Ecologist Thomas Lovejoy Reflects on 50 Years of Amazon Research

Tom Lovejoy has been visiting the Amazon and conducting environmental research for 50 years. Photo courtesy of Thomas Lovejoy.

Tom Lovejoy has been visiting the Amazon and conducting environmental research for 50 years. Photo courtesy of Thomas Lovejoy.

A high school biology class was all it took to set renowned ecologist and George Mason University professor Thomas Lovejoy down a path that led him to the Amazon in Brazil and changed environmental research.

Lovejoy’s 36-year Amazon project looks at habitat “islands” or fragments, and has spurred new generations of ecologists. The project was called “the greatest ecology experiment of all time” by noted Duke University biologist Stuart Pimm. Lovejoy also coined the term “biodiversity” and helped start the influential TV series, “Nature.” He pioneered “debt-for-nature” swaps, where environmental groups leverage international debt for conservation projects.

Lovejoy works with Mason graduate students as well as giving lectures at Mason. He teaches a graduate course in the spring called “Challenges in Biodiversity,” which helps students begin to learn how to solve real-world problems in biodiversity.

He joined Mason in 2010.

“I chose Mason because of its flexibility as a young university and because of understanding at all leadership levels­­––College of Science, the provost and the president—of the central importance of biodiversity and sustainability,” Lovejoy said.

Teachers guided the early days of Lovejoy’s journey. Then 14 years old, Lovejoy had no idea a biology class at Millbrook School in Dutchess County, N.Y., would make all the difference.

“With enormous foresight I said, ‘I’ll take biology the first year and get it over with,’” joked Lovejoy. Now 73, he’s a University Professor in Mason’s Environmental Science and Policy Department, a fellow at the United Nations Foundation and is National Geographic’s first Conservation Fellow.

Three weeks into that first class and Lovejoy was fascinated by all living things. His inspiring teachers—husband and wife Frank and Janet Trevor—started with primitive plants in the fall and moved to mammals by spring.

“I found the variety of life transfixing,” Lovejoy said. He worked at the school’s zoo, starting by caring for a grey squirrel and working his way up to the cheetah. By senior year, he was in charge of the student-run zoo.

When Lovejoy left for Yale University, where he earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees, he didn’t plan to become a scientist. That is, until ornithologist Dillon Ripley, who was then director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, encouraged him to conduct research on biology-related artifacts at an archeological dig in Nubia.

“That put me into having scientific adventures—and the enthusiasm is still there,” Lovejoy said.

After the dig, Lovejoy was “besotted by East Africa” and planned to research birds there, until his freshman advisor and ornithologist Philip Humphrey invited him to the Amazon to study birds for his doctoral thesis. It was 1965.

“I never looked back,” Lovejoy said.

It took a day to reach Brazil, following the World War II “milk run” route. He met famed ecologist Charles Elton, then 65, who also was on his first trip to the Amazon.

“It was amazing, and I hadn’t even left the airport yet,” said Lovejoy.

Thomas Lovejoy has been examining biodiversity and conservation for 50 years. Photo courtesy of Thomas Lovejoy.

Thomas Lovejoy has been examining biodiversity and conservation for 50 years. Photo courtesy of Thomas Lovejoy.

The Brazilian Amazon had one road cutting through a region the size of the 48 contiguous United States and contained 20 percent of the world’s river water.

“It was bewildering in a way because it was all so green,” Lovejoy said.

A few years after earning his doctorate and following the lead of his mentors who had taught him the importance of conservation, he began to formulate a giant experiment that sought to answer the “single large or several small” (SLOSS) debate about which was better to protect­—giant tracts of land or smaller hotspots.

“I realized until we understood SLOSS, we wouldn’t know if projects would work,” said Lovejoy, who headed the conservation program at the then new World Wildlife Fund-US from 1973 to 1987. “I worried it like a dog worries a bone.”

The habitat fragmentation research started in 1978 and continues today at the project’s basecamp dubbed “Camp 41.”

“We didn’t have the knowledge that we have today,” Lovejoy said. “I thought it would take 20 years. It all turns out to be much more complicated, as it always turns out to be in nature.”

Becoming an environmentalist was a natural offshoot of studying biology because he needs to protect as well as research, Lovejoy said.

Introducing the Amazon to students and others (Mason president Ángel Cabrera and his family visited in 2013) motivates Lovejoy to continue. He’s working on creating an institution for Camp 41 so the research can continue even after he stops work.

“When you see what Camp 41 actually does,” he said, “not just the science, but the human capital it develops, you see people’s eyes change when you take them there.”

He tells students that there are two kinds of people: those who see the obstacle and stop dead, and those who find the way around it.

“I want them to be the latter,” he said.

That can be daunting when climate change, decreasing habitats and declining biodiversity seem to be on the upswing.

“It’s so easy just to look at the red ink,” he said. “You see it closing in. But every morning is a new day, and I look at the challenges for that day.”

This article originally appeared on Mason News

Write to Michele McDonald at

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