Photograph by Lida Pigott Burney
Photograph by Daniel Grossman
Birthplace: High Point, North Carolina
Current City: Kalaheo, Kaua'i, Hawaii
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Some kind of natural history professional
How did you get started in your field of work?
My first job in this area was at 15, as a merit badge counselor for nature and bird study at Boy Scout summer camp.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to conservation paleobiology?
A fascination with the past and optimism for the prospects of a better future.
What's a normal day like for you?
Thankfully, I don't have any "normal" days in the sense of a very predictable routine, and almost never have. My days are like snowflakes—no two alike—and I only wish they didn't melt away so fast! Seriously, my varied careers and interests, and a certain willingness to take on seemingly impossible tasks on short notice, have kept me from getting bored, and I prefer that over certainty.
Do you have a hero?
My heroes in history include Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, and Martin Luther King, Jr., but of people I've actually known my hero is the late Professor Paul S. Martin, whose scientific pursuits and conservation philosophy were the foundation for my own. His personal qualities as a scientist, however, were something I can only aspire to: he was a bold scientific thinker, unafraid of the "controversy" that almost always arises from a significant new idea. At the same time, even as the target of critics, he was gracious and fair-minded in his response to even the most antagonistic criticism—and almost always right, in my opinion.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
In the late 1970s, my wife, Lida Pigott Burney, and I lived and worked in Masai Mara National Park, on the northern end of the Serengeti in Kenya, East Africa. We studied the effects of human activities on the endangered cheetah and lived among the Maasai people. Every day I went out and worked among the kinds of big animals and dynamic environments that once thrived all over the planet but exist primarily as fossils in the other places I work.
Working in Madagascar for almost three decades has been, on reflection, both highly rewarding but also personally challenging. This wonderful place is almost an alternative reality when it comes to plants and animals, so different from anywhere else. But it's been a heartbreak to see so much wonderful biodiversity in human-driven decline, while well-meaning efforts of local conservationists and their international partners are so often ensnarled in bureaucratic obstacles and the parallel socioeconomic challenges of a very poor developing country. I often find myself wanting to help people and nature in Madagascar, but unsure what to do that can make a lasting difference.
What are your other passions?
I love all kinds of music, and own and operate all kinds of small boats that have a zero carbon footprint.
What do you do in your free time?
Because I am one of those lucky people whose work is also an engrossing hobby, I regard most of my time as free. I feel most truly free, however, whenever I am eating and sleeping outdoors.
If you could have people do one thing to help save humanity and the planet, what would it be?
If everyone could take more interest in the natural world around them, and the past of their own species, I am reasonably sure we would have a better chance of surviving the present global predicament. Without that, I'm not so sure. Oh, and I wish everyone could visit us at Makauwahi Cave Reserve on Kaua'i or at least buy my book about it (just kidding ... sort of).
In Their Words
If everyone could take more interest in the natural world around them, and the past of their own species, I am reasonably sure we would have a better chance of surviving the present global predicament.
Burney investigates the dramatic ecological changes that began after the arrival of humans.
The husband and wife hope to re-create a lost world.
Research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), co-authored by David Burney, argues that large-scale deforestation did not cause the collapse of the ancient Maya city of Copan in Honduras.