Humboldt the Ecologist

In the course of reading The Invention of Nature, by Andrea Wulf (see Getting to know Humboldt), I have come to learn the important role that Alexander von Humboldt played in the field of ecology, theretofore an unacknowledged science.  Famous for his intrepid exploration of the tropics in Venezuela and the Andes of Colombia and Peru, Humboldt's major gift to humanity may have been his insights regarding the unity of nature, the interdependence of ecosystems and the effects of human civilization on the health of our natural environment.

Energetic, enthusiastic and inquisitive, he made detailed records of his discoveries and, in the course of that process, took note of similar ecosystems across the globe, related by latitude and/or elevation.  Indeed, to my knowledge, he was the first explorer to develop the concept of life zones, thereby emphasizing the effects of climate on the resident plants and animals.  He also observed and reported on the negative effects that human societies have on the environment, including those produced by deforestation, stream diversion and over-hunting.

Completing his excursion through South and Central America just as Lewis and Clark were beginning their exploration of the American West, Humboldt clearly had far more interest in the ecology of the landscapes through which he traveled.  Based on my readings (see Up River with Lewis and Clark and subsequent posts), the famous American explorers were focused primarily on finding a route to the Pacific; while their description of the landscape and wildlife is fascinating and their journey was no less courageous, they made little reference to the natural science of Western ecosystems.