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Field Museum scientist Steve Goodman lives in Madagascar because of its biodiversity, which is where you find the strangest creatures

Field Museum scientist Steve Goodman lives in Madagascar because of its biodiversity, which is where you find the strangest creatures

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A map might be useful for navigating the Field Museum’s corridors and narrow stairwells and locating Steve Goodman’s office.

And if you do, he’s probably not there. After all, in the 35 years that he worked for the renowned Chicago museum, he was hardly there.

Of the museum’s 150 scientists, Goodman is the only one stationed on-site full-time, aside from trips to Chicago to bring back specimens.

He has been living and working in the African island state of Madagascar for three and a half decades. Why? Because its isolation has made it one of the most biologically rich places on the entire planet.

“Four days after I started working at the Field Museum, I went to Madagascar for the first time,” says Goodman, 65. “Put boxes in my office, repacked, and off we went.”

Steve Goodman, the Field Museum's Madagascar field scientist, displays specimens native to the isolated African island nation.

Steve Goodman, the Field Museum’s Madagascar field scientist, displays specimens native to the isolated African island nation.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun Times

Goodman is back in Chicago for a different reason this time. He is promoting his new, 2,300-page, two-volume reference work “The New Natural History of Madagascar” (Princeton University Press, $175). It includes all manner of creatures found only there, from the chameleon Brookesia micra – the size of a matchstick head – to the whale sharks off the island’s north-west coast. These sharks made a big impression.

“You’re next to one, and they pass you almost that wide with that mouth, and you can feel the suction as they swallow all that water,” he says.

Steve Goodman's new 2,700-page, two-volume reference work, The New Natural History of Madagascar.

Steve Goodman’s new 2,700-page, two-volume reference work, The New Natural History of Madagascar.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun Times

Goodman is from Michigan, but his accent is difficult to place now. He wears his long, thinning hair back in a ponytail. In Chicago, he borrowed his adult son’s Nikes because most of the time in Madagascar he is either barefoot or in sandals.

“I didn’t want to invest in a pair of shoes for a two-week visit,” he says.

Slightly larger than France, Madagascar is located about 250 miles off the coast of Mozambique in south-eastern Africa. Its coasts are lined with mangroves and coral reefs. Its rugged ridge is the result of millions of years of tectonic and volcanic activity. The country is parched in the southwest but waterlogged in the northwest during the monsoon season.

Due to the climate, varied landscape and geological remoteness, the island also boasts remarkable biodiversity. It retreated from the rest of Africa about 150 million years ago, so species evolved differently there than elsewhere. For example, there are at least 120 species of lemurs that are unique to Madagascar.

A mouse lemur native to Madagascar — one of at least 120 lemur species unique to the island.

A mouse lemur native to Madagascar — one of at least 120 lemur species unique to the island.

About 28 million people live in Madagascar, although some places, like the interior of Ankarana National Park in the north, are almost inaccessible. There, limestone has eroded into dagger-like pinnacles, with some passages between them too narrow for people to squeeze through.

“It’s just this maze of peaks and crevasses,” says Goodman. “It goes for miles.”

In places like these, he and other biologists set up camp and work to capture species of birds, bats, lemurs — “basically anything with scales, feathers, and fur,” he says. Much of what they find ends up in Chicago.

“Sometimes you’re 200 meters on your stomach, scratching the roof of the cave with your back, and you’re in an area the size of two football fields,” says Goodman of his search for bats and fossils.

His wife Asmina is from Madagascar and son Hesham is 20 years old. Before having a child, Goodman says he lived and worked in the forests of Madagascar for up to eight months a year, the rest with his wife in the capital, Antananarivo.

Goodman gets nervous if he spends too much time in civilization, which his wife will egg on.

“If I’ve been in town too long, she’ll say, ‘Steve, I think it’s time to go back to the woods,'” he says.

Field museum scientist Steve Goodman in the field in Madagascar in November 2021.

Field museum scientist Steve Goodman in the field in Madagascar in November 2021.

Sara Ruane says she has joined the Field Museum as Assistant Curator of Herpetology in 2021, in part because it would give her a chance to work with Goodman.

“From waking up to falling asleep, he works really hard,” says Ruane, who traveled to Madagascar last year to study snakes.

Long before dawn she would find Goodman checking the mammal traps.

“He seems to thrive on maybe four hours of sleep a night,” she says.

Madagascar can be a difficult place to be in February to April, in the middle of the rainy season, when storms often batter the island.

“Unless you’ve been in a cyclone, you can’t imagine how much water can fall from the sky in a short amount of time,” says Goodman. “Torrential rain. And this for hours and for days and for days.”

He says it took about three and a half years to complete the new reference book on Madagascar, for which he is the lead author and editor and which includes the work of about 500 contributors. His first work on the same subject, published in 2003, was comparatively short – only about 1,700 pages.

It turned out there were benefits to putting a book together during a pandemic, Goodman says.

“Normally you would write to someone and say: We have this project in the works. Are you interested?” he says. “And they would say: Sorry, I’m about to leave. Contact me in six months. People were very happy to have something to do at home while they waited for their universities to open were waiting.”

As with the specimens he brings back to Chicago each summer, Goodman sees the mammoth work as more than just a guide to all things Madagascar.

“Nature is disappearing at an alarming rate,” he says. “Places like Madagascar, Borneo, the Philippines and Peru are like the last pillars of biodiversity. It is the responsibility of the field museum and its staff to document what is happening today and attempt to use this data to advance questions in evolutionary biology and the steps needed for conservation.”

Although their son is a student at the University of Iowa, Goodman and his wife have no plans to one day retire to the American Midwest.

He usually returns to Chicago for a few weeks each summer to drop off copies and “to reassure my colleagues that I’m alive.”

Goodman says he prefers Madagascar’s rice-based cuisine and slower pace to city life.

Broken axles are a daily occurrence in Madagascar, he says, because of potholes “where you can lose a truck.” As a result, Malagasy drivers usually carry two to three spare tires, he says.

With his family in Chicago until mid-January, he is already looking forward to the 26-hour return journey via Paris.

“My family says the best thing about Chicago is going back to Madagascar,” he says.

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