Man has existed on planet Earth for hundreds of thousands of years—and curiosity has been a driving force for our species throughout our history. Explorers have charted the oceans, mapped continents, surveyed the ocean depths, and traveled into outer space. Along the way, we have continuously developed new innovations and cataloged millions of species of creatures—both current and extinct. You might think after so much curiosity and exploration that we have discovered everything there is to discover—but you would be wrong.
Explorer: The Last Tepui
“Explorer: The Last Tepui,” from National Geographic, follows elite climber Alex Honnold (“Free Solo”) and a world-class climbing team led by National Geographic Explorer and climber Mark Synnott on a grueling mission deep in the Amazon jungle as they attempt a first-ascent climb up a 1000-foot sheer cliff. Their goal is to deliver legendary biologist and National Geographic Explorer Bruce Means to the top of a massive “island in the sky” known as a tepui.
The team must first trek miles of treacherous jungle terrain to help Dr. Means complete his life’s work, searching the cliff wall for undiscovered animal species. The one-hour special is the newest installment of National Geographic’s long-running “Explorer” series.
This was a “first ascent”—an effort to climb a surface that has never been climbed before. It was a daunting challenge, so Mark Synnott invited Alex Honnold—one of the most respected and accomplished climbers in the world—to help lead the expedition to get Dr. Means and the rest of the team to the top of the tepui.
Dr. Bruce Means
I spoke with Dr. Means about the expedition. We talked about the notion that many people are unaware just how much of the planet has never been explored, or just how many species have yet to be discovered. There is a sense of hubris, almost, that we have conquered and mastered planet Earth at this point.
“We have only scratched the surface,” proclaimed Dr. Means. “You know, many biologists who have studied biodiversity, recognize that we might know 10% of the species. In fact, people are aware of the vertebrate animals—of which we’re a part—like mammals and fish and birds. And so, like the birds are pretty well known. We may know 96% or 97% of all species of birds on the planet. We don’t know more than maybe 40% to 50% of the amphibians or the reptiles on the planet, but still, we know a lot about the vertebrates. However, there are so many invertebrate animals—insects and spider types and all kinds of other things, and then microorganisms that are also important in the ecosystems in which they occur.”
On this expedition, Dr. Means and the rest of the team found three species of frogs that are new to science. They also discovered a snake they believe is new to science, and a new lizard as well. “We added to the fauna, and the species richness of this river system—the upper parts of it—and all together that will make a complete study, hopefully, that will help characterize the biodiversity of this beautiful part of the world,” explained Dr. Means.
Dr. Means shared some thoughts on the amazing technology used on the expedition as well. It takes special equipment to survive the rugged conditions of an Amazon expedition—and especially to capture up-close footage of the team as they scale the sheer surface of the tepui.
He told me was particularly impressed with one drone pull-away shot in the special. “The drone is showing the climbers on the cliff, and then the drone starts backing away and backing away, and the cliff gets bigger and bigger, and the climbers get tinier and tinier, and finally you get to see this huge tepui and you can’t see the climbers at all. It really is a spectacular pull-away shot.”
Research like this is important for understanding the world we live in and how the organisms and ecosystem are connected and dependent on each other. There are still countless lessons we can learn from nature, and valuable information we can apply to develop better textiles, building materials, and medicines.
Interestingly, this science will also play a vital role as we expand our exploration of space. The farther we get from Earth, the more the spacecraft will need to be self-sustaining—and that will require that we have enough knowledge of biospheres to enable us to recreate an environment that can perpetuate itself independently and indefinitely.
This Earth Day, learn why the tepuis – much like the Galapagos – are a treasure trove of biodiversity worth protecting. Tune in to check out “Explorer: The Last Tepui” on Friday, April 22.