iology professor Samuel J. McNaughton remembers the exact date he first set foot on the Serengeti Plains in east AfricaMay 30, 1973. He and his wife, Margaret, were visiting biology department colleague Larry Wolf, who was doing research in Kenya. While there, they
traveled to Tanzania to tour the Serengeti National Park, a 15,000-square-kilometer area of rolling hills, plains, grasslands, and forested savannas that is home to the greatest concentration of wildlife on the planet. McNaughton, charmed by Africa's mystique since childhood, immediately began taking notes. He couldn't ignore the tug of the stunning beauty of the plains where millions of grazing animals roam. More importantly, as a scientist, McNaughton couldn't brush aside the question of how such a diverse and vast ecosystem sustains itself. "It was an epiphany," he says.
Until that time, McNaughton had been what he calls "a lab guy in a white coat," doing comparative plant biochemistry. But once back in Syracuse, McNaughton quickly took steps to pursue his newfound passion. He wrote and submitted a grant proposal, received funding, and was back on the Serengeti less than a year later to study the productivity of the grasslands.
Today, more than 25 years after launching his first study, the University's William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor of Science remains as fascinated as ever with the Serengeti and continues to conduct field research and explore the intricacies of life there. "As many times as I've been there and seen it, it's breathtaking every time," he says. "It's a spiritual thing."
McNaughton considers this Serengeti spirituality to be a blessing, an opportunity to witness a masterful part of creation. And through the years, he has focused his creative energy and talent on understanding all he can about the interactions that keep this unique ecosystem on trackfrom the role of the most minuscule microbes and nutrients in the soil, to the resilient vegetation and the hoofed herbivores that tread and feast upon it. What he learns, he shares, and his work has been a boon to the scientific community. McNaughton, who also has performed ecosystem research in Yellowstone National Park and the Galapagos Islands, teamed with Wolf to write the widely lauded textbook General Ecology (1979).He has published more than 100 articles in such scientific journals as Ecology, Nature,and Science,and has contributed numerous writings to science anthologies.
Professor Samuel J. McNaughton raises clones of Serengeti grasses in the Biological Research Laboratories greenhouse.
As an internationally renowned grasslands ecologist and conservation biologist, he is known among colleagues as a pioneer, a grasslands guru whose innovative research has blazed new trails in the field. "His work has spawned an incredible amount of research around the world for the last 15 years," says Steven Archer, associate head of the Department of Rangeland Ecology and Management at Texas A&M University. Last March, McNaughton lectured there and received the department's Dyksterhuis Award for his achievements. "His work represents a substantial contribution to the field, and it has stimulated a whole other line of research in plant ecology that can be traced back to Sam's ideas," says Archer, who credits McNaughton with providing him the opportunity to launch a program in international savanna ecology. "It's a tremendous testimony to his contributions."