SBU’s Mittermeier travels the world preserving hot spots

SBU’s Mittermeier travels the world preserving hot spots

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His previous passport had close to 100 extra pages. His current passport, which he started using in 2010, may well exceed that. “My passport is a source of never-ending amusement for my friends,” said Russell Mittermeier, an adjunct professor at Stony Brook.

What drives the 64-year-old scientist to travel to places like Brazil, Madagascar and Suriname is the need to monitor the health of ecosystems where rare, threatened or endangered animals, including many non-human primates, live.

Mittermeier, who is the president and one of the leaders of Conservation International, encourages local communities to rally around the animals that live in their areas, meets with the leaders of national governments, and seeks donors who will support efforts to preserve hot spots — important regions where the density of threatened species is high. At these hot spots, 2.3 percent of Earth’s land surface contains more than half of all plant species and over 40 percent of all vertebrates, he said.

He helps develop “primate ecotourism, which is based on the model of bird-watching, to help get more people to see primates and get excited about them,” Mittermeier said. Ecotourism generates revenue for the communities living close to priority areas for primates, he explained. “Species are not evenly distributed across the planet,” Mittermeier said from an airport in Miami on his way to Suriname. “They are heavily concentrated in some areas. Many of those areas are severely impacted by human activities.”

Conservation International Funds, including the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and the Global Conservation Fund “have been instrumental in funding conservation in these hot spots,” he said.

Mittermeier’s research and conservation efforts recently earned him a second nomination as a finalist for the Indianapolis Prize, a highly prestigious award given every two years to someone who contributed to conservation of a species or species. The winner receives a $250,000 cash award. Mittermeier said he is honored to be a finalist and called the award “the premier prize in wildlife conservation.”

Patricia Wright, a professor in the Anthropology Department at Stony Brook, said Mittermeier “has a reputation of being a conservation leader, putting together the big picture on conservation policy.”

Wright said the books “Lemurs of Madagascar” (2010) and last year’s “Handbook of the Mammals of the World,” in which Mittermeier was the lead editor, are a “life’s work in themselves. These field guides and references are treasures for spurring conservation awareness.”

Mittermeier’s career has taken him to places where he has been the first to see or recognize a new species of animal.

In 1974, as a graduate student at Harvard, Mittermeier was in the Northern Peruvian Andes, looking for a yellow-tailed woolly monkey when he found a small brown frog. A few days later, he collected a lizard.

About 15 years later, an expert in frogs studied some of the individual brown frogs Mittermeier had brought back with him and determined it was an unknown species. He named it after Mittermeier. Some time later, the lizard he found from that trip took his name, too. Mittermeier has had seven species, including two lemurs and an ant, named after him, while he has been the first to describe 14 species.

On his journeys around the world, Mittermeier has created some amusing, and hair-raising, memories. He has come face-to-face with tigers and jaguars. In 2010, Mittermeier was on a trip in Suriname with his two sons, John, now 28, and Mickey, now 21. He was traveling with the U.S. ambassador to that country, John Nay. On the way back from climbing a mountain, their boat turned over. The group lost sight of Nay, who was wearing a life vest, for a few moments.

“About 200 meters over, he had floated to another pile of rocks,” Mittermeier recalled. “He had a great story to tell” after his return.

Mittermeier’s children have followed in his world-traveling footsteps. An ornithologist, John, who saw over 2,000 bird species in the past year, is working towards his doctorate at Louisiana State University. A junior at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla, Mickey is doing a term abroad in Australia, where he studies reptiles and is also interested in anthropology. His daughter Juliana is a senior in high school.

Mittermeier has no intention of slowing down in his conservation efforts and remains optimistic about his work. He said he “wont be stopped by anything.” He either “runs over an obstacle or moves around it.” His passport is proof of that.