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When we think of a scientist at work, the first setting to come to mind is usually the laboratory: sterile equipment, controlled experiments, protective gear. Not so for Robert Pringle, an ecologist at Princeton University who studies the ecosystems of the “enchanting, enigmatic, and important” savannas of Africa, particularly in central Kenya and Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park. There, he has examined the interactions and patterns that play out among species ranging from termites to antelope and elephants.

Pringle’s heroes in ecology, the husband-and-wife team of Daniel Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs, are focused on a smaller animal: the caterpillars of Costa Rica. But Pringle attributes his admiration for the pair not to the decades they’ve spent in the field, nor to the hundreds of papers they’ve published, but rather to their efforts in conservation.

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Since World War II, 80 percent of Costa Rica’s forests have disappeared, threatening thousands of plant and animal species that once thrived there. Growing threats to the region’s wildlife and biodiversity, from deforestation to climate change, have inspired Janzen and Hallwachs to help run several organizations dedicated to protecting tropical forests and their ecosystems.

“We could spend our entire life earning Distinguished Teaching Awards and electing each other to academic societies,” Pringle says. “Or we could work in the messy real world. We need people with that kind of energy and that willingness to do something really ambitious.”

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In this week’s installment of Nautilus’s “Spark of Science” series, Pringle tells us his real-life heroes.

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