“Although attacks to humans by Pumas are extremely rare, being confronted with this creature still makes your heart beat a lot faster than usual!”
— Stephan Halloy
What do you love most about your job?
I love field work, teaching, sharing ideas, discovering new ways to do things. I enjoy looking for evolutionary links. For example, why plants and animals are the way they are and how can we save them. I’m also interested in ethnobotany, understanding the way indigenous peoples use plants and learn about how they might market their products (for those communities that sell and buy goods through a market system). In the Amazon, for instance, they tend to be collectors, while in the Andes they focus on agriculture and have a more sophisticated market system. Protecting this agricultural biodiversity is a key element to ensure food security among more traditional human populations, particularly now that we’re confronted with climate change.
I also remain linked to academia, advising students at the Universidad Nacional de Chilecito, in Argentina on their thesis projects. That helps me keep a balance between applied and pure science and I enjoy the exchange with students who pose questions, challenge established knowledge and simply show a hunger to learn more.
Have you ever feared for your life at work?
Hehe, interesting question! Not quite, but I can relate an thrilling close encounter. With a group of researchers and students at Sierra de Famatina, in northern Argentina, we were identifying sites to set up climate change monitoring stations when we suddenly came upon a puma at quite close range!
This is the biggest wild cat in the Andes. It’s a beautiful animal, with a range of distribution throughout the Americas and also known as the cougar, panther or mountain lion. The puma (Puma concolor) is an endangered animal, heavily hunted by ranch owners because it feeds on cattle (calves actually), sheep, goat and other domestic animals as its habitat is reduced and it is left with few options to feed. Although attacks to humans by Pumas are extremely rare, being confronted with this creature still made our hearts beat a lot faster than usual!
That sounds really exciting! When was the last time something on the job brought you to tears?
When I discovered the highest plants on Earth on the Socompa volcano, in the Atacama Desert, on the border of Chile and Argentina, in 1983. In that area, the highest plant communities had been recorded at 4,800 meters above sea level (15,748 feet). But an anthropologist that climbed this volcano searching for archaeological remains mentioned he had seen vegetation at higher elevations.
That piqued my interest immediately! So, I organized an expedition with other climbers and began our journey. When we reached the site, it was such an amazing view that we called it “the island in the sky”! We were at approximately 6,000 meters above sea level (19,685 feet) and we recorded more than 36 moss and lichen species that are unique in the world. That has definitely been one of my greatest adventures and scientific discoveries!