Mick Mittermeier Interview

You may remember that I spoke to Sean Laughlin a few blog posts back, and during his interview he mentioned his good friend and fellow conservationist, Mick Mittermeier. Well this week I had the opportunity to speak to Mick!

Mick is a 26 year old plantsman/aspiring botanist and collector. Although originally from a small suburb of Washington DC, he spent most of his childhood travelling around the world thanks to his families’ work. In his life, Mick has travelled to an impressive 79 countries and all seven continents. He has lived in 5 different countries including Madagascar and Brazil.

His father, Dr Russell Mittermeier, was the president of Conservation International for 28 years and his mother, Cristina Mittermeier, was the creator of the International League of Conservation Photographers and now is a National Geographic photographer and co-founder of Sea Legacy. Conservation clearly runs deep in his family and Mick admits that for a long time he had difficulty figuring out what his contribution was going to be.

Until about the age of 21, Mick’s obsession was predominantly reptiles and amphibians, however this was never reflected in his studies or academic pursuits because he instead chose to study anthropology at Eckerd college, where he met Sean. His decision to study anthropology was in the wake of an expedition he took part in during the summer of 2011, where he visited the Kalahari Desert of Botswana and spent time with the Kalahari bushmen. It was after this trip that he thought anthropology could be an interesting route.

Mick’s fascination for plants came about, in part, as a result of a trip he took in 2014 where he lived in Australia for 6 months and then travelled the whole of Southeast Asia from Singapore to Malaysia, up through Thailand into Laos, and over to Vietnam and Cambodia. Along the way, he visited things like the blooming Rafflesia and the Nepenthes forest of the Cameron highlands in Malaysia, and also visited the famous Singapore Botanical Gardens that would forever imprint an interest in plants on him.

Following that trip, Mick started to meet with collectors in south Florida and began travelling to shows. Later, he also started doing plant-based travel. His first plant trip was to visit a site in the Everglades with a NatGeo photographer to find and photograph a blooming ghost orchid. Later on, he got an opportunity to live with the Kayapo Indians in north eastern Amazonia for 6 weeks, which allowed him to do preliminary Botanical surveys of a pristine area on a protected indigenous reserve.

Later, he travelled for an aroid conference in Colombia where he would organize a side trip with a colleague from Missouri Botanical Garden and together they would go on to climb a previously unexplored mountain that no botanist had ever summitted in a park that hadn't been open to the public in 49 years!

Mick has also been able to travel across the country to some of the best Botanical collections in the US, where he’s met with some expert curators and seen not only exceptional private collections but also extensive herbarium collections. Just recently he returned from another expedition to Suriname, where he had the opportunity to see many species, some of which he had been trying to see in situ ever since he started his botanical journey.

In the last few weeks, Mick has just completed a move to Miami, where he now has the chance to be in closer proximity to many of the nation’s best plant communities, including one of his favourite groups, The International Aroid Society, whose focus is predominantly plants in the family Araceae, which encompasses common genera like Philodendron, Monstera.

For the time being, Mick is trying to find a position either at the world renowned Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden or at Montgomery Botanical Centre in an attempt to create a more impactful change on the world of botany and conservation.

So let's get into the questions....

When thinking of conservation, many people will often think of the animal kingdom, but why is plant conservation also an important issue?

Plants represent an enormous percentage of the living biomass on earth and their protection is often intrinsically tied to healthy ecosystem function. The question of why are plants important is also part of the problem, there is a pervasive ignorance held by the general public towards plant conservation that is damaging towards conservation efforts. Just like with other wildlife, when an organism doesn’t fall under the banner of charismatic megafauna, then it doesn’t get as much attention as its more amicable counterparts.

However the issue with plants is that, if they are not edible or ornamental then they effectively do not exist in the eyes of the general public. Therefore there is no sense of loss or sadness when one goes extinct. According to the IUCN, in the last two years over a 120 plant species have gone extinct, but not one made headlines. All you have to do is compare that to the loss of the last male Northern White Rhino, which made headlines for weeks… Realistically, one can’t expect the world to mourn an undescribed bryophyte species the same as they do a much more personable Rhino.

But that is why the conservation of plants is important and why it is important to bring it to the public eye as much as possible, because otherwise no one else will know about it. It is difficult to relate to something like a plant, especially when we can’t feel its emotions or benefit from it. Still, each species serves a purpose in the ecosystem, and the decline in biodiversity will eventually affect everyone. By then, of course, it will be too late.

What topics are emerging as an issue in the plant conservation field?

The list is endless and the problems botanists, conservationists, and horticulturalists face are often very similar to those faced by other scientists and researchers. Poaching, deforestation, climate change, lack of funding, lack of public engagement, and of course too many problems and not enough people to solve them.

One of the issues I immediately noticed when I first started attending botanical conferences and meetings was the impressive lack of diversity as well as the age gap. At age 25, I was the youngest person in the room in almost every place I went. In fact the only time I was not the youngest by a wide margin was when I met a 16-year-old Arisaema expert at a conference in Colombia, and he was the center of attention for the entire meeting!

By comparison, in every other scientific field that I’ve encountered there are always people young and old learning from one another, and there are always the ‘Heroes’ that bring in new people. The primate people have Jane Goodall, the Marine people have Sylvia Earle and Jacques Cousteau, the reptile people have Steve Irwin. In botany, it is one of the only times that I have heard people talk more often about those who have passed away recently than those who are ‘up and comers’, and that needs to stop. There needs to be more botanical heroes that make the media and who are well known, because they are out there.

Botany and horticulture are not fields of interest strictly reserved for grandparents and hobbyists; there are scientists and collectors on the cutting edge of research in the middle of the remotest jungle, hanging in trees collecting epiphytes, trekking through deserts looking for succulents and in every place in between! There is green life on every continent, even Antarctica with its tiny lichen forests, and where there is green, you know there was an intrepid botanist at one point.

What measures can we, as individuals, take to help ensure plant biodiversity doesn’t continue to be lost at such an unprecedented rate?

At times it seems that, as regular people, we have no power or influence over what happens to species on the other side of the world. But the reality is that every decision we make has an influence. My mother is a National Geographic photographer and the founder of Sealegacy, and she and her partner Paul Nicklen travel around the world and use photography as a tool to educate and inspire. My mother was recently on a speaking tour across the US and the question on what can we do to help the environment is always asked after every talk, and she always gives the best response; we must monitor what we do as consumers.

For her purposes this applies to climate change and plastic in the ocean, but the same truth applies to plants and rainforest conservation. Always monitor what you are buying or using, be sure that you don’t use products that contain palm oil for example, read the labels and be conscious about what you’re consuming. The same is true of products like beef, you can reduce the amount of red meat you consume, which is responsible for the destruction of hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest across the tropics.

Other things include standing with indigenous communities worldwide, who are in many cases the last true stewards of the forest. In 2016 I spent 6 weeks living in the Kayapó village of Aukre in the northern Amazon and the people there were some of the last warriors standing up against the miners and illegal loggers that continued encroaching into their territories. While I was there, I was presented with some of the most beautiful botanical treasures I had seen, in some of the most beautiful tracts of intact forest I had ever been in.

Some other options for protecting plant biodiversity are to educate yourself about the botanical wealth around you! Engage with botanical gardens and institutions, most large cities have at least one, and all of them are always in need of engaging and excited new people coming in and learning about the plants! Supporting those types of conservation-oriented gardens and zoos will ensure that they have the resources to continue educating the public and growing rare and endangered species.

How did having a family so heavily-involved in conservation influence your life growing up? Were there any unexpected challenges that came with it?

My upbringing was unique to say the least and my family’s work with conservation was an incredible influence on me that continues to shape the way I look at the world. My father was president of Conservation International for 30 years and is now Chief Conservation officer at Global Wildlife

Conservation, while my mother was the founder of the International League of Conservation Photographers, and is now a National Geographic photographer and the co-founder of Sea legacy.

Both my parents committed to bringing me with them to travel around the world. My first trip was as a baby when we went to Indonesia and Sulawesi. As of age 26, I have officially been to 79 countries on all seven continents. I have also lived in 6 countries and speak 4 languages as a result. Growing up like this was tremendously formative in that it not only gave me an incredible exposure to other cultures and places, but it also taught me about the value of wild places and the need to defend them. While my parents strived to bring my siblings and I with them as often as possible, they couldn’t take us on every trip. The challenges of never having your parents home as they traveled around the world, was remedied by the knowledge that they were out there, ‘Saving the world’ which was a mantra I’ve heard many times throughout my life.

Was there ever a time where you planned to follow a different career path? Or have you always known you wanted to work in conservation in some way?

Conservation is in my blood and so I’ve never doubted for a moment that it would be a field that I would eventually work in. However before I got into plants, I was a reptile fanatic, hell-bent on becoming a herpetologist and the next Steve Irwin. Like many young naturalists who watched the classic shows on Animal Planet in the early 2000’s, I think what I really loved was the passion and the enthusiasm, as well as the sense of adventure! It was something that I could easily relate to given my upbringing and it was something that I carry with me to this day and in everything that I pursue.

My engagement with the world of reptiles brought me on a lot of wonderful adventures and introduced me to many lifelong friends, like Sean Laughlin, who was my college roommate and who did another interview with you and who is currently chasing cobras across Thailand! Chasing reptiles will always be a part of who I am, but my passion for tropical plants is something that also emerged from my affinity for reptiles. As a child I found that people either ignored or were afraid of reptiles, and that is part of what attracted me to them.

Plants started to appeal to me in the same way, because they were something that I had long ignored on many of the trips I took to the tropics. For a long time, they were just part of a green backdrop. But it wasn’t until I was older that I started to realize the incredible diversity of life that I, as someone who has always paid strict attention to the under-credited organisms of the world, had been ignoring.

Before getting involved in plants, you mentioned that you studied anthropology. Does this ever link in with your botany work?

I majored in Anthropology in college, which I call a mistake because I wish I had majored in botany, but ultimately it was an important decision in shaping my future career decisions. When I first started college, I was just returning from an expedition to the Kalahari desert, where my father and I had spent several weeks with the famed Kalahari bushmen of Botswana, who were also the stars of the famous anthropological film, ‘The Gods Must Be Crazy’. When I saw that film in an intro anthropology course, I immediately felt like this was a field that I should be in.

However, as time went on, the politics and controversy of working with indigenous people turned me away, especially considering the amount of time I had spent among indigenous people growing up. Through my parents’ work, I had grown up visiting with tribes and communities across the Amazon, Africa and Australia. The idea of studying them as subjects in a rigid, scientific way never appealed to me as much as engaging and learning from them fluidly as I had in all my previous experiences.

The connection between indigenous people and botany has not yet crossed over in my work, but the world of ethnobotany is a fascinating field that shaped some of my father’s earliest work in the amazon, as he explored different indigenous and shamanic practices with the famous ethnobotanist, Mark Plotkin who authored, ‘Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice’, which entails many of the adventures they had across Suriname and the Guyanas in the early 70’s.

What do you enjoy most about your work in botany?

Traveling to see rare species in situ. Like all those people who work closely with rare and endangered wildlife, there is no greater joy than the opportunity to see it thriving in the wild. On the same token, while working heavily in the horticultural side of botany, I do feel immense satisfaction in seeing rare and endangered species being propagated and shared throughout different institutions. There are so many success stories of a single seed or cutting making it out of a crumbling ecosystem and being propagated and established in an assurance colony. It is the same satisfaction as having an endangered animal successfully breeding in captivity in hopes of future reintroduction to the wild (barring all arguments from organizations like PETA).

Are there any drawbacks?

The importance of living material is becoming increasingly difficult. Through CITES and other similar regulations, the movement of sensitive living material is being restricted. While in theory and practice these restrictions are generally positive, in many ways they hinder conservation efforts because many botanical institutions, while permitted to move these materials no longer want to deal with the red tape, regulations and the stigma of wild collection.

These regulations have a variety of negative effects and while the opinion may be unpopular, I see it as incredibly short-sighted that species in at risk areas aren’t being taken for propagation. One of the results has been an increase in hybridization and cultivation of cultivars of common species, instead of importation of new species that contribute to the biodiversity of forests and other ecosystems. There needs to be an emphasis on responsible importation by reputable institutions for conservation purposes.

How many plant species/families do you keep at home? And which is your favourite?

It’s difficult to keep track of all the plants I have, and at some point I will absolutely have to catalogue everything I have. After a certain point, you begin collecting with such fervor that you just lose track. At this point I would say that I have probably somewhere between 600-800 plants in my own private collection and certainly a few hundred species from various families.

The majority of what I grow are epiphytes and hemiepiphytes, so a lot of plants from the family Araceae, which encompasses genera like Philodendron, Monstera, Anthurium and anything with the classic spathe/ spadix type inflorescence. The rest of my collection is comprised of mostly epiphytic ferns, bromeliads, orchids and other various species.

It’s difficult to choose a favorite, but I am partial to the genus Monstera and by extension many of its old world ancestors like Raphidophora, Scindapus and Epipremnum. These are the genera that are well known for having leaves that have perforations and fenestrations. Among the best known are Monstera obliqua and others. To me they’ve always been reminiscent of the tropics and the jungle.

Where would you like to see yourself in the future?

In the future I would love to run my own non-profit organization dedicated to plant conservation, wild collection and propagation. In traveling not only around the world, but also to many of the world’s preeminent botanical gardens, I’ve noticed a startling trend; while we are losing wild areas at a startling rate, there isn’t a corresponding urgency in protecting what is being lost. I have been to many large private collections that have simply closed off any and all collection of wild material and the only plant material being collected is for herbarium slides. The need to catalogue what is being lost is certainly critical, but it also represents a sort of salvage mentality, where one accepts that what’s being lost can’t be saved.

I can recall being in the mountains in Colombia with Dr. Tom Croat, one of the greatest aroid researchers in history, who explained to me how Missouri botanical garden, where he works, no longer collects living material, which is something that they had done for the previous thirty years. We agreed it was a poor strategy for the conservation of plants.

This mentality that supports wild collection may seem strange from a zoologist standpoint, because there is so much red tape and such a stigma around moving or collecting endangered animal species. On one hand, these restrictions serve to protect the environment and prevent anyone from seizing an endangered organism and profiting from it. Therefore in place of wild collection, there is a push to create protected areas. However, while many useful or attractive species (i.e. orchids or medicinal plants) can be used in validating the creation of a protected area, the large majority of plants that lack practical uses or ornamental flowers end up being completely overlooked. It is sickening to think that there are so many undescribed species that will disappear without any memory and with zero chance of propagation or reintroduction.

There are a few interesting collections that follow this model, one being the Montgomery Botanical center which focuses on the collection, propagation and distribution of rare and endangered cycad and palm species in an attempt to not only increase stock but also to relieve pressure on wild populations by saturating the market, an effective conservation strategy to decrease the demand and potential profit for rare organisms. It is an interesting strategy that I believe can be applied to a much wider range of endangered plant species.

Do you have any advice for someone wanting to become a botanist and/or work in plant conservation?

Simply follow your passion and see where it takes you. When I started my botanical journey it was through collecting airplants, in the genus Tillandsia. Next thing I knew I was chest-deep in swamps looking for orchids, and trekking through remote jungles in Brazil and Colombia hunting down new species. You never know where your passions will take you, but you should always follow that instinct. As I’ve mentioned before, there is always a need for more botanists and plant lovers, so always engage and network with other plant people, such as collectors, researchers or just plant lovers. The communities of people who study and love plants are some of the best people I know.

Thanks for speaking with me Mick!

Thank you for taking the time to give a little spotlight for plants! They are the unsung heroes of conservation!

If you’d like to learn more about Mick and his fascinating plants, then be sure to go follow him on Instagram: @MickMitty

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