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The `Michael Jordan of Field Biology’

April 26, 2007

Steve Goodman, Madagascar’s most intrepid field biologist, has nearly a dozen species of insects, animals and plants named after him. In some cases that’s because his colleagues admire him. In others, it’s because they plucked the creatures off him.

Years ago, Goodman was sleeping in a remote cave frequented by Nubian ibexes _ a species of antelope _ in Sudan and picked up an infestation of ticks. Back in Cairo, a scientist friend handed him a vial and instructions to ease the parasites off counterclockwise so as not to damage their mouth parts. Sure enough, a close look revealed a new species _ the Goodman tick.

Since then, there has been a Goodman flea, a Goodman sucking louse, a filarial worm, a cockroach, an ant, a blood parasite, a mayfly, a caddis fly and, oddly enough, a fern. It’s perhaps a good thing their soft-spoken namesake doesn’t like to dwell on the Indiana Jones-like stories behind their discovery.

“It’s my life,” he says simply.

Fortunately, the newest addition to the Goodman stable is considerably cuddlier: a tiny mouse lemur, one of the world’s smallest primates. The graying, ponytailed biologist hasn’t seen the animal in the wild, at least since it was named for him, and he wants to remedy that.

One afternoon he stops by the office of the indigenous guides association near Andasibe National Park, in the east of Madagascar, and inquires whether any mouse lemurs have been spotted in the adjoining forest.

“Oh yes,” says Jeannot Andrinbololona, a local guide manning the desk. “We have the one named after the renowned biologist Steve Goodman.”

Goodman, perpetually modest, stifles a smile. It’s only a few minutes later, when Andrinbololona asks the visitor’s name, that the lanky scientist finally owns up.

“Steve Goodman! You’re joking,” the astonished guide says.

That night he leads Goodman into the forest. And sure enough, high up in a dark tree, they spot a pair of bright orange eyes that reflect in the light of the headlamps. The diminutive lemur, with short, round ears, watches the trespassers crouching on the forest trail for a minute, then leaps behind a tree trunk. Goodman’s mouse lemur. In the flesh.

Goodman watches for a moment, then turns and walks further up the trail, the beam of his headlamp sweeping through the dense foliage, looking, as always, for what else is out there.

The 49-year-old explorer, who works as the Chicago Field Museum’s only field biologist, thinks of himself as a Victorian-era naturalist for the modern age. Hefting a machete, he goes where next-to-no-one has gone before, takes a good look around and usually comes back with a collecting tub full of new species. Over the years, he has helped discover nearly 300 and scientifically describe almost 50.

Madagascar, where he has lived and worked for 15 years, is his ideal habitat. The California-sized island off the east coast of Africa has some of the world’s most unusual and least-known flora and fauna, from lemurs that call like humpback whales to bats with suckers on their wings. Much of the island’s vast biodiversity has only begun to be discovered and understood in the last decade, and new species are found so frequently that only 480 of the 800 known reptiles and amphibians even have names yet.

“I realized here was a place in the world with an absolutely remarkable flora and fauna, so much of it unknown or poorly known, highly endangered and of absolutely paramount importance for world patrimony,” Goodman says. “It was absolutely perfect.”

The Michigan native, a graying bohemian who traipses through the forest in cheap rubber sandals _ “My shoe budget is $2.50 a year,” he says _ never set out to be a biologist. As a teenager, he decided he had philosophical differences with his mother, a divorcee he described as a “hard-core suburban capitalist,” and went to live with his father on a remote farm in central Michigan. There he walked 1 { miles to the school bus each day, took up an interest in bird watching, trapped animals and increasingly saw himself as a modern Davy Crockett.

At school he showed talent in sculpting and spent his last three years of high school at the Interlochen Arts Academy in northern Michigan. As part of an effort to study and sculpt animals in motion he took an ecology class, began banding birds every weekend and “gradually stopped sketching and started taking notes on the animals.”

It wasn’t until he had graduated in 1975 and was on the way to a job at Bennington Pottery in Vermont, however, that he realized biology was his calling. On the drive out, he stopped near Seneca Falls for the night and happened to spot a nest of black-crowned night herons. He built a blind and sat up all night watching what he calls an “incredibly ritualistic” exchange between the parents each time one returned to the nest.

“At that moment, I realized I had made a mistake. I wanted to be a biologist rather than a sculptor,” he says.

In a month he was enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he and a roommate, who was studying Egyptology, decided to look at how bird representations in Egyptian art had changed through time. For months they spent evenings poring over books at the university’s superb Egyptian collection, tracking changes in styles over 2,000 years. On a whim, they sent their finished study to William Kelly Simpson, a famed Egyptologist at Yale University.

He called, immediately bought them tickets to the East Coast and helped them submit their monograph to the world’s premiere Egyptology journal, which published it in 1979. “Who are you, anyway?” he asked the pair. Soon, at his urging, they’d found grant money to go to Egypt and study birds and historic records there.

“At that point, my life changed,” Goodman remembers. “From then to now I’ve been on the same trajectory.”

That has led him to wander with Bedouins on the remote Egyptian-Sudanese border, slog through swamps in Gabon, live with Baluchi nomads in Pakistan, investigate remote islands in the Philippines and traipse over much of Madagascar. Along the way he helped create an transnational park on the Egypt-Sudan border, learned a dozen languages, wrote 15 books and finally got his bachelor’s degree. The Ph.D. took another decade or so, mostly because he could never manage to get back to the university for exams.

Fed-up graduate advisers once told him, “Be a student or be a researcher!” he remembers. “I said, `I’ll be a researcher.’”

The Field Museum and Madagascar found Goodman at about the same time. The young biologist had just finished his first trip to the island and was looking for a way back when Larry Heaney, an old friend and professor from the University of Michigan, called. Heaney, now a Field Museum administrator, offered Goodman a dream job: full-time field biologist for the museum. “It was unheard of, the Field Museum going out on a limb for this dubious kid who had no higher degree,” Goodman remembers.

He refused the job. The problem, he told Heaney, was that he couldn’t face administrative duties and needed time to do his own projects. Eventually, in 1989 he and the museum settled on a half-time appointment, something the museum considers a particularly good deal considering Goodman’s phenomenal scientific output.

“He’s the Michael Jordan of field biology. He never misses a shot,” says Heaney, the museum’s curator of mammals. “He works full-tilt 18 hours a day, and that’s only because he’s beginning to slow down a little bit. It’s just astonishing how much energy he has.”

Goodman soon unleashed that energy on Madagascar, a place whose warm, Afro-Asian culture and exotic biota he instantly fell for. “Culturally, Madagascar embraced me,” he remembers. “I’d never found a place where people were so open to someone who was not part of their culture. I felt accepted in a way I never had. When I arrived I didn’t speak a word of French or Malagasy (the local language), and it didn’t make any difference.”

Madagascar is not an easy place for a field biologist to work. Over centuries, much of the island’s unique native vegetation has been destroyed to create new fields or make charcoal. Four hundred years ago, the vast forests around Antananarivo, the capital, were felled to remove potential hiding places for enemies advancing on the central plateau.

Today, just 8 percent of the island’s original habitat remains, much of it in extremely remote, often mountainous areas.

To get to them, Goodman typically will drive as far as he can, then lash his vehicle onto a homemade wooden raft to get across as many rivers as possible. When the truck can’t go any further, he and his assistants climb aboard a dugout canoe, ride to the nearest village, hire oxen to carry their supplies, then porters when the oxen can’t go any further. Just getting to base camp can take 10 days.

From there, he and his staff head into the forest with machetes, trying to cut paths that will take them to a mountain’s summit or wherever they’d like to go. Typically, they’ll cut miles of trail up a ridge only to find it falls away into the valley, forcing them to turn back and try a new route. Madagascar “is not a place for the faint-hearted,” he says.

The payoff for so much hard work, though, can be dramatic. Goodman, who has encyclopedic knowledge of the island’s fauna, recognizes all its rodents by smell. He remembers how on one particularly grueling trip he couldn’t sleep at night, tantalized by an unfamiliar scent wafting from one the traps he’d set the evening before. It turned out the creature inside was not just a new species but a whole new genus of rodents.

One price for so many discoveries in remote areas, though, has been an unwelcome familiarity with decidedly unpleasant diseases.

Goodman has a perpetual case of malaria, a disease he’s now so accustomed to that “it’s like having a bad cold.” He’s had dengue fever as well, and chikungunya virus. In the Philippines, he nearly died of scrub typhus. A doctor who finally diagnosed the rare disease said Goodman wouldn’t have made it another day if he’d gone untreated. And after battling through a remote swamp in Gabon and being bitten by hundreds of banded flies _ tropical cousins of the deer fly _ he ended up with a massive infestation of filarial worms, which he identified after one crawled across his eyeball. Later, while taking medicine to kill the worms, they crawled up under his skin, turned bright red and expired.

On the same trip through Gabon, he remembers, the porters ran off with all the food early on, forcing him, a colleague and their Pygmy guides to forage in the forest. One day the expedition spotted a gigantic python, thought to be one of the largest ever seen. After taking a few measurements, the hungry explorers promptly ate it.

It was one of those trips from hell,” Goodman remembers.

He went back to Gabon the next year for another expedition.

Over the years, the uncomplaining explorer also has suffered some particular professional hazards, including a slowly developing allergy to formaldehyde, often used to preserve specimens collected in the field. Heaney, who worked with Goodman in the Philippines before he was aware of the allergy, remembers the scientist complaining of a headache and, untypically, deciding to lie down for awhile after fishing specimens out of a formaldehyde bucket all day.

Worried, Heaney peeked in his tent and found him suffering whole-body muscle spasms and gasping for breath. “I just stayed in there with him for the next couple of hours and made sure he wasn’t going to swallow his tongue,” Heaney remembers. “After a number of hours he gradually came out of it, had a bit to drink and eat and went back to work.”

Goodman’s work schedule is legend. When at home in Antananarivo, he typically gets to the office at 3:30 a.m. to have time to focus on writing before e-mails, students and other demands divide his attention. Over the years he’s published nearly 400 scientific papers and 15 books, including a massive new tome, “The Natural History of Madagascar.” He has another 25 papers and three books in the works. Now married with a 4-year-old son, he spends only five months a year in the field, down from eight, and sleeps four or five hours a night instead of hardly sleeping at all.

His students find it all a bit intimidating.

“He works hard and he wants us to work as he does. He’s always asking us to work harder,” says Soarimalala Voahangy, 36, who is finishing a Ph.D. in micro-mammals. “But that makes us grow and get more knowledge.”

“He’s a cool person generally,” added Rakotondravony Hery, 30, another of Goodman’s students, who is defending his Ph.D. in reptiles and amphibians. “But I couldn’t do this job from 5 in the morning to 6 at night like he does.”

Still, they’ve clearly taken his model to heart. On research expeditions, which Goodman now lets the students plan and lead, they, like him, plan breakfast at 5:15 a.m. Anybody who’s not up by 5:30 a.m., when the food is packed away, goes hungry.

“It’s old habit for them now, natural,” says Achille Raselimanang, a biodiversity program officer in Madagascar with the World Wildlife Fund, and one of Goodman’s early proteges. “The students work very hard, very seriously, because they have worked with Steve. It’s like the military, only he doesn’t need to give orders anymore.”

Not long after arriving in Madagascar, Goodman realized two key things were missing on the island: basic knowledge about its flora and fauna and a long-term plan to protect them. Having led the battle to ease the first problem, he’s now focusing much of his energy on the second.

What little remains of Madagascar’s original landscape is fast vanishing as the island’s ever-growing population _ now 17 million _ struggles to find space to farm, land on which to graze cattle and trees to cut for charcoal. Since winning independence from France in 1960, the island has suffered a series of disastrous governments and periods of anarchy and economic contraction that have made it hard for most Malagasy to make a living except through subsistence farming, grazing and forest-cutting.

That is slowly changing under President Marc Ravalomanana, who has promised to triple the island’s protected nature reserves by 2008. But policing of protected areas is limited, and even the government says most new reserves will still be open to animal grazing and wood cutting. That means much of Madagascar’s unique biodiversity is still threatened.

Goodman believes the best way to ensure its protection is to train Malagasy biologists to take leadership roles in government and in the field. Since 1993, with the help of the World Wildlife Fund, he has run the Ecological Training Program, a supplement to the national university’s biology department, which helps graduate-level biologists learn research techniques, gain experience in writing scientific papers and find jobs in conservation. Some of its more than 65 graduates have gone on to take top jobs in international conservation organizations and in Ravalomanana’s government.

“He’s (Goodman’s) made a very big difference,” says Daniel Rakotondravony, head of animal biology at the University of Madagascar and a longtime colleague of Goodman’s. “I think management and training are now the most important part of his work.”

Goodman’s latest project is helping launch Vahatra, the island’s first homegrown conservation non-governmental organization, which he hopes will lead protection efforts on the island. He’s pouring much of his recent $500,000 MacArthur Foundation genius grant into it_after buying a first-ever hot-water heater for his house in Antananarivo; a car for his wife, Asmina, a fashion designer; and airplane tickets to Chicago for a couple of students so they could study at the Field Museum. Eventually he hopes to raise $3.5 million to make the new foundation self-sustaining.

Why is saving Madagascar’s biodiversity so critical? Consider the story of the velvet asity.

The bird, found only in Madagascar, has an elaborate wattle that can change color. After collecting one of the birds, Goodman sent its wattle to a colleague who was studying color-changing mechanisms in animals. It turned out the bird manipulated bundles of collagen fibers to produce the color change, an ability that had huge implications for the field of fiber-optic transmission. Goodman’s colleague caused a sensation when he later presented his scientific paper, not at a biology conference but at a fiber-optics convention.

In Madagascar, “there’s no sign of us hitting a plateau in new species,” Goodman says. “Enormous advances have been made, incredible advances. But we’re still a long way from reaching a point where we can turn back and say it’s known. It won’t happen in my lifetime.”

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(c) 2007, Chicago Tribune.

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