In 1994, Finding Species’ founder Margot Bass was conducting botanical research in the coastal wet forests of Ecuador, at Bilsa Biological Reserve. These forests harbor a large number of species that occur nowhere else in the world. The area was quite inaccessible: She had to hike in through deep mud, carrying food in her backpack and plant collecting supplies on a donkey. She was amazed by the beauty and variety of plants she was collecting. She realized she was one of the few people in the world, in addition to the vanished indigenous from the region, who might ever see them. She started drawing the plants in her collection notebook each night by lantern. But the work was slow and it was hard to capture the botanical characters accurately, and it was tiring in addition to the long hours of scientific field research. She wanted to photograph the plants instead, and have more time to do it carefully, so that the documentation would be scientifically accurate as well as beautiful. That way, the photographs could be useful to biologists, yet also serve to bring these little known species and remote places to the public, to inspire them to learn about them and protect them. But she did not have the equipment or the institution that could make the work possible.
The Finding Species founder continued her work in Ecuador’s largest protected area, Yasuní National Park. According to scientists, the Yasuní forests are potentially the most biodiverse forests on Earth. She was hired with several other young students of botany to identify all trees in 50 hectares, using leaf and bark characters. The vast number of species and the difference between the brown, flat, dried leaf specimens in the laboratory—their only references for species identifications—and the three-dimensional world outdoors overwhelmed them. With the advent of digital photography, it became obvious that this was the required tool for species documentation, to facilitate identifications in the field. The founder went to New York City to find the best digital cameras and other equipment then available, and traveled with eight suitcases to Quito. From there, she traveled by truck over the Andes and crossed Amazon waterways by barge to the field station. She and her colleagues began photographing plants by the hundreds—becoming scientist-photographers— aware that what they were doing for themselves would serve many others as well.
These scientist-photographers formally established the Finding Species program soon after this experience. At first, it was an organization devoted primarily to plant documentation and plant conservation. But a large foreign oil company was seeking to build yet another road for yet another oil well in Yasuní National Park. Finding Species personnel realized that this couldn’t be allowed to happen, yet the question was: “Who is going to stop it?” They contacted major national and international conservation organizations to rouse them to action. But none were interested in taking on a road-building project that had already been approved. However, through their years of work in the field station, the unknown scientist-photographers had collaborated with renowned scientists from all over the world.
Finding Species was able to call these scientists to a workshop in Ecuador, with the goal of creating a technical report for the national government on the biological value of the park, and on the many deleterious impacts of road building in tropical forests. The report was delivered to the Ecuadorian government. Finding Species photographers also used state-of-the art digital cameras to document over thirty Signature Species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and other life of Yasuní, and printed these photographs on huge poster boards. Finding Species used these for a public relations campaign, bringing Yasuní directly to the people through permitted exhibits in public squares, metropolitan shopping malls, at rock concerts, on buses, and in airports. The report by the scientists (who named themselves the Scientists Concerned for Yasuní) and the subsequent technical comments they submitted, along with the photograph campaign, stirred up great international interest in the park, and an intense policy debate within the halls of government about the park’s future. These played a crucial role in the government’s decision to stop the road, and opened the door for consideration of alternative development concepts. Finding Species had established that its creative mix—of photography, science, technology, and teamwork—could address major conservation challenges.
Upon returning to the States, Finding Species established offices in Takoma Park, Maryland. Many projects were completed like GeckoWeb, EoL/BioBlitz. Establishing strong partnerships with the Smithsonian, Columbia and Maryland University to create the photo recognition tree identification application and website, Leafsnap, Finding Species continues to produce images for the collection. Establishing strong relationships with individuals, organizations, institutions and governments, Finding Species excels in providing the highest quality photographic work.