The ultimate Earth Day observation: following is a conversation with a modern day Charles Darwin, biologist, herpetologist, Adjunct Professor of Biological Science at Florida State University Dr. Bruce Means. We discuss a March 2021 expedition in which Means and writer/climber Mark Synnott traveled to a virtual Shangri-la in the deep, mysterious and ever dangerous jungles of Guyana to study an unclimbed tapui, where new species were discovered.
American climber Alex Honnold is featured in the National Geographic film and article, both released in April 2022.
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The following is a conversation with a modern day Charles Darwin, the biologist, herpetologist, adjunct professor of biological science at Florida State University, Dr. Bruce Means. Spoiler alert during the expedition in which means and writer climber Mark Sennett traveled to a virtual Shangri La in the deep, mysterious and ever dangerous jungles of Guyana to study and unclimbed Tepui, Means discovered five species that had previously never been known to science. Now that the spoiler is out of the way, this is the happiness quotient. Please subscribe wherever you're listening or watching as this is on YouTube as well. Comment, like and share with people you care about. If you want to find additional and exclusive material on this conversation, you can find me on email@example.com slash the happiness quotient. Today, I'll be adding an exclusive conversation with Mark Senate about his expedition with Bruce means and their history together. Having traveled five times previously to Guyana to study to poo is, Shangri La has come to mean any remote imaginary place where life approaches perfection. Few Shamgar laws remain on earth but one does exist. That's been lost since 1595. When on exploring Guyana for El Dorado Sir Walter Raleigh said he saw a far off mountain of crystal three centuries later, in 1912. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Lost World reawakened the world's imagination about a remote, ancient world protected by 1000 foot high cliffs in truths that last world and about 100 others like it really do exist. They are a series of ancient mesas called two pulleys, all of which are remote, pristine, high altitude Eden's of perfection that are not imaginary. I just read to you from the introduction of a book that Bruce means wrote called a tepee, a naturalist in Shangri La. It has yet to be published in March of 2021 means traveled with an elite team of climbers, filmmakers and naturalists to document new species in the rich Lee bio diverse elements of a South American typically, this expedition lit me up personally because for several years back in the early 2000s, I'd studied intently the possibility of launching my own search for Shangri La, in the nearby jungles of Suriname to wage a first ascent of an unclimbed mountain there which to this day, I actually don't know if it has yet been discovered or reached. Our challenge was to make our way up a five mile long series of cascades, named after Dutch explorer Sir Walter Raleigh. We were told that there were more poisonous creatures than we could possibly count. Alas, the expedition never got off the ground, and now it lives purely in my mind as fantasy my Shangri La means in Senate's expedition to Guyana included filmmaker renowned oz Turk, as well as American rock climber Alex Honnold. Senate's article islands in the sky is essentially a deep dive, if you will, into the life and work of Bruce means a virtual modern day, Darwin. That article appears in the April 2022 issue of National Geographic. The National Geographic film is called the last to Pui. I interviewed Bruce in June of 2021. But due to the nature of the information contained in the article and film which premieres today on Disney, plus in celebration of Earth Day, I was asked to kindly hold off on sharing this conversation until publication and on the film's premiere me means is no stranger to adventure and exploration. This was his 33rd expedition. Here's my conversation with the incredible and brilliant and passionate Dr. Bruce means from his home in Florida. This is why you Bruce. Good. All right. Hey, there he is. All right. There we go. This is the white beard connection going on. That's fantastic. Thank you. So you've, you're back from a big trip and I don't know how that goes with you if you just jump into the next one, or do you do kind of rest for a while or how's that? Oh,Dr. Bruce Means:
I wish I could jump into another one. That trip, you know, I turned 80 On that trip. And not many 80 year olds can do such a vigorous trip. And as a matter of fact, it was quite strenuous for me. My intention was to get up to the base of the wall. On this one wonderful deploy. We were attempting to do a transect from the lowland to the highlands to the summit of the buoy. But they they radioed me and told me that the last leg the last days, hike up a very steep slope with a lot of downed trees, was something they didn't feel they wanted me to do. Yeah. Now they had Alex Honnold on on the trip on the climb. So they they did the climb, which is pretty spectacular. Originally, the idea was to try to help hoist me up at my age, and I'm not a climber, but I would have done it. But the problem was, I, I was pretty, my legs were in pretty bad shape. My knee joints were bad. And I was very unstable. And so a slip and fall was very likely for me. I'm on a blood thinner Xarelto, which has no What do you call it anecdote. So it had I broken a leg or an arm or anything I could have bled out internally. And that would have influenced, you know, the whole expedition, because they would have had to try to find a way to haul my carcass out of their tradition was quite successful in the sense that the many days we spent hiking to get into the ultimate sites, and complete it enabled me to complete an elevational transect of amphibians and reptiles I've been working on for a number of years. So it turned out very successfully. But ironically, I'm still waiting for my specimens to be sent to me from Guyana. There's been all kinds of red tape. I had all the appropriate permits, but now it's tied up with FedEx doesn't want to ship preserved specimens. And so what is included in those preserved specimens? Well, just a few of them, not all of them were all preserved in ethanol to conserve the DNA. But about about 20 of them there were 165 and all I preserved they were large specimen. So I preserved in formaldehyde. And then of course, you know, I've watched that off of them. They're still they're still formaldehyde in them. And they're wrapped up in cloth and put in triples, Ziploc bags, there's no, there's no liquid in the bags. They've been washed soap, and but you know, anyway, they just have a policy not to ship anything with formalin. And it was difficult to get them to break their rule for this. Because even no matter what happened, even if the bags got ripped open, somehow you still wouldn't have had any kind of a problem. It wasn't like I had a bottle of formalin that if it burst, it would have really created havoc. Yeah. So you're talking about frogs and amphibians? Yeah, well, reptiles and amphibians. What's interesting in the tropics, and certainly in this part where I'm doing these elevational transects. Findings snakes is extremely difficult. And we had we had at some porters on this expedition, who were local Amerindians, and I paid them to find animals for me. And all together in maybe three weeks, we got six snakes. So snakes is not, but frogs are extremely abundant at night. And so they're the most profitable group to do a biodiversity study with in terms of getting sufficient samples to do your work. Lizards are not very common as well. They're secretive. Turtles, of course, are almost non existent, except in freshwater. And so, frogs is it in the NeotropicsThom Pollard:
you know, it it's fascinating to me, because I almost feel as though I could have spent two weeks just prepping to talk to you. Because the minute I opened up the first document you sent me I thought oh, this is just the beginning of this amazing wealth of knowledge and information. And then on the on the simpler side of things. It's like note we're just we can go back to the recent trip to Guyana and that will be my easy out But I'm fascinated with with your reference to ShangriLa that that these two pulleys are that that you call them, kind of the modern day ShangriLa. And I think there might be some people who would hear this interview who don't know what a tepee even is, and if you could, kind of just on a general layman's term, explain what it truly is, and then link it to that reference to Shangri La, because that's really beautiful. Yeah.Dr. Bruce Means:
Tepuis are very simply meses mesas are mountains that are formed as a flat landscape rises, and water begins to erode all around, leaving the pieces of the flat landscape isolated on buttes. You know, we have plenty of them out in American West. But these in the in the near in the area that I'm studying Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil, are the are the largest and most extensive two pulleys in the world. They were summarized to just around 10,000 feet. There's they're surrounded by vertical cliffs of anywhere from one to 3000 feet, the world's tallest waterfall Angel Falls drops 3000 plus feet off of one of them, and they're really lost worlds their islands in the sky. I'm calling it and Arthur Conan Doyle recognized their mystery by writing the novel The Lost World based on attempts that had been made by British expert exploratory teams around the night around the turn of the 1800s to the 1900s. Many expeditions to climb Mount Roraima, which is the most famous of the taboo is failed. until they finally find a way out found a way up now we've been myself and Mark Senate, who was the expeditions leader, have been in this particular area and also climbing Mount Roraima. For a decade and a half. I participated as the biologist on other expeditions with Mark, having climbed Mount Roraima doing a technical Cliff climb up the cliff face, which wasn't possible to do back around the turn of the 1900 1800 period. People didn't do technical claims at that period. And because they're such remote, beautiful wild places, they're also nutrient impoverished. So there was no reason for Amerindians to ever try to settle not only the summit's which were almost impossible to attain, but the surrounding lowlands and the slopes, because the sandy soils are just completely poor for growing anything. So it's remained biological remote, I call it it was a biodiversity hotspot because every time I go there, and other people who do research on the region, find animals and plants new to science just regularly. It's very rugged and remote. If you saw the film Avatar, you know they had floating Cliff islands and well those were those were modeled after corset two pulleys don't quote. But those phantasmagorical shapes with cliffs and the like are, were modeled after two pulleys as was the the little cartoon movie Up. As a matter of fact, the balloon went over landed on a cartoon version of Mount Roraima. So it's got literary and modern, artistic flavor. And I've been there, this was my 33rd expedition. And I have a book I've written about all of my explorations, to try to give a narrative account for people to have a feeling for what it's like to be in that part of nature and finding all these wonderful organisms. And I was trying to think of the appropriate title for it. And then it dawned on me that I thought this region was a Shangri La like region, Shangri La, was the mythical city in somewhere, I guess in Asia. That was a subject of another of a novel. But Shangri La has come to mean a mystical remote, wonderful, wild paradoxical, sort of eaten like place. And that's what I think these deploys are all about. The word to pui is just an Amerindian word for Mesa so there's there's the answer those questions all in a nutshell, wrapped up so your book has that been a published or is it it's about to be released, seeking a publisher? I certainly am. The title of it is to buoy comma, a naturalist inch Angola. Excellent, excellent. Wow. It's done. Boy to find a publisher for it. This book is an antecedent to what I just did with the National Geographic society's attempt to reestablish their explore documentary series. They're calling the documentary that I participated in the last tip Pui. And that's, that's a reference to my last set of soapUI. And the whole thing is about my, my work on deploys, and particularly trying to finish this elevational transect to the, to a mountain next to Mount Roraima called Whassa poo. So and then Mark Senate has written a National Geographic article about it as well. So if I could get my book published, and anyone wants to really read about the nitty gritty of all this kind of wonderful part of the world,Thom Pollard:
it would be great, that's fantastic, you know, um, for years and I was unsuccessful in endeavouring to head into Suriname and I had a an expedition that I had been plotting and planning there and it was to go up the if you will, the major river you're probably aware of Raleigh fallen right that long, kind of series of cascading waterfalls in Surinam that goes for five miles and and back then an inflatable canoe was not as possible. So we had this three piece canoe that we were going to take apart and, and you know, Portage up into the, into the jungle and go climb this mountain that at least at the time, we believed had never been climbed before. But um, so I did a little bit of, of research and became fascinated with some movies, although we weren't climbing it to pui that we were what we were after. But the one thing that really fascinated me is that there at least I believe this is true that that there are species of of animals, if you will, or amphibians or reptiles that have been isolated on the tops of two pulleys, and perhaps only exist on the tops of these two pulleys. So somebody like Darwin, or Humboldt would come across these things and be absolutely fascinated like Galapagos Islands, but in the interior of the continent, is that true? All right. Yeah, that's absolutely correct. And that's what I've been doing. On all these expeditions. I have a table top coffee, coffee table book, I'm also trying to produce for a Publish. It's called islands on the sky. And I, I it's a it's a photography book showing all of this.Dr. Bruce Means:
As you go up in elevation everywhere in the world, you know, different climatic zones change and animals and plants are adapted to those various climatic zones. In the tropics, it's extremely dramatic, even 1000 foot right, a rise in elevation can cause enough difference for organisms, plants and animals to become adapted to the local nuances of climate and be different but when you get on top of a summit of a tepee that's been isolated for maybe millions of years, then organisms living up there, you know, to please a very, the summit's are very harsh environments, because it rains and it miss all the time. And, but But the interesting the Achilles heel, heel, in the life cycles of organisms on deploys is not when it rains, it's when the sun comes out. Because tropical latitudes, the Add at eight or 9000 feet or the there's not nearly as much protection from the in insulation, insulation, meaning infrared and ultraviolet light. So plants especially can dry out exceedingly quickly, and just an hour or to have direct sunlight at 1000 feet on the equator. So what are all the adaptations the plants have water loss mechanisms to try to keep water loss down? So the leaves are thick, or they're hairy, or they're tiny? It's almost a mat anachronism, I guess, you know, it's a it's an oxymoron. Let's put it that way that you get up on top of this rainy wet place, and you expect the plants and animals to be adapted for the moisture. And it's completely the opposite. Because of the severity of what happens when it does become sunny for a while.Thom Pollard:
What were we always viewed as the, the isolated, genus orDr. Bruce Means:
are well, the summit does have the summits of many of these to please do have an interesting little frog group call it to Puhi pebble toads, their little codes that have got special hind feet that enable them to grasp and decline. And what happens. And I've actually been involved helping BBC film this. They it's very rocky on many to police summits. And I mean the large boulders mount house size boulders and cliffs in the light. So they climb up these rocks and these cliffs and if a tarantula or scorpion is after them, they just tuck in their legs and they roll downhill. So we've built that, but the biodiversity is not on the summit's the biodiversity you can reach so much now you know he can do technical climbs, but the most effective ways by helicopter. So many of the summits not all but there's about 100 of these Dupuis by the way they've been reached by helicopter and studies have been done on the summit by biota. But where the real richness is, is on the talus slopes below the cliffs, which are exceedingly densely forested with what's called a cloud forest. So when you get down to 7000 6000 5000 4000, that 4000 foot elevational range, where all these dense, beautiful forests are men, that's where life abounds in and great measure. One of the deploys I've studied in Guyana, which is not even on maps, for goodness sakes, it's 34 kilometers long and seven wide, 17 wide. It's huge. I've made four expeditions there. And every single time I go there, I find one or two species of all kinds of things new to science animals. So and I have one right now I'm trying to write up a beautiful little frog that lives on this web. So So yeah, yeah, the two pulleys are, it's quite obvious to me that they reckon they represent an un recognized biodiversity hotspot of high importance on the planet. But their remoteness. And the difficulty and expense of getting to the, where the biodiversity is, has kept us from understanding from accumulating the data that say, well, instead of 25 species, or 100 species, there's 2000 species all around in the region, all of them off the base of all these two buoys. We don't know that yet. But hopefully,Thom Pollard:
it'll come to pass in the future if we don't blow it blow each other off the plan. Yeah, well, that that's the that's a kind of a, the thought is like, there's that, you know, and everybody brings themselves to this realm, and they create in whatever way they create, and I guess it's all fine and well, that people want to go populate Mars. But right here on this planet, there's, there's a lot that we don't know, and a lot that we could use here. And I'm not saying to exploit I'm saying things that we could learn just like from the, from the tribes that live in the jungles who understand how a plant might, you know, help an illness or something like that. So it sounds like you're because everybody's like, it's all been done, there's Everest has been climbed, the polls have been reached, and the Mariana Trench was reached, and but there's a lot left that we have know, for certain on all levels.Dr. Bruce Means:
The pulleys, let me give you some examples. Discoveries are usually made serendipitously. I mean, some guy sitting on a grass watching an apple fall. Gravity, I mean, come on, oh, that's one of the great unifying forces of the of the, of the whole universe. Or sitting in noticing that a petri dish, a certain fungal organism kept bacteria away from it. I mean, that's what happens. Well, look, in these two movies, we have dozens if not hundreds, of animals and and plants, all of which are relatively unknown to science. Many of them have wonderful, special characteristics that could be valuable to man, although they're valuable in just in themselves to to themselves. Look, every single living organism on this planet has has one thing in common, there hasn't been a single break in the reproductive activity leading into that organism. And if you go back in time, genetics will show you, you're related to every single living thing on the planet. So we've all gone through the same, including humans and our ancestors, the same trials and tribulations of evolution and, and threats to our existence as every other thing on the planet. So everything has value. But but that doesn't mean that some organisms like predators, like us, can't take advantage of others, provided, we don't take advantage of the others in such a way that we caused them to go extinct. That's something humans grapple with, and don't do such a great job with in some cases, but are many cases. But anyway, alright, so what I'm trying to do is trying to tell you, I don't like the, the, what's good for man hypothesis, but bottom line is it is there's there are frogs down there that have skin secretions that I've discovered, and notice that they're very pungent to smell and they taste bitter. Those skin secretions could have a cure for cancer or a cure for, I don't know, skin disease, or some sort of who knows. So, look, the whole human experience is the experience of cognition. The one gift we have is awareness and cognition. And all of that leads to building a scientific background for look, what what will we what would we have done about COVID and other diseases if we have not had the scientific expertise to know how to fight it? Or do you get that expertise via knowledge you gain from nature. And so that, that that justifies, in my opinion, any and all efforts to do research of any and all kinds all over the planet? And the planets, right for a lot more, we've just scratched the surface, right.Thom Pollard:
Bruce amazing, I this is really fascinating, you know, it this is kind of a jump off into another tangent, I don't mean to go down a rabbit hole or anything. But you know, I've been kind of following some, some threads on social media of people going into on Vancouver Island and, and logging, you know, ancient forests. And it there, it's almost like there's competing forces going like good versus evil. And I hate to simplify it, but I guess since we talked about Shangri La, in a way that, that maybe it's it's okay to invoke it. But it's like, there, there are some some people on this planet who look to just exploit nature for the just big Hey, we're man, we were put on this planet, and we'll eat all the animals, and we'll chop the forest down if we need to. And then there's the other side, who is aware, keenly aware of changes going on in the planet, you know, for jungles being, you know, decimated and burned down to make room for cows that become hamburgers at McDonald's? I guess. And it there's this balance?Dr. Bruce Means:
Where, where? Where are we going? I mean, I know that you're not God. But are we going to be okay or yell? No, absolutely not. We've already passed many thresholds that we've shot ourselves in the foot. Look, oh, my goodness, the greed that motivates people to utilize resources to their extinction. Look, we've wiped out so many marine environment, animals and organisms, you know, that all is going to fit that is feeding back on us, for gosh sakes. You know, we pump so much co2 in the air. If people would just watch the Keeling Curve every day, and realize how unbelievably scary it is that we are continually adding more and more co2 to the atmosphere? And if you don't, all of that feeds back negatively on us, right. So look, let me tell you one thing, there's a whole lot of things one could be said in this arena. But the one that I as a biologist most likes to think about. If you're interested in learning about nature, or about you know what the real phenomena are and how they act or how how nature operates, which includes us, you know, what's in store for us? You need to have environments in which organisms evolved and to which they're best adapted in order to study those phenomena. You don't go out onto a rice field and try to learn what the hell the biology is of some of the black Redwing blackbirds that are eating the rice, because that's not their natural environment. That's just a lot Part of how they're trying to survive in the face of human activity. So conservation, and especially conservation of native ecosystems, where we can conserve them is exceedingly important because that's where the main knowledge exists about all of the organisms on the planet. And it also is where the phenomena of overpopulation, and predation and disease and all that, that enter, enter, that, that affects or other organisms, is to be learned because those same phenomena affect us. And they are affecting us right now. And you know, as Americans, we're sitting in very nice and comfortable look at my, you know, I got books all over and you got a nice place where you go around, every young youngster in this country ought to have a whole summer off into a Third World, part of the world and live with a family, this Grubin for a living out of the ground, and realize here's a good one. We're in the top 20 countries of the world, by population alone, not by density. Where does the United States stack? You know, the first thing is gonna be China, in terms of number of people a second will be India, were in the top 20 with us fit down there probably. That's what I thought originally two. Yeah, we're number three, really? Number three, 300. And what we just passed the 300. Yeah, we're the third most populous country in the world. We're not the third densest, but the next most populous country, I think, is Indonesia. So and it's like that it's below 200 million are right around 200 men. As we keep increasing, and utilizing resources, and causing, you know, old growth forests to be lost forever, for the mighty dollar that somebody wants to generate from it. We're losing all of the important laboratories, in which natural laboratories in which the knowledge about the world and about how we're going to be affected by what we're doing to the world lies and resides. Anyway, if we keep doing what we're doingThom Pollard:
well, you know, if all of mankind were, you know, wiped from the planet, the Earth would probably be better off for it. Right. Yeah, the EarthDr. Bruce Means:
does restore itself. Oral does have? Yeah, you know, we've had many extinctions, some really major extinctions. And following the extinction, there is an interesting, apparently an interesting phenomenon on this planet, that life tends to proliferate and, and, and diversify in time until there's another extinction event. So the planet and the life on this planet are not going to go away no matter what we do it, but we may well, and we may well go away sooner than we think.Thom Pollard:
So, so Bruce, just to, you know, I'm so appreciative of your time, and I'm fascinated by this. And I would love to be on an expedition with you, I can only imagine all the chatter at dinner and while you're trekking, or walking through the muck in the mud and the rain, and but, you know, say there's a there's somebody considering going to college, a young person who's interested in, in what we just spoke of, what should they do? What's their what would be a good? I, you know, obviously, following their, their, you know, what kind of pulls them, you have to be your own unique self. But is there a course of education? Is there a field of study, and as you had said, everybody should go to, you know, live with a family in Colombia or Venezuela and eating off the land. So I guess you already told me, but educationally speaking, if somebody said, that I want to be Bruce means of the next generation.Dr. Bruce Means:
Did they come and take your class at FSU, or, you know, well, first and foremost, you should follow your passions, you should figure out what it is that interests you. I mean, you know, if you just want to become a biologist, because there's some other neat ones around it sounds neat to you. That's not the good reason. If you like birds, or you like mushrooms, or you're fascinated by bacteria, then pursue that and pursue it in every way you can, educationally because it can lead to a really satisfying life and productive life that enables you to do Maybe add to the wealth of knowledge that human beings have created by, you know, the scientific method and being good observers and speaking only truth. Yeah, yeah, it's, you know, biology is hugely variable. If I had a life to do over again, I tried to just be a botanist, and learn all all about plants, but, but a good naturalist is somebody who takes in aspects of all of nature, geology, you know, mathematics helps learning, certainly anything and everything to do with genetics. And so you kind of have to write your own recipe, but pursue it wherever you go. And don't be afraid to like something like snakes, because they just can lead to understanding the same phenomena, about how things operate on this planet, as if you were studying funguses, or you were studying lichens on trees, or you're looking at fish in an aquatic environment. So that that's my best recommendation. If you're interested, and you're passionate about things that appeal to you, and not everything appeals to everybody, so it's whatever, whatever. Don't let other people Poopoo. You. I mean, look, when I was younger, and I had an interest in snakes, as you can imagine what kind of pressure I had on me, snakes was, Wow, well, I completed a 40 year study and just published a couple of years ago, on the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. I studied with radio telemetry for that long period of time. So and in that I learned an awful lot that has useful application to human behavior, but I'm off looking at other creatures and just in having a great life. Wonderful, wonderful. You you were bitten by that one of those rattlesnakes i different times. Yeah. And you lift apparently less this.Thom Pollard:
How did that feel? How did thisDr. Bruce Means:
hazard you know if you're gonna work with something dangerous and deadly. Yeah. And you're not careful over over a long period of time, the likelihood of suffering the consequences is high. And that happened to me but that fortunately, I knew what to do. I had access to medical help. And I survived it and I have no I would have done it. I'd do it all over again. Just because it interested me to. This was the largest rattlesnake in the world. And, you know, Asia has has the tiger Africa has the lion we got the eastern diamondback rattlesnake andThom Pollard:
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