Interview

A scarab called Humboldt

Bert Kohlmann is a biologist, professor at the EARTH University in Costa Rica and a highly sought-after beetle specialist. In this interview he speaks about the recently discovered species Onthophagus humboldti and Uroxys bonplandi, Humboldt's relevance, and the popularity of science.

Professor Kohlmann, you discovered two new species of scarab beetle in Costa Rica and named them after Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland – what is so special about Onthophagus humboldti and Uroxys bonplandi?
Both species are endemic. That means they live only in very limited areas in the mountains of Costa Rica. And Onthophagus humboldti is the extremely brachypterous species of this genus – its wings are reduced, so it has lost the ability to fly.

You once said: "I can tell straight away just by looking at it whether a beetle is new." How does your trained eye work – and where did you discover the two Scarabaeidae?
It's simply a matter of time and experience. When you've worked in a specialist area for so many years, you become familiar with all the different species – and you notice new ones straight away. The two new species were collected on expeditions in the virgin forests on the mountains of Costa Rica, with specially designed traps.

As an internationally renowned biologist you work in a lot of different research fields, including conducting research with NASA on the rare Chagas disease. What is it that always draws you back to beetles, why this fascination?
Beetles have held a special attraction for me ever since I was little. When I was about ten, my family and I went to Lake Tequesquitengo in Morelos, Mexico. I collected a beetle there, only later discovering that it was the Phanaeus daphnis. I was so in awe of the beauty and brilliance of this insect that I must have decided right then and there to become a scientist.

 

Alexander von Humboldt was also a passionate collector of beetles, stones and plants as a child. Do you feel a connection with him?
My relationship with Humboldt goes back a long way and is indeed very close. I first came across him when I attended a school in Mexico City that was named after him. Later I was at Berlin's Humboldt University as part of my master's studies, and I am a Humboldt Foundation alumnus. And yes, just like him, I feel a great attraction to nature, and above all a huge admiration and love for it.

 

"Humboldt said that in order to study nature, you have to feel it." 

 

Just recently a rare plant species in Iran was named after Humboldt, the tamarisk shrub Tamarix humboldtiana. Why is naming new species after the German scientist so popular? People could just as easily name new beetles and plants after their wife or their favourite musician ...
I think it's mainly because Humboldt is such a great inspiration. Dedicating a species to him is a way of feeling closer to him.

Why is he so inspiring?
Humboldt said that in order to study nature, you have to feel it. I regard this comment as the philosophical basis of any scientific study. You could say it's the setting for what the philosopher of science Imre Lakatos called a research programme. In other words, a universal mindset.

 

What, in your view, makes Humboldt so relevant today?
Humboldt is criticised, too, for instance because, unlike Darwin, he didn't propose any laws. Or for allegedly romanticising science. I can't sympathise with either of these views. Humboldt's thought was always holistic, more akin to an ecologist than the "modern", highly specialised type of scientist we know today. The comment he wrote in 1803 while travelling in the Valley of Mexico – "Everything is interconnected" – is for me one of the greatest contributions to science. In a later text written in 1814, Humboldt penned another astute, almost prophetic sentence: "For science, no questions or objects of research are too small."

 

In San José, where you are research director and professor at the EARTH University, there is the German school Colegio Humboldt. What other traces of Humboldt are still evident in Costa Rica? Does he have any relevance in everyday life?
Humboldt never actually visited Costa Rica, but he still left his mark there. In Cosmos he mentions a number of Costa Rican mountains, such as Cerro Chirripó, Cerro Kamuk and Orosí. In 1854 the naturalists Hoffmann and von Frantzius introduced themselves to the then president of Costa Rica, Juan Rafael Mora Porras, with a letter of recommendation from Humboldt. The two travellers played a key role in the development of science in this country. They made a huge contribution to the development of medicine, biology, anthropology and even volcanology.

 

"For me, popularity was always a matter of ungratified vanity."

 

In what way?
The researcher Hoffmann lent his name to no less than 38 plant and animal species, including a woodpecker (Melanerpes hoffmannii) and the two-toed sloth (Choloepus hoffmannii). He also studied the volcanoes Barva, Irazú and Turrialba, describing the latter in 1855 as "the constantly steaming Turrialba volcano". Alexander von Frantzius, on the other hand, worked more as a doctor on arrival in Costa Rica; he was knowledgeable about dentistry. On one occasion someone brought him a bottle with a particular kind of water, a sample from the Poás Volcano's Laguna Caliente. Some people were able to dissolve their decaying teeth with this particularly acidic water, allegedly with less pain than having them extracted.

 

There is even a stamp dedicated to your own research in Costa Rica. In general, however, many lament science's lack of visibility in the social and political domain. Do you sometimes wish that academic concerns were more popular, as in Humboldt's day?
For me, popularity was always a matter of ungratified vanity. It's true that it would be sensible and useful for science to be taken more seriously in various areas of life. This would help a lot in solving problems. Fortunately, Costa Rica is a great example of a country where science and nature are always very relevant and enjoy a high level of respect and acceptance.

Bert Kohlmann is professor at the EARTH University (Escuela de Agricultura de la Región Tropical Húmeda) in Costa Rica. He is the director of the Centre for Research and Development of Renewable Energy.

 


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