Call him what you will: a rogue, a tree hugger. Andy Mack’s been called both, all in the name of a cause he’s survived a slew of tropical diseases to defend. He doesn’t much mind the names; they suit him. There’s a biodiversity “train wreck” ready to happen, he cautions, and he’s impatient to act. “That’s the bad side of being a conservation biologist—I see it coming. Things are changing really quickly.” A year ago, Mack’s passion brought him to Powdermill Nature Reserve, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s biological field research station, where the Ph.D. in conservation biology was named senior scientist and the first Bill and Ingrid Rea Conservation Biologist, a position endowed by The Heinz Endowments.
Mack’s professional crusade began in the rainforest of Papua New Guinea (PNG) where, without fanfare and with little regard for what he says is the typical in-one-month-out-the-next way of conducting conservation research, he spent the better part of 20 years studying the country’s wonders. Eventually he came to realize that the best way to protect those wonders was to educate the local people to do it themselves. So Mack and his partner, Debra Wright, started a program that trained hundreds of university students and sent 15 of them to earn advanced degrees at major universities (this past summer, he welcomed one of them to his Ligonier home as a Powdermill intern). He’s back in his home state of Pennsylvania, now, still acting on his love of all things natural.
How did your love of nature start?
I was always a bird watcher. And I had a really cool picture book when I was a little kid; that may have had something to do with it.
At 15, I hooked up with some friends who were ornithologists and we planned an expedition to Mexico. I worked as a bus boy at night to make money so I could take the trip. We hiked up to El Triunfo (a “cloud forest” literally above cloud-level). Today you can drive up there, but back then it was a two-day hike with a guide and some burros.
What did you love about rainforests?
I just fell in love—they’re beautiful. There’s life everywhere. Everywhere you look there’s something growing on something. Ants and bugs and spiders and all sorts of neat things.
How did your work in New Guinea start?
I had worked odd construction jobs to save money for a trip through South and Central America, and when I finally went I met a group of biologists and worked at their field station. They were all working on grants, and that was something new to me. I had just spent a year freezing my behind off, building barns and things to save money. So I thought, hey, this biology thing has something going for it. So I came back, figuring I should be a biologist. And that led me to my work at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, where they hired me as collection manager for birds. But I kept going back to rainforests. After getting my degrees, I got an offer for a job to be ecologist for Conservation International, and I jumped on it.
New Guinea’s cassowary bird was part of your Ph.D. study. What did you learn?
I got interested in cassowaries because of their role in seed dispersal. In tropical forests, around 90 percent of the trees are dispersed by some kind of animal (unlike Pennsylvania, where most seeds are wind-dispersed). The thing is, we never really knew how far seeds were being moved.
Cassowaries are related to ostriches and emus—they’re gorgeous. And at an average of 6 feet-tall, they’re the largest specialized fruit-eating animal in the world. Because they only eat fruit, they have to move around a lot to find the individual trees that are in the fruit phase.
So what I ended up doing was putting small metal tags in the seeds of fallen fruits. After the fruiting season, I went around with a dozen or so native hunters looking for droppings. We walked around some 900 acres and marked something like 800 seeds; 600 were taken by birds and I found about 40 of them.
What we learned is that the birds moved seeds uphill; it’s just a simple thing, but if you didn’t have a disperser, these plant populations might collapse. I modeled it—that if you eliminated cassowaries, which could happen because they’re hunted by the indigenous people there, after several generations many populations of plants would be gone.
Where did you conduct your research?
When I first went to New Guinea, I learned there were no research stations anywhere. So I thought, okay, I’ll build one. I came back to the United States and raised money for a year, went back, and found a place. The exact location was serendipity, because my partner in this project, Debra Wright, came down with malaria, so we just had to stop one day. I thought, ‘okay, I’ll get started while you get better.’ So we built this station and lived there for four and a half years out in the middle of nowhere. After that, we managed to keep it going, and a lot of other people did their work there. It was a real long-term effort…and it was a beautiful place.
You established a training program there. You must be proud of that.
I am. I was there a long time before it sunk in that we (the visiting scientists) were doing the wrong thing by trying to do the research and conservation ourselves; Papua New Guineans can do stuff in their own country that we can’t do. So in 1995, we started a training program. We did field courses for local university kids, getting them out in the rainforest—some for the first time. But eventually, the organization I worked for said they didn’t want to be training people. So they shut us down. That’s when I had a parting of ways with the philosophy of how conservation should be done.
The top national students we worked with have since formed their own organization, the Institute of Biological Research. They’ve got a few projects that they’re working on. If the big donors would give them a break, they could do wonderful things.
How did the position at Powdermill come about?
I didn’t really have the energy to walk out into another rainforest somewhere and start from scratch. So I was just looking worldwide and this is one of the things that caught my interest because it’s conservation biology and it’s a museum. Very few museums have that sort of vision. And, going back to my work at the Academy, I’ve been pushing this—that museums should play a bigger role in conservation.
In what directions do you see Powdermill’s education program going?
Having a field station is unusual for a museum. And Powdermill has got some really cool assets. We’ve got this new building, and really nice property. So we can build on our strengths in camps and kids programs, and then I’d like to see us develop more programs where we get university students involved in the process of doing hands-on science—things they can’t learn in a lab.
We’re also working now to establish a baseline of data. By next year we’ll have
created a very detailed vegetation map of our property so that we can document changes over time. The big thing, I think, is to maintain our strength in avian research and then go beyond that and start looking at the entire 2,200 acres and everything else on it.
How would you sum up your experience in New Guinea?
I feel very blessed that I had that opportunity. Very few biologists get to go live in a place like that nonstop. I spent four and a half years in that one forest; you get to see things that no one else sees…the way subtle changes happen. You get a sense of being really in tune with the tempo of the forest.
I’ve had these wonderful experiences. I’ve been all over the world and been lots of places no biologist has ever been…finding new species left and right. That’s really something that the next generation of biologists isn’t going to have.