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Behind the Science with Ignacio March


War, snakes and other wild encounters!

Watch a video of March talking about some of his other exciting adventures in the field.

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Currently science coordinator for Mexico and Northern Central America, March lived for 21 years in Mexico’s Selva Lacandona and in various remote locales in the Guatemalan Peten, Belize and Costa Rica.

Nature.org sat down with him to discover how his keen eye and quick reflexes come in handy whether he’s braving fer-de-lances in the jungles of Costa Rica or combing Mexico City’s flea markets for rare, first-edition adventure books to add to his impressive collection.

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"The sheer emotion of seeing such an enormous number of turtles respond to some ancient, prehistoric instinct left me in tears."
— Ignacio March

Nature.org:

What led you to a career in science?

March:

I consider myself a naturalist by birth. As a kid I was always collecting little creatures and checking out plants, and I also loved archaeology and was fascinated by investigating things. I finally chose biology as my profession. My hunger to know more about the natural world and my instinct for research is why I am a scientist.

Nature.org:

Has your work ever left you shaking in your boots?

March:

Oh, yes. One time in Costa Rica when I was doing my practicum on white-lipped peccaries in Corcovado National Park, three or four scientist friends and I went out one night, each of us in search of something different—macaws, owls, and the peccary in my case. There was a terrible storm as we headed out to the field station, with rain and wind that had blown down some trees. When it was my turn to cross a fallen tree, I put my foot right behind the trunk instead of jumping over it (which is my recommendation in such cases because snakes like to hide under trunks to pounce on unwary mice or other prey that they feel bump into the tree).

I heard a tap on an overhanging banana leaf and used my machete to lift up the leaf. There underneath was a huge, coiled up fer-de-lance, the country’s largest venomous snake (and one of the world’s top 15 most dangerous snakes, by the way). Judging by its girth it must have been a meter and a half, maybe two, and looked angry and ready to strike. I was terrified. Even though I didn’t want to kill the snake, if we’d left it there it surely would have killed one of us. But my machete was very short—not the longer one I usually carried—and the awkward nook the snake was in made it impossible for me to risk missing the snake and getting bitten. So we had to leave it there and remain very alert over the next couple of days. I have encountered many snakes, but never before one that I had felt so threatened by.

Nature.org:

When was the last time something on the job brought you to tears?

March:

When I was studying in Costa Rica, I was participating in a project to mark sea turtles in order to study their movements. Up to 30,000 sea turtles would come to nest on the Pacific coast at Playa Nancita, a 1-km stretch of beach. We had seen turtles swimming in the water and took turns keeping a lookout on the beach for their arrival on land. One night when I was on duty, all alone in the moonlight, suddenly one turtle arrived, then another and another. In a matter of five or ten minutes, some 500 had arrived to lay their eggs. As I stood there witnessing this marvel of nature, the sheer emotion of seeing such an enormous number of turtles respond to some ancient, prehistoric instinct left me in tears. The thought of this phenomenon, occurring for thousands of centuries and well before humans arrived on the planet, and the privilege of being in their presence, simply stunned me. It’s an impression that will stay with me forever.

Nature.org:

What do you do that might surprise us?

March:

I like to draw and paint, and recently I have incorporated more drawing and painting into my field notes. I’ve been taking field notes using India ink and bound notebooks since 1983 and continue to do so today. Many young biologists now use laptops and gadgets, but I like the idea of maintaining this tradition from the past century. On all of my field trips, I keep a daily journal of my adventures, personal reflections, hand-sketched maps, drawings of the landscapes, flora and fauna I encounter, etc. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll get around to publishing some of my field notes.

Nature.org:

And you’re quite the collector in general, aren’t you?

March:

Yes, I have collections of snails, fossils, paleontological relics, minerals and more, each with 300 or 400 specimens each. But my favorite collection is books of travels and expeditions from around the world. I’m always scouring dusty old book shops and flea markets, including the Sunday second-hand market here in Mexico City called La Lagunilla. I have books about expeditions to the North Pole, the South Pole, Africa, Asia, the Himalayas, the Amazon. I have found many rarities, oftentimes at ridiculously low prices because many people have no idea how much some of these old books are worth.

For example, I bought a first edition book by Sven Hedin—a Swede who was the first Westerner to attempt to meet the Dalai Lama—for a mere 20 pesos, which is a little over a dollar! It’s a fascinating story of his trip to Tibet to try to meet the then powerful and highly guarded Dalai Lama in Lhasa, complete with Hedin’s watercolor illustrations of monasteries and lamas he met during his journeys. I also came across two first-edition tomes, in perfect condition, of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s tales of conquering the South Pole. I don’t know how such a find ended up in a bookstore in Mexico.

Nature.org:

So when you’re not out in the field exploring new terrain, you’re at home reading about others who’ve done so?

March:

I like to think my collection is my time machine. When I want to escape from the daily routine and the mountain of work at the office, I can take down any book in my library and open it up to any page, and when I begin to read I am immediately transported to Tibet in 1943, or Australia in 1932. With more than 500 works, I believe my library is one of the most important collections in Latin America of books about expeditions and travel adventures. Of course, I’m always on the hunt for new additions and would like to reach 1,000 some day!


By Christiana Ferris

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