New book by Mireya Mayor, NFL cheerleader turned cheerleader for science

Dr. Mireya Mayor is a woman you might call fearless. As a primatologist and a host of National Geographic’s wildlife channel, WILD, she’s scraped past angry gorillas, sweated through tropical scourges, and even crawled away from a plane crash in the depths of the Congolese jungle. But, before all that – and perhaps more remarkably – she managed to survive the world of NFL sports.

Dr. Mayor used to work as a cheerleader for the Miami Dolphins. Her new memoir, Pink Boots and a Machete, recounts the tale. She spoke with EarthSky’s Beth Lebwohl in March of 2011. She said:

One of the main reasons that I wrote Pink Boots and a Machete is that, when I travel around the country giving lectures, so many of the young women hear that I’m a former NFL cheerleader turned scientist. And then want to know “How did you do that?” because they’re being judged the way I have been so many times throughout my career. They’re being pigeonholed.

Dr. Mayor said she decided over a decade ago that she was best suited as a cheerleader…for science. She talked about one of her most significant discoveries, which helped launch her scientific career. In 2001, she found a new species of primate in Madagascar. She said:

It’s a little primate called a mouse lemur, smallest primate on Earth, and this little discovery became a huge ambassador for all things wild in Madagascar.

The unprotected patch of forest in which the mouse lemur lived was subsequently made into a national park, she said. Today, Dr. Mayor mostly studies larger primates – gorillas in the Congo, and Borneo.

When you look at say, a chimpanzees or a gorillas eyes, there is this thing that happens when you make that connection that you realize, these are highly intelligent social animals that are very similar to us. And in the same way we’re curious about them, you can see in their eyes that they’re curious about you, too, that there’s a thought process. And if we don’t do right by them, if we can’t save our closest living relatives from extinction, then what does that say about us, as a species?

She said adventures in the field are what make her not just a scientist, but an explorer. For a long time, she said, she was trying to be what a scientist was “supposed” to be. That didn’t work.

A scientist comes in many shapes and forms. Of course there are scientists that we typically are used to thinking about, which are the ones that spend time inside a lab. And then there’s the explorers, where folks imagine somebody like Indiana Jones running through the jungle.

I’m a combination of the two. I have had to spend a little time in the lab looking at genetics. However, all of my research takes place in the field, in the jungles in different parts of the world. They’re remote, in many cases a foreigner has never been there. And that is what makes me an explorer. You are really at the forefront of discovery, because you’re exploring new territory, new cultures, new animals that, in some cases, have never been seen before. My office is not a walled structures. It’s within the confines of lots of trees and waterfalls.

She talked about her most recent research:

For the last couple of years, I’ve been going to different field sites around the world, both for research and filming for National Geographic. Most recently I was in Congo, working with the western lowland gorillas, also known as Silverback gorillas. The particular group of gorillas we were filming were part of a Wildlife Conservation Society project. Very little is known about them – our closest relatives. It took 14 years to habituate these animals to humans, 14 years to get close to them.

She said she was investigating what’s known as “female choice,” which underpins the social behavior of primates.

There’s has been an understanding that females gorillas are submissive, and follow the males’ orders. I always joke that those studies have been done by men. I went out to search for the truth and see if these females are really as subservient as we have thought them to be. And I found that they’re not! They’re very cunning, and clever, and while they don’t use physical force, because they’re clearly smaller than the Silverback male gorillas, they do use their wits. They outsmart the males in getting what they want, which is quite cool.

She said that her research is not only about finding more about how primates behave, it’s also about trying to preserve their habitats.

I strongly believe that the best kind of conservation is ‘muddy boots’ conservation. Talking to local villagers and seeing what they need to help preserve these creatures.

There’s widespread deforestation going on in Madagascar, she said – less than 10% of the original forests where primates live is remaining.

I would come into areas where crucially endangered primates lived – some of them the top-five endangered in the world – and where they lived was gone. There were only little patches of forest left. Working with local villagers, we were able to, in some cases, combine forests – create corridors – to protect what was there.

She said that residents of these remote forests practice slash and burn agriculture, often so that they can grow crops of rice.

Let’s face it, their immediate concern is putting food on their table for their families. So it’s about providing alternatives. For examples, many of the gorilla trackers in Congo – the ones used as guides by scientists, and eco-tourists – were once poachers.

But, she said, changes have to be made so that creatures like gorillas are worth more living than they are dead. Eco-tourism is an important means of ensuring that, she said. But not the only means. In the developed world, she said, people can tune in to the products they purchase.

Making sure that ingredients such as palm oil are not in there, which is the cause of so much deforestation, checking on the kind of wood your living room table is made of. And, are you recycling – more importantly, are you reducing your waste?

It’s important for everybody to feel like they have a sense of ownership of the planet, Dr. Mayor said, even if they can’t hop on a plane to the jungle.

April 6, 2011

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