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The Future of Exploration: A Different Lens

Four National Geographic Emerging Explorers share their novel paradigms for understanding the world in these highlights from the 2009 Explorers Symposium:

  • Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Curator of Mammals Kristofer Helgen talks about discovering new mammals, both out in the wild and deep in museum archives. “I’ve described about 25 species of mammals in the last three or four years,” he says, “and the backlog is about 75 and growing. People always say, well tell me another one, how can there really be that many mammals to discover? There definitely are. That number will continue to rise…. Almost three-quarters of all the mammals in this world are not things like leopards and lions and elephants, they’re rodents and bats, so they’re smaller mammals. Most mammals are nocturnal…. Not only are they nocturnal, they’re secretive.”
  • Kansas State anthropologist Mike Wesch—who has produced wildly popular YouTube videos about media, culture, and education—discussed the ways in which media structure social relationships. “Media are not just tools, they’re not just means of communication, but media actually mediate relationships. So when media change, relationships change. And that brings up some interesting implications for where we are at here in our society, with new media coming in all the time.”

  • University of Tokyo biologist Katsufumi Sato devises instruments to monitor every aspect of complex animal behaviors in nature such as bird flight, seal dives, and turtle swims. He reviews what biologging has revealed about penguins. “All penguins spread their flippers horizontally. If the penguin is stroking, you can expect some of them upstroke and the other ones downstroke. But all of them spread their wings, which means they don’t stroke when ascending. According to my study … they use buoyancy to come back to the sea surface.”

  • Stanford epidemiologist Nathan Wolfe likens the hunt for emerging diseases and the effort to stop pandemics before they happen to listening for “viral chatter.” He explains, “What we basically try to do is understand how is it that diseases are born, how are pandemics born, what’s the nature of these things. And one of the things that we found is that the vast majority of human diseases, both things that are major diseases as well as things that are emerging like Ebola and H1N1, these are viruses of animals. And you can think of this as sort of a bubbling-up process by which diseases from animals enter into human populations and slowly, gradually make their way up to the point where they become exclusive human diseases. Nevertheless, one of the things that we found … was that the vast majority of global disease control is focused on agents that have become exclusive human agents. By the time they reach this point, they’re completely adapted to human populations. It’s going to be late to contain them, very late to understand them.”