Dr. E.O. Wilson’s Biodiversity Legacy Lives on at Rocky Mountain National Park
“To know this world is to gain proprietary attachment to it. To know it well is to love and take responsibility for it.” - E.O. Wilson
Dr. Edward O. Wilson was a world-renowned entomologist, evolutionary biologist, and professor emeritus at Harvard University. Perhaps most known for his research on ants, Dr. Wilson’s interests expanded beyond the study of insects and included the variety and interconnection of all plants, animals, and microorganisms on earth, also known as biodiversity. Biodiversity includes life at the gene, species, and ecosystem levels and is the foundation of the world we know. The food we eat, water we drink, and medicine we take are services that depend on the multitude of species that inhabit our planet.
As development, pollution, and climate change add stressors to delicate ecosystems, biodiversity is threatened on global and local scales. While the rise and fall of species is a natural part of the evolutionary cycle, current extinction rates are estimated to be 1,000 times higher than they have been in the past (De Vos et al. 2014). According to Dr. Wilson, “The one process now going on, that will take millions of years to correct, is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.” To counteract this loss, Dr. Wilson pioneered efforts to preserve Earth’s biodiversity through writing, outreach, and advocating for the protection of biologically rich and unique ecosystems.
Dr. Wilson’s call to protect biodiversity mirrors that of the National Park Service mission: “to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” Protected areas such as National Parks are natural refugia for species because of the variety of ecosystems they encompass. Within parks, preserving and protecting biodiversity is increasingly recognized as a vital component of resource management because diversity plays a critical role in maintaining ecological integrity and resilience.
Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) supports biodiversity research and awareness through natural resource programs, youth engagement, and partnerships. In 2012, RMNP hosted the National Geographic BioBlitz to support species inventory efforts within national parks. The 2012 BioBlitz engaged over 5,000 individuals and children and resulted in the addition of 23 species to RMNP’s species list.
In 2014, the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation assembled a team of Duke University graduate students, known as the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory/BioBlitz SWAT team, to perform a comprehensive literature review of biodiversity research in RMNP. The review identified a gap in the park’s species inventory of spiders. While ~3,500 species of spiders are known in North America, only one was recorded in RMNP. To investigate this disparity, the team completed a spider BioBlitz which resulted in the identification and addition of 51 spider species to the park’s species inventory.
Today, many of RMNP’s Resource Stewardship programs promote biodiversity throughout the park. Members of the park’s Vegetation Crew remove exotic and invasive species that capitalize nutrients and space native plants need to thrive. The Fire Effects Monitoring Crew surveys for Threatened and Endangered species prior to controlled burn events. The Elk and Vegetation Management Plan Monitoring Crew works to protect and promote aspen stands which are one of the most biologically diverse vegetation communities in the park. RMNP’s Continental Divide Research Learning Center identifies and co-produces science with university partners to help park managers better understand and protect diverse ecosystems.
Through these efforts, Dr. Wilson’s legacy of biodiversity research and advocacy lives on in national parks such as RMNP where researchers and rangers foster the next generation of scientists and stewards. The National Park Service lost a friend with Dr. Wilson’s passing. He died December 26, 2021 at the age of 92.
In 2014, Rocky Mountain National Park hosted a Biodiversity Workshop to assess the state of the science on biological diversity in the park, determine priorities and needs in monitoring and research. The workshop brought together many of the region’s leading biologists as well as guests from RMNP’s affiliated tribes and sister parks and included a virtual keynote session by Dr. Wilson.
Watch below as RMNP's former Resource Stewardship Manager, Ben Bobowski, interviews Dr. Wilson about biodiversity. This interview was videotaped in February 2014 at Duke University in collaboration with the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation at the Nicholas School of the Environment. The interview was documented in video and produced for television by Nick Molle Productions.