Paleobiologist Melissa Kemp spends quite a lot of time overturning assumptions. Her excavations don’t contain digging bleached bones out of windswept deserts, however in search of partially preserved lizard fossils in darkish, dank jungle caves. Final month, she printed a research monitoring human-driven species introduction within the Caribbean by way of the area’s 7,000 years of human habitation—difficult the concept that “restoring” Caribbean biodiversity means taking it again to the place it was earlier than Christopher Columbus arrived within the so-called New World round 530 years in the past.
Kemp, who runs a lab and teaches integrative biology on the College of Texas at Austin, opened up on Twitter final week about her expertise as a Black scientist and outdoorswoman, beneath the hashtag #BlackInNature—as a part of persevering with conversations about race in America following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and the harassment of Black birder Christian Cooper. She spoke with NOVA about decolonizing environmental restoration, tropical fossil quirks, and the fun of time exterior.
Alissa Greenberg: Let’s begin with the hashtag #BlackInNature, which you’ve utilized in tweeting about your love of spending time exterior. What’s necessary about that point in nature for you? What do you’re feeling prefer it does for you bodily and emotionally?
Melissa Kemp: I really like spending time in nature. I dwell in Austin now, in a way more city setting than I used to be raised in. But it surely’s nonetheless very rejuvenating simply to go exterior and have a look at the sky, have a look at the vegetation, discover animals on the property and simply see that there is life there. Even once I’m doing my subject analysis, there’s bursts of energetic work the place we’re mountain climbing by way of the rainforest attempting to get to our website. However then after we get there, it may be very gradual. The work that we’re doing may be very meditative. So nature may be very therapeutic for me. It’s performed a vital position for me personally and professionally.
Significantly fascinated by the COVID disaster, so many individuals are looking for solace in nature throughout this time. And I believe, now greater than ever, it actually must be accessible to everybody, with every thing that is occurring—not solely to make discoveries in and study, however simply to get pleasure from and to really feel comfy having fun with it.
AG: You mentioned in a tweet that you simply grew up exploring exterior on land your great-great-great-grandfather purchased after emancipation. So your loved ones has been there ever since?
MK: Sure. I grew up in Maryland, exterior of Baltimore. Not likely that removed from any metropolis, however very, very rural and located close to a state park. And due to that, I had quite a lot of nature at my disposal. I grew up listening to tales. My mother and my aunts and uncles would inform tales about how they’d exit within the woods and discover. So I all the time had a connection to nature. I by no means questioned that connection as a result of I felt like I lived in it—even simply realizing that my household had been there for therefore lengthy. The church cemetery was throughout the street, so I may go within the woods and see the graves of my ancestors.
AG: You additionally talked about in that very same tweet that your grandmother taught you to mark recapture, the biology approach to assist estimate animal populations.
MK: Particularly through the summers when my cousins could be there, and my grandmother had all these youngsters to cope with, we’d go round in search of animals. We all the time discovered turtles, jap field turtles. We might write our initials on them in nail polish, which we actually most likely should not have been doing, and maintain them for an evening, then launch them. She would all the time inform us, “Search for your turtles,” and we’d discover them once more. Generally years later, we’d discover a turtle and be like, “Wait, that is MK, that’s my turtle!” She actually inspired us to only go on the market and discover. I believe it actually rubbed off on me.
AG: How did you find yourself working in integrative biology? And why did you select to deal with islands?
MK: I did not come into science in probably the most conventional method. Once I was rising up, I all the time thought I used to be going to be an artist. I went to artwork magnet faculties as a child and educated at a very excessive stage, largely portray and drawing. I nonetheless strategy science in a method that’s just like how I strategy artwork. This diligence of engaged on one thing for a really very long time and in addition being open to suggestions from others to make the work higher. Artwork is a really iterative course of. It might probably take years earlier than a bit is finished, and it isn’t a dash, it is a marathon. I believe quite a lot of the identical ideas apply to science as effectively. And my eye for element possibly helps me discover nuances in supplies I have a look at. Once I’m working with fossils I am consistently completely different shapes and in search of variations in buildings of the completely different fossils I am dealing with.
I research how biodiversity in tropical areas originates each by way of processes of extinction and diversification, in addition to colonization. Significantly, I am all for how modifications within the setting then influence the completely different communities of organisms that now we have. I am all for these previous situations of change that we are able to see by way of the fossil file, as a result of it is the important thing to essentially understanding the biodiversity that now we have right this moment, but in addition helps us perceive how biodiversity may change sooner or later.
Islands particularly are actually fascinating biologically, and there’s been a wealth of research of numerous life-forms of islands, significantly lizards. However we do not actually have as a lot literature on fossil occurrences of lizards. That is why I began specializing in islands, as a result of we actually do not have an intensive understanding of how we bought to current day biodiversity.
Human-driven biodiversity change within the Caribbean didn’t begin in 1492. There’s a 7,000-year legacy of change.
AG: You lately printed a paper that delves fairly deeply into that matter. Are you able to summarize what you have been in search of and what you discovered?
MK: We have been actually all for investigating how people have modified the biota of the Caribbean, significantly by way of which species they’ve launched. This paper is de facto fascinated by what we’re including to the islands—and what are the impacts of what we’re including? How do these introductions scale throughout time? We developed a database of species introductions by going by way of the archaeological literature, in addition to the paleontological literature, to get a way of what we learn about species introductions, after which additionally what we do not know.
I believe one of many largest takeaways is the truth that people have been engineering the panorama for millennia, significantly these locations that we consider as not too long ago perturbed. Human-driven biodiversity change within the Caribbean didn’t begin in 1492. There’s a 7,000-year legacy of change. We’ve got these phrases that I don’t assume are consultant of the biodiversity of the Caribbean, like “New World.” They’re actually phrases steeped in European colonization, referring again to the Caribbean as one thing being “new” to Europeans, when individuals had been dwelling there for a really, very very long time.
Once we take into consideration what the Caribbean used to seem like, for those who ask someone on the road that query, they’re most likely going to consider earlier than Columbus and Europeans got here. And we’re undoubtedly all for that interval, very a lot so. However we’re additionally all for what it seemed like earlier than any people arrived. And we actually wish to acknowledge how Indigenous teams within the Caribbean moved round, what species they have been bringing, how they have been utilizing species, and the way their manipulation of the panorama modified biodiversity within the Caribbean.
AG: Why is it necessary to ask these questions? Not simply culturally but in addition scientifically?
MK: We’ve got to be sensible about what’s truly possible. The best restoration goal most likely within the head of lots of people within the public could be what the setting was like earlier than we got here and messed all of it up. But it surely’s not a sensible goal, partly as a result of we have misplaced so many species that have been within the panorama earlier than people arrived.
What we see in quite a lot of programs after an extinction of 1 animal is that you’ve got an extinction cascade the place different issues go extinct as a result of organisms are interconnected with each other. They do not exist in silos within the panorama. So, if we take away a pollinator, the vegetation that have been pollinated by it may additionally bear decline. They may additionally go extinct. And which may have an effect on soil erosion, for instance. Perhaps their roots offered necessary construction for soil. And for those who’re eroding soil, possibly you’re interrupting one thing else’s habitat. So we’d wish to restore this technique in order that that plant is there, and in order that that plant is pollinated by an organism within the system—but it surely won’t be potential to do all of these issues. So, now we have to consider, what’s it that we hope to perform by way of restoration?
Perhaps one other takeaway from our analysis could be fascinated by introductions of species and what they imply biologically. There’s quite a lot of completely different terminologies that we use for launched species—I believe one of the widespread one is “invasive,” as a result of we frequently take into consideration the detrimental impacts of species introductions. Actually there have been situations the place species had very, very detrimental impacts, however then there are additionally situations the place species are not having a detrimental influence on the setting and possibly are literally doing good issues for these ecosystems.
The Caribbean had quite a lot of endemic mammals previous to human colonization. There have been monkeys and quite a lot of actually distinctive mammals—like these animals referred to as Nesophontes, that are these shrewlike insectivores which are not there. We predict that quite a lot of them have been actually necessary pollinators within the ecosystem that have been then misplaced. However with the introduction of latest birds to the Caribbean, for instance, it is potential that a few of that lack of pollinators, that ecological service, could have been restored.
AG: I’ve learn that paleontology within the tropics is especially troublesome. What makes it so onerous?
MK: The setting of the tropics shouldn’t be actually conducive to fossilization processes. You want steady temperatures, ideally, chilly temperatures and dry climate, to get good fossilization—and issues coated up actually shortly. The tropics are very popular and really humid. It is simply so sizzling, it is so moist, that it’ll erode away in a short time in comparison with one thing that is within the Arctic, for instance. There’s far more fast disintegration when it is sizzling and humid. Microbes breaking issues down is definitely a part of it. Additionally publicity to UV gentle—there’s bodily injury being executed to the fabric in addition to organic injury.
So we do not have quite a lot of fossilization within the tropics, however we do have some, significantly in environments the place the fabric is considerably shielded. Virtually the entire work that I conduct is finished in caves. We’re going by way of typically closely forested areas, in limestone landscapes the place the humidity and precipitation cuts by way of the limestone and creates cavities. Normally supplies get in there by way of water circulation—when, as an example, there is a hurricane.
A variety of it is extremely fragmented bones. We’re not getting a full lizard, with the pores and skin eliminated and the bones in excellent place. A few of them have options which are identifiable, a few of them don’t. I believe that is one of many causes individuals have been turned off finding out them previously. Lots you may have a look at with the bare eye and determine what a part of the skeleton it’s, however a few of them it’s worthwhile to have a look at beneath a microscope.
AG: So what methods have you ever used to type of get round these challenges?
MK: The most important factor is simply to not disregard the information that do exist and brush it apart. If you wish to get materials from the tropics, it’s not essentially going to be very, very flashy in the identical method that possibly a T. rex cranium could be, however there are beneficial information on the market. One other factor that we do to get round a number of the challenges is we simply carry on wanting. It requires us to interface with individuals in that space, speaking to individuals about the place caves are, in the event that they’ve ever seen fossils.
So it is very a lot a neighborhood effort, by way of the work that we do. Discovering websites with the assistance of native individuals. So native people who find themselves on the market exploring the caves for enjoyable typically have been an actual godsend for us, very useful in orienting us on the land. They’re nearly all the time joyful to indicate us after which work together with us after we inform them extra about what we’re doing. And that is all the time actually enjoyable.
I believe it is a operate of the place I do fieldwork that I’ve all the time felt protected within the subject. I work in areas the place there are very numerous cultures that aren’t my very own, typically cultures the place Black individuals are dominant or brown individuals are dominant. Once I labored in Guadeloupe, for instance—a French-speaking island within the Lesser Antilles the place the vast majority of individuals are Black and Creole—if I saved my mouth shut, individuals simply assumed I used to be from Guadeloupe. Being an outsider hasn’t been a supply of worry in these landscapes.
Simply seeing my grandmother as a Black property proprietor in a small city the place there weren’t many different Black property house owners was very inspiring. I do not know if it is the fitting phrase for it, however I felt that the outside belonged to me and that it was my proper to be there.
AG: To that finish, what’s necessary in regards to the conversations we’re having now, across the incident with Christian Cooper and the #BlackInNature and #BlackBirdersWeek hashtags? What would you hope may come out of them?
MK: It is necessary as a result of it reinforces, significantly for us as Black individuals, that we belong right here, that this nation is ours. We had a really, very instrumental half in creating what now we have right this moment on this nation, at the same time as we proceed to be oppressed. I believe it is also necessary for non-Black individuals to listen to that as effectively, that they acknowledge these contributions. I really feel very privileged to have had a really constructive affiliation with the outside all my life. Simply seeing my grandmother as a Black property proprietor in a small city the place there weren’t many different Black property house owners was very inspiring. I do not know if it is the fitting phrase for it, however I felt that the outside belonged to me and that it was my proper to be there.
I heard messages going by way of college from different individuals like, “Oh, nature is extra of a white area.” However I actually rejected these messages as a result of I had this pleasure in my household historical past, and my connection to the land, and my household’s connection to the land. I simply felt like everybody else had all of it flawed, that they only did not know the historical past of this nation effectively sufficient—how tied, for higher or for worse, African Individuals are to the land. It is a very painful historical past, generally, to consider what number of Black Individuals bought to this nation, why we have been dropped at this nation within the first place, to work the land that white individuals didn’t wish to work.
For me, no less than, studying that historical past has actually made me really feel extra grounded within the area that I occupy. I’ve all the time felt grounded due to my very sturdy household historical past. However I do know quite a lot of Black Individuals do not have that. Speaking to distant cousins that I share lineage with additional again, serving to them be taught in regards to the historical past of enslavement of our household, has actually helped floor them as effectively.
At any time when individuals could have made snide feedback—“I am afraid of the woods,” or, “The woods is a white area”—I’m very comfy with my story and being like, “Nicely, I am right here. My household’s right here. They have been on this land for six generations. You’ll be able to’t inform me it does not belong to me.”
This interview has been edited for size and readability.