don’t. I feel that is one of many causes folks have been turned off learning them prior to now. So much you possibly can have a look at with the bare eye and work out what a part of the skeleton it’s, however a few of them you should have a look at below a microscope.

A fossilized piece of the higher jaw of a lizard, retrieved from cave sediments on the island of Marie-Galante, Guadeloupe. Picture courtesy of Melissa Kemp

AG: So what strategies have you ever used to type of get round these challenges?

MK: The most important factor is simply to not disregard the info that do exist and brush it apart. If you wish to get materials from the tropics, it’s not essentially going to be very, very flashy in the identical manner that perhaps a T. rex cranium can be, however there are precious knowledge on the market. One other factor that we do to get round a few of the challenges is we simply carry on trying. It requires us to interface with folks in that space, speaking to folks about the place caves are, in the event that they’ve ever seen fossils.

So it’s extremely a lot a neighborhood effort, when it comes to the work that we do. Discovering websites with the assistance of native folks. So native people who find themselves on the market exploring the caves for enjoyable typically have been an actual godsend for us, very useful in orienting us on the land. They’re nearly all the time completely satisfied to indicate us after which work together with us after we inform them extra about what we’re doing. And that is all the time actually enjoyable.

I feel it is a perform of the place I do fieldwork that I’ve all the time felt protected within the area. I work in areas the place there are very various cultures that aren’t my very own, typically cultures the place Black individuals are dominant or brown individuals are dominant. Once I labored in Guadeloupe, for instance—a French-speaking island within the Lesser Antilles the place the vast majority of individuals are Black and Creole—if I stored my mouth shut, folks simply assumed I used to be from Guadeloupe. Being an outsider hasn’t been a supply of worry in these landscapes.

Simply seeing my grandmother as a Black property proprietor in a small city the place there weren’t many different Black property house owners was very inspiring. I do not know if it is the proper phrase for it, however I felt that the outside belonged to me and that it was my proper to be there. 

AG: To that finish, what’s vital in regards to the conversations we’re having now, across the incident with Christian Cooper and the #BlackInNature and #BlackBirdersWeek hashtags? What would you hope may come out of them?

MK: It is vital as a result of it reinforces, notably for us as Black folks, that we belong right here, that this nation is ours. We had a really, very instrumental half in creating what we now have at the moment on this nation, whilst we proceed to be oppressed. I feel it is also vital for non-Black folks to listen to that as nicely, that they acknowledge these contributions. I really feel very privileged to have had a really constructive affiliation with the outside all my life. Simply seeing my grandmother as a Black property proprietor in a small city the place there weren’t many different Black property house owners was very inspiring. I do not know if it is the proper phrase for it, however I felt that the outside belonged to me and that it was my proper to be there. 

I heard messages going by way of college from different folks like, “Oh, nature is extra of a white house.” However I actually rejected these messages as a result of I had this pleasure in my household historical past, and my connection to the land, and my household’s connection to the land. I simply felt like everybody else had all of it flawed, that they only did not know the historical past of this nation nicely sufficient—how tied, for higher or for worse, African Individuals are to the land. It is a very painful historical past, typically, to consider what number of Black Individuals bought to this nation, why we have been dropped at this nation within the first place, to work the land that white folks didn’t wish to work.

For me, at the least, studying that historical past has actually made me really feel extra grounded within the house that I occupy. I’ve all the time felt grounded due to my very sturdy household historical past. However I do know lots of Black Individuals haven’t got that. Speaking to distant cousins that I share lineage with additional again, serving to them be taught in regards to the historical past of enslavement of our household, has actually helped floor them as nicely.

Every time folks could have made snide feedback—“I am afraid of the woods,” or, “The woods is a white house”—I’m very snug with my story and being like, “Effectively, I am right here. My household’s right here. They have been on this land for six generations. You may’t inform me it does not belong to me.”

This interview has been edited for size and readability.

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