The Virus Hunter

By Tom Clynes

Author’s note: I often include this story in my keynote presentations. In terms of intrigue, it’s got just about everything: an exotic location, scary diseases and a protagonist whose efforts may very well prevent the next smallpox or Ebola from gaining a foothold in human bloodstreams.

On my journey with Nathan Wolfe and his team into the very jungle that produced the HIV virus, I could see how logging and bush-meat hunting is bringing humans deeper into once-isolated regions that have a history of spawning deadly pandemics. Meanwhile, society has stacked the decks in favor of opportunistic microbes, with our closely packed cities, our changing climate and our growing numbers of elderly.

Like many of the world-changers I’ve met, Wolfe has the conviction and tenacity to follow through in the face of challenges that would turn back most others. This is one of the most logistically challenging environments on earth, but as Wolfe tells his team, “If nothing is going wrong, it means we’re not asking tough enough questions.”

 


HIV, Ebola, and the vast majority of other killer diseases have passed from animals to humans. Virologist Nathan Wolfe is searching for the next AIDS before it makes the leap — and is revolutionizing the way the world tries to control diseases in the process.

It’s nearly midday when Brice Bidja steps out of the tangled forest surrounding the African village of Messok in southeastern Cameroon, gripping a Russian 12-gauge shotgun in one hand and the limp body of a mustached monkey in the other. Bidja usually returns alone after his hunts, but on this morning a handful of foreigners tags along with him as he approaches his mud-brick hut. Among the researchers, logisticians, and documentarians is American virologist Nathan Wolfe.

Wolfe stands just outside as the others duck through the low doorway; inside, the glare of the tropical sun gives way to a reddish glow of firelight on the faces of Bidja’s wife Sandrine and their two small children. Bidja sets the monkey down on a palm frond and pulls out a sheet of filter paper provided by Wolfe’s organization, the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (GVFI). Sandrine crouches and picks up a machete, then slices off one of the animal’s front legs and holds it over the paper, aiming the dripping blood at five printed circles. Once the targets are saturated, the hunter tucks the blood sample into a ziplock bag filled with silica gel packets and hands the bag to one of Wolfe’s colleagues. The group will run tests later to see if the animal that Bidja and his family would soon devour is infected with a particularly nasty virus that could jump to humans, ultimately becoming the next deadly pandemic.

Sandrine thrusts the monkey’s leg into the flames, perfuming the hut with burnt hair and skin. She sets it aside and continues the butchery as the foreigners come in closer with their cameras and notepads, documenting the blade’s passage through legs and tail and neck. At the doorway, Bidja chats with Wolfe, their simple French mixing with the sounds of splitting bones and separating tendons. Sandrine begins to open the monkey’s rib cage with sharp hacks of her machete, each of which unleashes a fine spray of blood. It’s too much for one of the visitors, who darts outside and makes a panicked reach into her backpack, pulling out a bottle of antibiotic gel.

“Oh good, you brought hand sanitizer,” Wolfe says, exaggerating a stifled smirk. “That’ll protect you, don’t worry.”

Children in southeastern Cameroon play with organs of a mustached monkey, recently hunted and butchered for the family dinner. Virologists analyze blood samples from animals like this, and from human hunters, to detect and prevent outbreaks of any viruses which might be transferred from animals to humans.

Meanwhile, Sandrine uses a smaller knife to finish readying every part of the money, except the entrails, for her family’s use. Seeing the children growing restless, she reaches into the animal’s chest cavity and cuts out its heart and liver. She tosses the floppy organs to the kids, who roll them in their hands like Silly Putty, showing them proudly to Wolfe.

Solidly built, with curly hair and plump, whiskered cheeks, Wolfe, 38, is at the muddy-boots vanguard of an ambitious movement that seeks to shift the way the world approaches disease control, from containing outbreaks to launching preemptive strikes against emerging viruses. “If we look at AIDS or smallpox or Ebola, or any of the really bad shit that has emerged over the past century,” says Wolfe, “the vast majority of these pathogens passed from animals to us. What we’re trying to do now is get upstream, way upstream, and catch the next HIV before it can explode into a killer pandemic.”

Read the entire story here.


Author, photojournalist and keynote speaker Tom Clynes travels the world covering the adventurous sides of science, the environment and education. His work appears in publications such as National Geographic, The New York Times, Nature, Popular Science, and The Atlantic. As a keynote speaker, Tom inspires audiences and brings them along “on assignment” to fascinating locations around the globe. Whether your group or organization is in search of adventure speakers, environmental speakers or your own in-house “National Geographic speaker series,” Tom’s presentations will earn high praise. To contact Tom and find out more about his memorable and inspiring programs, email info[at]tomclynes.com.

How Can 6 Million Acres at Denali Still Not Be Enough?

By Tom Clynes

Author’s Note: After a half-year of brainstorming about National Geographic Magazine’s yearlong celebration of America’s national parks, the magazine’s editors offered me the pick of the litter.

The choice was easy. Denali National Park, the crown jewel of America’s park system, offered a range of possibilities broad enough to be a world unto itself. It also offered some formidable challenges. I quickly realized that the normal conventions of outdoor reporting wouldn’t cut it in this vast wilderness, which is cut by only one 92-mile-long road.

I would spend a total of five weeks walking, skiing, flying and dog-sledding through the park’s spectacular terrain, during the extremes of the Alaskan winter and summer. These explorations yielded enough stories and images and controversies to fill dozens notebooks and photo data cards.

In the end, only a small fraction of this material fit into NatGeo’s 28-page feature, leaving plenty of adventures to share for the first time with audiences at my upcoming talks and presentations.


Denali: The icon of Alaska’s wilderness symbolizes the tension between preservation and use at U.S. national parks.

PARK RANGERS here call the high season—from June through early September, when Denali National Park and Preserve hosts the majority of its 500,000 annual visitors—the “hundred days of chaos.” Indeed a midsummer morning at the park’s Wilderness Access Center, located at the start of Denali’s fabled 92-mile-long Park Road, can feel a bit like rush hour at Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. Loudspeakers announce bus boarding times, and visitors from many nations crowd the ticket counter.

Most of Denali’s visitors are cruise ship passengers who see the park and its prolific wildlife largely through bus windows. “But if you’re seeking solitude, it’s not hard to find,” says ranger Sarah Hayes, who helps backpackers and hikers prepare for their adventures. “We’ve got six million acres of mostly trailless lands where wild animals roam undisturbed. And it’s accessible to anyone who hops off the bus.”

As my bus rolls out, noses press against windows, hands clutch cameras, and people speaking half a dozen different tongues excitedly speculate about wildlife sightings. I ask several passengers what’s on their wish list. “A moose!” “A grizzly!” “Caribou!” “A wolf!”

At the five-mile mark we spot our first animal. “Squirrel!” a kid yells, bringing the bus to laughter. After the 15-mile mark, the road turns to dirt and empties of cars. A few miles farther along the trees disappear. As the distant peaks of the Alaska Range come into view, the scale of this kingdom of nature becomes apparent. The driver slows down.

“It’s been hiding for two weeks now,” he says, wheeling the vehicle through a tight turn. “But there’s a pretty good chance that today …” As the towering mountain comes into hazy view, a dozen voices sing out, “Denali!”

Rising 20,310 feet above sea level, North America’s tallest peak is a stunning sight, although in warm weather its slopes are often shrouded in clouds. The mountain was a big part of the legend and lore of the Athabaskan-speaking people who gave it the name Denali, meaning Tall One. In 1896 gold prospector William Dickey renamed it Mount McKinley in honor of Ohio politician William McKinley, a staunch champion of the gold standard who one year later would become the nation’s 25th president. For decades Ohio’s congressional delegation successfully blocked attempts to rename the mountain. Then last summer the Obama Administration used its executive power to restore the original name.

Seeing the mountain, spotting a grizzly, or catching a glimpse of a wolf are the top three reasons people give for coming to Denali. As recently as 2010, a visitor stood a better chance of seeing a wolf in the wild than seeing the elusive Tall One, which is visible on just one in three summer days. But since 2010 the number of wolf sightings has plunged. According to a study of wildlife viewing opportunities along the Park Road, observers recorded wolf sightings on only 6 percent of trips in 2014—down from 45 percent in 2010. Park biologists report that the number of wolves inside the park has dropped from more than 100 a decade ago to fewer than 50 last year. I came to Denali, in part, to discover why.

Read the entire story here.


Author, photojournalist and keynote adventure speaker Tom Clynes travels the world covering the adventurous sides of science, the environment and education. His work appears in publications such as National Geographic, The New York Times, Nature, Popular Science, and The Atlantic. As a keynote speaker, Tom inspires audiences and brings them along “on assignment” to fascinating locations around the globe. Whether your group or organization is in search of adventure speakers, environmental speakers or your own in-house “National Geographic speaker series,” Tom’s presentations will earn high praise. To contact Tom and find out more about his memorable and inspiring programs, email info[at]tomclynes.com.

 

Nature: How To Raise a Genius

Lessons From a 45-year Study of Super-Smart Children.

A long-running investigation of exceptional children reveals what it takes to produce the scientists who will lead the twenty-first century.

On a summer day in 1968, professor Julian Stanley met a brilliant but bored 12-year-old named Joseph Bates. The Baltimore student was so far ahead of his classmates in mathematics that his parents had arranged for him to take a computer-science course at Johns Hopkins University, where Stanley taught. Even that wasn’t enough. Having leapfrogged ahead of the adults in the class, the child kept himself busy by teaching the FORTRAN programming language to graduate students.

Unsure of what to do with Bates, his computer instructor introduced him to Stanley, a researcher well known for his work in psychometrics — the study of cognitive performance. To discover more about the young prodigy’s talent, Stanley gave Bates a battery of tests that included the SAT college-admissions exam, normally taken by university-bound 16- to 18-year-olds in the United States.

Bates’s score was well above the threshold for admission to Johns Hopkins, and prompted Stanley to search for a local high school that would let the child take advanced mathematics and science classes. When that plan failed, Stanley convinced a dean at Johns Hopkins to let Bates, then 13, enroll as an undergraduate.

Stanley would affectionately refer to Bates as “student zero” of his Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), which would transform how gifted children are identified and supported by the US education system. As the longest-running current longitudinal survey of intellectually talented children, SMPY has for 45 years tracked the careers and accomplishments of some 5,000 individuals, many of whom have gone on to become high-achieving scientists. The study’s ever-growing data set has generated more than 400 papers and several books, and provided key insights into how to spot and develop talent in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) and beyond.

Read the rest of the story at Nature.com

Laser Scans Reveal Maya “Megalopolis” Below Guatemalan Jungle

By: Tom Clynes

A vast, interconnected network of ancient cities was home to millions more people than previously thought.

Author’s note: This story, which I reported in Guatemala and Mexico, garnered more than a million reads on the National Geographic website and was picked up by nearly every major media outlet. One of the more curious reactions came from some members of the Church Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who argued that the new discoveries


In what’s being hailed as a “major breakthrough” in Maya archaeology, researchers have identified the ruins of more than 60,000 houses, palaces, elevated highways, and other human-made features that have been hidden for centuries under the jungles of northern Guatemala.

Using a revolutionary technology known as LiDAR (short for “Light Detection And Ranging”), scholars digitally removed the tree canopy from aerial images of the now-unpopulated landscape, revealing the ruins of a sprawling pre-Columbian civilization that was far more complex and interconnected than most Maya specialists had supposed.

“The LiDAR images make it clear that this entire region was a settlement system whose scale and population density had been grossly underestimated,” said Thomas Garrison, an Ithaca College archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer who specializes in using digital technology for archaeological research.

Garrison is part of a consortium of researchers who are participating in the project, which was spearheaded by the PACUNAM Foundation, a Guatemalan nonprofit that fosters scientific research, sustainable development, and cultural heritage preservation. The project mapped more than 800 square miles (2,100 square kilometers) of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the Petén region of Guatemala, producing the largest LiDAR data set ever obtained for archaeological research.

The results suggest that Central America supported an advanced civilization that was, at its peak some 1,200 years ago, more comparable to sophisticated cultures such as ancient Greece or China than to the scattered and sparsely populated city states that ground-based research had long suggested.

In addition to hundreds of previously unknown structures, the LiDAR images show raised highways connecting urban centers and quarries. Complex irrigation and terracing systems supported intensive agriculture capable of feeding masses of workers who dramatically reshaped the landscape.

The ancient Maya never used the wheel or beasts of burden, yet “this was a civilization that was literally moving mountains,” said Marcello Canuto, a Tulane University archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer who participated in the project.

“We’ve had this western conceit that complex civilizations can’t flourish in the tropics, that the tropics are where civilizations go to die,” said Canuto, who conducts archaeological research at a Guatemalan site known as La Corona. “But with the new LiDAR-based evidence from Central America and [Cambodia’s] Angkor Wat, we now have to consider that complex societies may have formed in the tropics and made their way outward from there.”

SURPRISING INSIGHTS

“LiDAR is revolutionizing archaeology the way the Hubble Space Telescope revolutionized astronomy,” said Francisco Estrada-Belli, a Tulane University archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer. “We’ll need 100 years to go through all [the data] and really understand what we’re seeing.”

Already, though, the survey has yielded surprising insights into settlement patterns, inter-urban connectivity, and militarization in the Maya Lowlands. At its peak in the Maya classic period (approximately A.D. 250–900), the civilization covered an area about twice the size of medieval England, but it was far more densely populated.

“Most people had been comfortable with population estimates of around 5 million,” said Estrada-Belli, who directs a multi-disciplinary archaeological project at Holmul, Guatemala. “With this new data it’s no longer unreasonable to think that there were 10 to 15 million people there—including many living in low-lying, swampy areas that many of us had thought uninhabitable.”

Virtually all the Mayan cities were connected by causeways wide enough to suggest that they were heavily trafficked and used for trade and other forms of regional interaction. These highways were elevated to allow easy passage even during rainy seasons. In a part of the world where there is usually too much or too little precipitation, the flow of water was meticulously planned and controlled via canals, dikes, and reservoirs.

Among the most surprising findings was the ubiquity of defensive walls, ramparts, terraces, and fortresses. “Warfare wasn’t only happening toward the end of the civilization,” said Garrison. “It was large-scale and systematic, and it endured over many years.”

The survey also revealed thousands of pits dug by modern-day looters. “Many of these new sites are only new to us; they are not new to looters,” said Marianne Hernandez, president of the PACUNAM Foundation. (Read “Losing Maya Heritage to Looters.”)

Environmental degradation is another concern. Guatemala is losing more than 10 percent of its forests annually, and habitat loss has accelerated along its border with Mexico as trespassers burn and clear land for agriculture and human settlement.

“By identifying these sites and helping to understand who these ancient people were, we hope to raise awareness of the value of protecting these places,” Hernandez said.

The survey is the first phase of the PACUNAM LiDAR Initiative, a three-year project that will eventually map more than 5,000 square miles (14,000 square kilometers) of Guatemala’s lowlands, part of a pre-Columbian settlement system that extended north to the Gulf of Mexico.

“The ambition and the impact of this project is just incredible,” said Kathryn Reese-Taylor, a University of Calgary archaeologist and Maya specialist who was not associated with the PACUNAM survey. “After decades of combing through the forests, no archaeologists had stumbled across these sites. More importantly, we never had the big picture that this data set gives us. It really pulls back the veil and helps us see the civilization as the ancient Maya saw it.”


Author, photojournalist and National Geographic speaker Tom Clynes travels the world covering the adventurous sides of science, the environment, education and archaeology. His work appears in National GeographicThe New York TimesNature, Popular Science, The Atlantic and other publications. As a keynote speaker, Tom works with organizations that want to catalyze creativity and engagement at their events, inspiring audiences with his stories and photos and bringing them along on assignment to fascinating locations around the globe. To contact Tom and find out more about his memorable and motivating programs, please email info@tomclynes.com.