Humboldt, the lost hero of Science

I recently came across this book titled “The invention of Nature” by Andrea Wulf which talks about the amazing life and works of the great German explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and I have been totally fascinated by his expeditions, scientific work and philosophy. This book gives an excellent accounting of Humboldt’s expeditions, the development of his ideas and the influence of his work on major thinkers and scientists of the 19th century, such as Charles Darwin, Goethe and Simon Bolivar to name a few.

Andrea Wulf has made an excellent work guiding the reader through the amazing Orinoco river in Venezuela where Humboldt and A. Bonpland collected hundreds of plant specimens or climbing the magnificent volcano El Chimborazo in Ecuador (one of the highest volcanoes in South America). As a Venezuelan, I was aware of the importance of Humboldt describing the geography and nature of Venezuela, but I also realised how little I knew about his intellectual work, ideas and theories in the field of ecology. For example, the idea of the “web of life”, according to Wulf, was invented by Humboldt. This makes sense after you read his works and how much it influenced other scientists, such as Charles Darwin. This was very revealing for me as I work on the subject of ecological networks where the idea of the ‘web of life’ is so fundamental.

Humboldt’s unquenchable curiosity took him to travel to remote places and discuss about virtually any scientific subject with scientists of different disciplines, such as Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, the great mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace or Alessandro Volta. He had a truly holistic view of science which, in my opinion, it’s very rare nowadays. Humboldt was also very outspoken about the negative effects of colonialism on the environment (e.g. the destruction of Lake Valencia in Venezuela (1800) by deforestation and colonial plantations) and his views against slavery.

I highly recommend this book to anybody, but specially to my colleagues in the fields of ecology and biology. Reading and reflecting the life and ideas of Humboldt was very inspiring and it will probably change some ideas about how we look at nature.


Humboldt and Bonpland in the Amazon rainforest

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Rapid evolution of invasive species

Invasive species can undergo rapid evolutionary changes. This is not new, there are many empirical observations showing changes in life-history traits (growth rates, dispersal, phenology, mating-systems) in invasive species. The example of the cane toads in Australia is a very good one and well known (Phillips et al, 2006). The time frame where these changes occur is usually very short. More interestingly, invasive species can produce rapid evolutionary changes in native species (Phillips & Shine, 2006)!

It is a very interesting area of research, where ecological questions have been well studied, but many evolutionary questions remain unanswered. It is obvious that even for management purposes it is important to take into account evolutionary dynamics.

Interesting evolutionary questions are emerging trying to test different hypotheses, like the “evolution of increased competitive ability” (EICA), and the role of biotic interactions in local adaptation. But, important eco-evolutionary questions need answers, for example, does rapid evolution is mainly a result of selective pressure by species interactions of native communities? successful invaders are those filling ‘vacant niches’ in resident communities or rapid evolution facilitates their integration?

I would like to start answering some of these questions and the new directions in this area look very promising.


  • Phillips, BL & R. Shine (2006) “An invasive species induces rapid adaptive change in a native predator: cane toads and black snakes in Australia ” Proc R Soc B 273:1545-1550.
  • BL Phillips, GP Brown, JK Webb and  R Shine (2006) “Invasion and the evolution of speed in toads” Nature 439: 803


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Welcome to my website

I am an evolutionary ecologist working on a broad range of topics from plant-animal mutualistic interactions to the evolution of plant-mating systems.

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