This coming Earth Day, learn why the Tepuis—like the Amazon and the Galapagos—are a treasure trove of biodiversity worth saving.
The Disney+ Earth Day special, Explorer: The Last Tepui, from National Geographic, features elite climber Alex Honnold and a world-class climbing team led by National Geographic Explorer and climber Mark Synnott on a death-defying mission deep in the Amazon jungle. The renowned biologist Dr. Bruce Means is part of this crew in their first-ascent climb up a 1000+-foot sheer cliff. The result is nothing short of breathtaking excellence in reality documentaries.
Legendary biologist and National Geographic Explorer Bruce Means rarely gives interviews. Yet he spoke to Monsters & Critics ahead of the debut this Friday (April 22) about Honnold, Synnott, and the bid to climb the top of a massive “island in the sky” known as a Tepui.
The accomplished team must first trek many miles of uncertain jungle terrain to help Dr. Means, now in his 80s, complete his life’s work. He is searching the Tepui walls for undiscovered species. This incredible documentary is part of National Geographic’s long-running Explorer series.
The one-hour special will stream on Earth Day, Friday, April 22.
“Bruce has an infectious passion for biology,” – Alex Honnold from The Last Tepui.
Background on The Last Tepui
Tepuis rise out of the jungle-like monolith stone structures, teeming with diverse life forms. In 2021, noted climber Alex Honnold teamed up with Mark Synnott, an experienced member of the North Face team who has climbed many remote peaks and who also wrote the bestselling book, The Impossible Climb, to escort renowned biologist Dr. Bruce Means, for one last Tepui adventure.
Their climbing objective will be found deep in the Amazon jungle in Guyana, to the jutting Tepui. The month-long expedition traversed dense rainforest and steep pitches as they ascended to the base of Wei-Assipu-Tepui, which is an “island in the sky” rising 1,300 feet from the ground.
Dr. Means spent his academic life as a biologist who studied the ecosystems and animals of this same region. This trip is poignant as he knows, given his age, it is likely his last chance to continue this arduous fieldwork of discovering unknown wildlife living in this nearly impossible to reach cliff sides of the Tepui.
Their trip is a recorded history of actual discovery, as six new species have been found from their efforts so far. This documentary, Explorer: The Last Tepui, is a collaboration between National Geographic, ABC, and Disney. It is also a love letter to the important work and career of Dr. Bruce Means.
About Dr. Bruce Means
Dr. Bruce Means’ passion is to prove that the hidden worlds of South America’s Tepuis are gold mines of biodiversity that are worth saving.
A biologist specializing in herpetology, Dr. Means is known for his exhaustive studies on the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. He has worked in the longleaf ecosystem of the USA for over fifty years and, as an Adjunct Professor of Biological Science at Florida State University, taught courses on the ecology of upland, wetland, and coastal environments of the southeastern U. S. as well as vertebrate biology and ichthyology, mammalogy, herpetology, general biology, tropical ecology, and conservation biology.
He is a former director of Tall Timbers Research Station and the Coastal Plains Institute founder. He is also part of the elite National Geographic Explorer club. His work is celebrated in the reality docuseries Explorer— a hallmark of Nat Geo storytelling since it first launched in 1985—and he brings a sense of urgency to the viewers whom he hopes will listen to his words of caution for our species’ survival in our exclusive interview.
During his 50-year academic career studying reptiles and amphibians, Dr. Means has published over 235 scientific articles; been part of many documentaries with Nat Geo, BBC, and PBS.
Exclusive interview with Dr. Bruce Means
Monsters & Critics: Dr. Means, where did you grow up?
Dr. Bruce Means: I grew up in Alaska. But I hate to tell you this, I was born in downtown Los Angeles, California, and I was not too fond of it then, even when I was born.
During my first nine years, I was raised out in the Calabasas Highlands of the Santa Monica mountains. Then in 1950, my family migrated to Alaska, and I grew up there and am very proud of all my time in Alaska.
But I came to north Florida to go to college, and I fell in love with this part of the world. It’s one of the three top biodiversity hotspots in Canada and the USA. And I positioned myself here, studying this particular area for my whole career and branching out.
M&C: I envisioned that you had a Huck Finn childhood exploring whatever ecosystem you were near. Tell me how you fell in love with nature as a child?
Dr. Bruce Means: I thought about that a lot. It happened in downtown Los Angeles. My dad was off to World War II, and all the family women kept me penned up between a house and a garage in a sandy sort of a strip between two buildings. I could never get out.
But across the driveway at the backyard of another house, there was a pond someone made that had goldfish. And anytime I could escape, I’d go over and stand by that pond.
Then, when I was three or four years old, they’d catch me out of my penned area and raise the dickens with me for going over there.
Yet I’d stand there and watch the critters. Then when my dad returned, he moved us to the Calabasas Highlands, and I just went crazy.
I never went home, walking around in nature, catching spiders and snakes and all the beautiful lizards and things occurring in that chapparal, Malibu creek, and dry woodland ecosystem.
And then, when we moved to Alaska, my whole life changed, and I fell in love. We homesteaded on a piece of land and built a big home on it during my teenage years.
And those were idyllic times for me, shooting moose out of our back yard for dinner to eat and hunting and fishing for salmon until I came to Florida and discovered all the remarkable natural history and ecosystems here.
M&C: How did the geological wonders of the Tepui come onto your radar, and what brought you to them for exploration?
Dr. Bruce Means: I got my degrees at Florida State University, so I did all my work locally, but as an ecologist, which is what I think I am, I’m interested in the more extensive workings of nature, all the plants and animals and how they organize together into habitats and ecosystems.
I realized that most ecologists like myself are trained in the temperate zones of the world, and they are not the natural status of the ecology of this planet over a long period.
We’ve always had tropical environments around the equator. So to be a good evolutionary biologist and ecologist, I felt that I needed to have tropical experience.
So all during my career, I made various trips to Costa Rica, Belize, Mexico, and other parts of the tropics. And then, in about 1985, I had an opportunity to get serious.
I wanted to go down and see what was happening with The Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project [formerly the Minimum Critical Size of Ecosystems Project] that the Brazilian government and other countries were financing.
They were looking at what had happened when you cut rainforest down to smaller and smaller patches. What happens to the animal and plant life as the habitat islands get bigger or smaller?
And on the way there, I happened to go down a long dirt road recently constructed between Venezuela and Manaus, Brazil.
I could see in the distance Mount Roraima, this incredible flat-top mountain that inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write his novel, The Lost World.
So the following year, I went back and climbed Mount Roraima, and I got hooked from then on, going every six months or less. I made an expedition to South America to Venezuela, especially there are over about a hundred Tepuis.
They’re all different sizes. Some are big, something like several hundred square miles on top. I think Mount Roraima is only 25 square miles, but the summits of these things, especially the forested slopes, are full of wonderful undiscovered plants and rare animals.
There have been helicopter flights to the summits. And we know a good bit about the summits of these Tepuis. But where the biodiversity is incredibly rich is on those Tepui slopes that you can only get into by foot.
That was what I had been spending my time doing. And that’s what this documentary reveals, what it’s like to do an expedition.
Of course, in this case, we try to go all the way to the summit, but for me, most of the work and the excitement and all the new species I discovered were basically on the slopes up to the fringing cliff of Mount Wei-Assipu.
M&C: There are many creatures, great and small, you interact with that make most people—myself included—squirm and run away. You seem to have an affinity for the hairy spiders and slithering creatures. Why do you think that is?
Dr. Bruce Means: Well, in reality, I have arachnophobia because when I was growing up in California as a toddler, I was told that if I wasn’t good, the spiders were going get me.
So I’ve had a hard time trying to live that down. So that’s why I’ll let a spider crawl on me or pick one up to break that terrible fear that grips one when you have a phobia.
It’s a good question. For some reason, the amphibians and reptiles are more interesting to me than birds and mammals, which most people appreciate more. I can’t tell you the psychology behind that, but that’s where I fall.
And so, once you become known as a scientist or expert in a given area, it’s good to specialize and see essential questions through that particular specialty.
For example, suppose I discover new species. In that case, I can ask, ‘how does the population of that species fit in with the populations of other species in the habitat in which it lives, and then how do they all interact with the plants and other animals, mammals and birds and alike to form an ecosystem?’
M&C: How did you meet Alex Honnold?
Dr. Bruce Means: Mark Synnott. Mark is a professional climber and a great good friend of mine. Mark and I had been on several expeditions together. I was the biologist when he climbed Mount Roraima. I didn’t do the climbing. I was doing the scientific work along the pathways on Roraima that we took to go up Mount Wei-Assipu.
So, because he is a professional climber, he’s knowledgeable and interacts with all other climbers. He knew Alex from days when Alex was younger and had not done Free Solo yet at El Capitan. So Mark was present when Alex did his Free Solo climb, and Mark wrote a New York Times bestselling nonfiction book about Alex’s achievement.
Mark has blossomed into a wonderful writer. Of course, he wrote about this expedition in National Geographic. And so Mark and I were thinking about how could we do another expedition of another Tepui and use my need to do science as the reason for making the journey?
It dawned on Mark that if the cliffs needed to be climbed, it would help bring Alex along if he was interested because he is an accomplished climber.
The two of them were keen to get me up the cliff somehow. But unfortunately, I’m not a climber, and it would be challenging to try to do it myself at my age. But, anyway, that was the original idea, but that idea got quashed.
It didn’t affect our expedition because our team and the Amerindians who were with us helped me collect the specimens.
That was my main reason for being on the expedition to start with, so it all turned out to be very successful. Alex was wonderful. He is another wild, woolly guy who joined many wild, woolly guys having a killer time in nature!
M&C: You said something in the documentary that brought tears to my eyes. You said, ‘I’ll be leaving the planet sometime, and I’ll miss it,’ in a quiet moment. Can you expand on that and tell me your fears and hopes for our world after you’re gone?
Dr. Bruce Means: Oh Lord. Well, let me tell you the truth. I did feel that. I just turned 81 now, I turned 80 on that expedition, and I’m feeling my years in terms of my mortality, maybe more than most people do.
On the other hand, I’ve had such a great life and want to continue drinking the cup of mead. So I think about it a good bit.
Look, the bottom line is that human over-population is causing every major problem on this planet.
I don’t know how to address that. You can’t do it by governmental regulation.
You need to inspire people to understand we’d have a better world if we could only agree to have zero to two kids per family. Then our populations would slowly shrink, and then we’d be able to pass around all the good food and other products and the wealth of this planet among all the different people.
That’s a political thing. And in my opinion, I don’t see how we’re ever going to solve that considering what’s been going on in the last ten years worldwide.
So, I have a down note, and it’s that I think the environment is in sad shape and will be negatively impacted even further.
However, while I’m alive and while other people are too, the best we can do is enjoy nature and our presence on this planet as much as we can—because carpe diem—you only live once. And you might as well do the best you can.
If this journey can inspire all of us to pull together to do the right things, like cutting down on the consumption of petroleum products and all the waste and pollution, it would be a wonderful world.
My beloved son, Ryan, became a conservation biologist like me, and at one point, I was worried as he was overwhelmed because he was thinking about all of this and was also adding to the problems of the planet that he saw.
I said, ‘son, look, the one thing that you can do on this planet is everything you possibly can to inspire other people, appreciate nature, and understand through science what the real situation is happening on the planet. And that it would be a mission. And if you don’t win that mission well, you did the best you could do.’
That seemed to have inspired him, and he seems to have taken that to heart.
But, I’m sorry. I have got to be honest. You asked me a question that needed a real answer, and there it was.
M&C: On this trip, the liner notes say you found six new species?
Dr. Bruce Means: I’m working with a colleague in Europe, Dr. Philippe J.R. Kok, who runs a DNA laboratory, as I am beyond relearning all kinds of tech and molecular techniques.
So I collaborate with him, and he is now examining the animals. So we think we have at least three frogs, maybe another, maybe four new to science, one snake, and one lizard.
It will take an independent paper and an independent DNA analysis, comparing each new species with all the other ones related to it to prove we have new species.
So the papers will not be available in the scientific world in a few months. So it takes a long time to do the exciting laboratory and then the write-up work that follows that. So that’s all part of it. And I enjoy that part almost as much as the fieldwork, let’s put it that way.
But, my work with Dr. Kok to publish those papers has the material on this expedition eventually will come to light in the scientific literature, even if I pass away before this happens. And then things like what we’re doing now, the documentary film, the National Geographic magazine article, all of that showcase what we’re doing as scientists.
And it hopefully will inspire everyone as it seems to have inspired you to appreciate what we did and what this planet still has to offer humankind.
The Disney+ Earth Day special “Explorer: The Last Tepui,” from National Geographic, streams on Earth Day, April 22 on Disney+.