Thomas Lovejoy wearing glasses, smiling at camera
Thomas Lovejoy wearing glasses and smiling at camera

“Godfather of Biodiversity” Thomas Lovejoy Dies at 80

The famous ecologist was a lifelong champion for conservation.

Lisa Winter
Lisa Winter

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Jan 12, 2022

ABOVE: Alexis Glenn/George Mason University

Thomas Lovejoy, a renowned conservationist and ecologist who is credited with coining the term “biodiversity,” died of pancreatic cancer on December 25, 2021, at the age of 80.

“Tom was a giant in the field of ecology and conservation,” National Geographic Explorer in Residence Enric Sala says in a statement from the organization. “He fought hard for the conservation of the Amazon forest. But most importantly, he was a wonderful mentor and extremely generous with his students, colleagues, and friends. He was the epitome of ‘gentleman and scholar.’”

Born to an affluent family on Manhattan’s Upper East Side on August 22, 1941, Lovejoy was enthralled by animals from an early age. He attended boarding school at the prestigious Millbrook School in New York, which he chose because it had its own zoo. He attended Yale University for his bachelor’s degree and PhD in biology, which he received in 1964 and 1971 respectively.

Lovejoy’s passion for birds first brought him to the Amazon rainforest in 1965, where he was the first in the area to band birds for research. Over the years, he forged relationships with Brazilian scientists and was able to convince the government to protect areas of land in order to study the effects of habitat fragmentation. His research found that species are more likely to die out from smaller patches, so fragmentation can ultimately cause extinctions, which may lead to ecosystem collapse. In the 1970s, he was one of the first conservationists to speak out about human-driven climate change and the disastrous effects it could have.

In 1973, Lovejoy became the first scientist hired by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), overseeing tropical forests in the western hemisphere until becoming Executive Vice President in 1985. Lovejoy is credited with coining the term “biological diversity” (soon shortened to “biodiversity”) in 1978 while at lunch with his friend and fellow conservationist E.O. Wilson, who died just one day after Lovejoy.

See “Conserving Our Shared Heritage

During his tenure at WWF, Lovejoy established what would eventually be known as the Amazon Biodiversity Center in Manaus, Brazil, in 1979. It spans 620 square miles and is said to be a haven for researchers. The research he started there, The Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project, continues today as one of the largest and longest-running ecological experiments, according to The Washington Post. Of the seven camps in the reserve, the Post reports that Camp 41 (so named because it lies at kilometer marker 41 along the road) was a personal favorite of Lovejoy’s, and he would bring influential people including politicians and celebrities there to give them a firsthand look at the rainforest, hoping that they would then use their positions to help protect the Amazon.

“My Brazilian colleagues and I will always remember him as the person who really put Brazil, Amazonia, and eventually all of South America on the international conservation map. South America received little attention from the conservation world back in the 1960s and early 1970s at the birth of the modern conservation movement, but Tom changed that,” writes Russell Mittermeier, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group, in a statement. “In particular, he got WWF-US to focus attention on South and Central America, and especially on Brazil, and he continued to do that throughout his distinguished career, becoming a beloved figure in Brazilian conservation circles and continuing his strong involvement there until his last days.”

He left WWF in 1987, according to his Amazon Biodiversity Center bio, and joined the Smithsonian Institution, holding a variety of titles over his tenure there. In the 2000s, he also served as chief biodiversity officer at the World Bank, and was the president of and, eventually, biodiversity chair at the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment in Washington, D.C.

In 2010, Lovejoy joined George Mason University as a professor and founded the university’s Institute for a Sustainable Earth, for which he became the scientific director. According to a tribute from the university, Lovejoy taught a biodiversity course every spring even though he wasn’t required to teach. He had planned on teaching it again this spring semester.

Lovejoy was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in the spring of 2021, and received the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement in 2001 and Blue Planet Prize in 2012. Over the years, he served as a scientific advisor in various capacities for four presidential administrations, beginning with Reagan and ending with Obama. Additionally, he worked with numerous conservation organizations around the world and received many accolades.

Lovejoy is survived by his three daughters and six grandchildren.