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The sage of biodiversity

Zoologist Paulo Vanzolini was one of the brains behind the creation of the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), as well as the author of a theory on the origin of species in South America and an icon of São Paulo samba


Léo RamosVanzolini in 2012Léo Ramos

“I revere nature. And I had a rewarding career. I can say I’m a fully realized researcher,” said São Paulo biologist Paulo Emílio Vanzolini to Pesquisa FAPESP in 2010, on the occasion of the release of his book Evolução ao nível de espécie – Répteis da América do Sul (Evolution at the species level: the reptiles of South America). This 704-page tome is a collection of Vanzolini’s 47 most important scientific articles. These papers, published from 1945 through 2004, helped expand the scope of Brazilian zoology. Prior to the mid-twentieth century, the field had been focused on the isolated description of species, but based on Vanzolini’s work, it shifted to searching for the mechanisms behind the formation of new species, examined from the biological, evolutionary, and environmental perspectives.

Vanzolini, who died of pneumonia on April 28 – five days after his 89th birthday – had a second passion, outranked only by zoology: writing sambas. His greatest hit was the now classic Ronda, written in 1951 (its verses begin: I wander the city at night, vainly searching for you. I prowl through crowded bars, but you’re not there). In addition to composing, at times he would also take to the stage. One of his last appearances was at the Sesc Pompeia pub in São Paulo in January of 2012, where his wife, singer Ana Bernardo, interpreted his songs while he sat at a table on stage, between numbers regaling the crowd with stories of his life. In another song, Quando eu for, eu vou sem pena (When I go, I’ll go without regret), recorded by Chico Buarque, he says:

What I did wasn’t much
But it’s mine and goes with me
I leave many an enemy
For I always did right
Many a saddened heart
I cradled against my breast
Oh how long, my loveliest,
Will you remember me?

His modesty aside, what he did wasn’t little and it will stay with us, because he blazed new trails not only in biology but in the construction of Brazilian science as well. “Vanzolini took part in the movement of professors and researchers who proposed the creation of FAPESP, and under the Carvalho Pinto administration he made a vital contribution to the institution’s structural design and to the organizational model that is still in place at the foundation today,” said Celso Lafer, president of FAPESP. “I am deeply saddened by his death. Vanzolini was someone for whom I had great admiration.”

Vanzolini participated in the first meetings that discussed the creation of FAPESP, shortly after enactment of the Constitution of 1947, which authorized the establishment of a research funding agency in São Paulo. In 1960, he was responsible for drafting both the law that instituted FAPESP and its Articles as well. Together with Antonio Barros de Ulhôa Cintra – president of USP and chair of the new foundation’s Board of Trustees – he assisted in selecting the first directors and advisors. He was “one of FAPESP’s binding forces,” science historian Amélia Império Hamburger wrote in her book FAPESP 40 anos: abrindo fronteiras (FAPESP 40 years: blazing trails).

Above, the Anolis chrysolepis, the basis for his formulation of the refuge theory

DRAWING TAKEN FROM THE ARTICLE "Vanzolini e Williams," 1970Above, the Anolis chrysolepis, the basis for his formulation of the refuge theoryDRAWING TAKEN FROM THE ARTICLE "Vanzolini e Williams," 1970

Vanzolini was a member of the Board of Trustees during three separate periods (1961-1967, 1977-1979, and 1986-1993). Oscar Sala was science director from 1969 to 1975 and chair of the Board of Trustees from 1985 to 1993, and whenever he had to travel, it was Vanzolini who centralized the processing and evaluation of applications for research funding or grants. “It’s very hard to be number two, yet I was, and comfortably,” he said in an interview to Hamburger. “When Oscar traveled and I took over, I didn’t decide things using my own head; I used his head. I knew where we saw differently, and I decided things as I thought he would have.”

As director of the USP Zoology Museum from 1962 through 1993, Vanzolini expanded its collection from a little over 1,000 catalogued specimens to the current figure of more than 300,000. He himself typed up labels and identification cards for the stored animals, recalls Miguel Trefaut Rodrigues, a biologist who did his doctorate under Vanzolini. Rodrigues was later hired as a professor at USP and became one of Brazil’s leading herpetologists (reptile expert) alongside Vanzolini. Rodrigues eventually succeeded him as director of the museum, which today holds one of the largest and most valuable neotropical zoological collections.

Between the war and bohemia
Vanzolini was familiar with both USP and music from his earliest years since his father was an electrical engineer and professor at USP’s Polytechnic School and his mother and sister were both musicians. A visit to the Butantan Institute at the age of 10 sparked his interest in the study of reptiles, and at 14 he did an internship at the Biology Institute of São Paulo. During World War II, when he was a medical student at USP, he enlisted in the Brazilian Expeditionary Force with the intention of fighting in Italy, but the war ended before he shipped out. Since he preferred studying animals to treating people, after graduating from medical school in 1947 Vanzolini went to Harvard University to take his doctorate and to continue listening to good music, this time in American bars.

In 1966, Vanzolini was one of the first biologists from São Paulo to conduct a broad survey of the biodiversity of the Amazon Region, an endeavor that was part of a pioneering project supported by FAPESP in collaboration with researchers from Manaus, Belém, and the United States. He eventually traveled the entire country as well as the Americas, from the United States to Argentina. “I’ve always worked on the same line of research, trying to explain how South America’s great diversity of fauna developed,” he said in 2010. Through his field work, he came to propose new ways of accounting for the biodiversity of tropical forests like those in the Amazon Region and the Atlantic Forest.

Vanzolini on one of his trips to northern Brazil

FAMILY ARCHIVE Vanzolini on one of his trips to northern BrazilFAMILY ARCHIVE

It had long been believed that the high number of plant and animal species in these environments was a product of lengthy periods of climatic and geological stability that favored crossbreeding and reproduction. In the late 1960s, reviving concepts that had first been used to explain the differentiation of birds in Europe, Vanzolini began working with the refuge theory, which was proposed independently by German geologist Jurgen Haffer around the same time. According to this interpretation, developed in conjunction with Brazilian geographer Aziz Ab’Saber, South America experienced cycles of drastic climate change over the past 1.6 million years. Whenever the earth cooled substantially, as it did between 18,000 and 14,000 years ago, tropical forests shrank, forming geographical niches – or refugia – which are believed to have ensured the survival of species that were less adapted to the cold. Vanzolini believed that species could form and diversify thanks to the appearance of these islands and to the geographic isolation of the beings that inhabited them, rather than as a consequence of slow, stable evolution, as previously thought. It is likely that three processes took place in these regions: the formation of new species, the extinction of certain species, and the adaptation of others, which went through ecosystem changes without suffering any major genetic modifications.

In 2012, Vanzolini claimed that he hadn’t come up with any theory at all: “It was just a study about a species of animal. What I ended up doing was offering a practical example of what Haffer had posited from a theoretical perspective. It’s nothing more than a [conceptual] model that can in fact be replicated in other regions.” In 1970, a year after the journal Science published Haffer’s article in which he set out his theory, Vanzolini and the U.S. researcher Ernest Williams published a study, some 300 pages long, on the emergence of a lizard species of the genus Anolis – and at no point did they use the expression “refuge theory,” which has now been adopted by biologists to explain the biological richness of Brazil’s tropical forests.