A fitting tribute

Wikipedia picture.
Alexander Von Humboldt- An environmentalist ahead of his times. Picture courtesy Wikipedia.com

As a student, when one begins to study the environment outside of the textbooks, many nuances emerge. Resolving some of these take decades, other times, we find an answer by chatting with our colleagues or by deeper reading. The mystery I am sharing today has some many strands to it. One conclusion is a happy one, not so with the others.

During the field visits to the Western Ghats forests, one of my senior colleagues explained that there were many endangered species of trees to be found here. The one that he hoped to still find in the wild was named Humboldtia Vahliana, a small tree occupying the sub-canopy in stratum of the rain forest. If you are curious about the tree you are reading click here to find out more.

As a field biologist, I could identify many of the species to the level of the family and genera, but species was still tough for me. And a rain forest is ridiculously abundant in species, which is a joy when you know all the species and can keep up with the experienced field botanists, or a disaster if you cannot get most of it right. Although I was not at the deep end of the second category, I was not sitting comfortably in the first one either. And thus I did not pay too much attention to the hunt for the species. Even when my colleague tracked it down, I was simply curious and examined the leaves, flowers, and fruits. And I remember thinking, what a fuss for this unremarkable tree. Indeed, there was nothing remarkable about it. At least at that time.

While analyzing the data from the site visit, I found out this unremarkable tree, as I had thought, was endangered. There was a very small population of this species growing in the wild. Wow! That made me feel kind of numb at my causal attitude I had displayed when I saw the tree in wild. In all probability, I might never see a live tree again and I felt remorse that I could have paid deeper attention to the environment it grew in. Did I notice the neighboring species? Did I check the kind of leaf litter? Did I check on the type of wood? I might have it my notes, but field botanists relay more on their senses. The tree was in flower and I had picked up some flowers, but decided that there was nothing remarkable about them. Perhaps that is why the species is endangered.

That day, I learned an important life lesson from meeting Humboldtia. I know for sure that my encounter with every other creature starting from that moment would be more deliberate, involved and engaged. It also set me up to ask the question, why was this species named Humboldtia? Why not something more local, more regional? What meaning did it have?

Humboldtia also exhibits unusual ant-plant interactions. While the flowers are pollinated by small bees, ants live in hollow petiole protecting the plants from other intruders, especially catterpillars. For anyone studying plant-animal interaction, the system is a wonderful model to examine the benefits and trade-offs. I made up for some of my initial casualness by studying deeper about this fascinating aspect.

Years later, I discovered the species was named after Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) a Prussian naturalist. The genus Humboldtia is a tropical genera with six known species, five of them are in India. All the five species are endemic to Peninsular India. Although Humboldt had never been to India, his explorations took him to a five-year voyage to study the forests of South and central America.

Coincidentally, September 14, 2019 marks the 250th birth Anniversary of Humboldt. Many works produced by Humboldt are being shown across the world and we have easy access to much more information. There is so much to celebrate!

Humboldt’s achievements are remarkable. He laid foundation to the field of biogeography by his careful measurements and observations he noted during his travels. As early as 1800’s he synthesized the connection between human-induced climate change and habitat loss that led to soil erosion and loss of water table. Given his remarkable abilities to synthesize information, he invented isotherms to link areas around the globe that have same temperatures. Today, we see these wavy lines on all weather maps. And his interest in the geomagnetism led him to discover the position of the Earth’s magnetic equator. His achievements are numerous in every field. Several places, phenomenon and places have been named after him. Humboldtia is a small tribute from Indian subcontinent for the genius contributions of Alexander von Humboldt.

If you are interested to know more about the achievements of Alexander von Humboldt, you can read some new titles- The invention of Nature, The adventures of Alexander von Homdboldt, Views of Nature, Cosmos, and Alexander von Humboldt: The Botanical Exploration of the Americas.
What inspiration did you receive from Humboldt today?