He Knows Much Biology

Lawrence R. Heaney’s fascination with nature began early. He was born in Washington, D.C., which in the 1950s was a much smaller city than it is today. At two years old, his family moved to a small house at the edge of the suburbs, which was within easy walking distance to a scrubby forest, fields and creeks. He spent much of his time in the forest, collecting bugs, rocks and leaves. From thereon, he has always loved being outdoors and learning about nature through being in the midst of it. Also, he has greatly enjoyed zoos and museums of natural history.
 Larry Heaney (Source: www.fieldmuseum.org)

Larry Heaney (Source: www.fieldmuseum.org)

Now, Heaney is the curator of mammals at The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and his primary area of interest is the Philippines’ rich concentration of unique species of mammals.

When Heaney was in 7th grade, he took Saturday classes at the National Museum of Natural History, a part of the Smithsonian Institution. He was particularly interested in a class in mammalogy, where he learned to skin and stuff forest mice for research studies. When he was 14 years old, he began working as a volunteer in the museum’s Division of Mammals, He learned how to prepare specimens and catalog them into a research collection. Also, he helped with research projects on squirrels, primates, bats and porpoises. His first exposure to Southeast Asian biology was to help in a study of the mammals of Vietnam.

By the time he started college at the University of Minnesota, Heaney was hooked on biology, especially on the ideas involved in evolution and the role of geography in biodiversity. He eventually earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in systematics and ecology at the University of Kansas.

His position at The Field Museum allows him to conduct his own research, as well as manage and care for one of the largest and most heavily used research collections of mammals in the world.

 The Mindoro spiny tree mouse is a poorly known animal that lives only in the forests of Mindoro.  (Photo by D. S. Balete)

The Mindoro spiny tree mouse is a poorly known animal that lives only in the forests of Mindoro.  (Photo by D. S. Balete)

“I am able to help coordinate other staff members’ field research programs,” Heaney says, “as well as help hundreds of scientific visitors each year to use our collections, assist with development of new exhibits about the world’s biodiversity, teach undergraduate and graduate students at local universities, and assist with the professional development of younger colleagues from countries around the world.” He loves the variety of responsibilities, and he is working in a museum of natural history, which has always excited him ever since he was a child.

Heaney’s primary research interest has been the Philippines, where he has had the opportunity to learn progressively more and more about the evolution, ecology and conservation of the one of the most biologically diverse places on earth.

“Our best current information shows,” he states, “that the concentration of unique species of mammals in the Philippines is the highest of any country in the world.”

 Leaf-nosed bats are among the most diverse of the bats that eat insects.  They find bugs at night using high-pitched squeaks that they emit through their nostrils, then listen for the echos using their large ears.  (Photo by D. S. Balete)

Leaf-nosed bats are among the most diverse of the bats that eat insects.  They find bugs at night using high-pitched squeaks that they emit through their nostrils, then listen for the echos using their large ears.  (Photo by D. S. Balete)

Some other countries are much larger and have more species, but the concentration, that is, the number per unit area, in the Philippines is the highest. Why is this so? The tropical climate is a major factor. But it is the geography of the Philippines, and its geographical history, which has been a crucial part of the story, with each island, and each mountain range within each island, developing its own unique set of species.

“The Philippines can truly be described as the ‘Galapagos Islands (in Ecuador) times 20,’” he declares, “and even that understates the case. The biodiversity of the Philippines is extraordinary!”

As of now, he is involved in a project to document the mammal fauna of the small island, Mindoro. Preliminary studies at The Field Museum of Natural History have demonstrated that at least some of the mammal diversity was produced by evolution within the island.

“If this is correct,” Heaney observes, “Mindoro is the smallest known island on the planet that had produced new species of mammals by evolution within the island!”


The concentration of unique species of mammals in the Philippines is the highest of any country in the world.

The data gathered in Mindoro will be used as a milestone for researchers on islands around the world in understanding the evolutionary origin and ecological maintenance of biological diversity and developing effective strategies for its conservation.

One of the great parts of Heaney’s involvement in the long-term project in the Philippines has been the opportunity to work with the community of biodiversity researchers and conservationists with the country. He has collaborated for many years with colleagues in the zoology department at the National Museum of the Philippines, conducting fieldwork together and obtaining funding for them to come to The Field Museum of Natural History for advanced training and research collaboration.

He has had similar interactions with the University of the Philippines (both Diliman and Los Baños campuses), as well as with conservation organizations, such as the Haribon Foundation and Conservation International. He has also collaborated in establishing and maintaining the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Philippines, an umbrella organization that each year hosts a gathering of anyone with interests in the evolution, ecology, and conservation of terrestrial biodiversity in the Philippines.

“My Filipino colleagues,” Heaney explains, “are bright, hardworking people who never stop smiling, never complain, and love field work as much as I do. What more could anyone ask?”

Because he has spent so much time in the Philippines, he considers it to be his second home. He loves Philippine mangoes, enjoying its sweet and tart flavors and preferring ones that are a bit green. And he finds it hard to resist a good fresh fish that comes straight out of the sea.

When in the Philippines, Heaney works hard and also plays hard. In the late 1980s, he was with a group doing research on a very steep mountain. It included Silliman University students, who were helping and being trained. It rained a lot, the trails were muddy and steep, and everybody got into the habit of sitting back on their heels and “skiing” down the muddy slopes. The students designed T-shirts that said “Silliman University Ski Team Coach” for Heaney and another American. Both have kept and treasured their T-shirts.

Lawrence R. Heaney continues to inspire future biologists. “If you love learning new things on your own, if you love spending time outdoors, if you like to teach others, and if money is not the most important thing in your life, then you will make a fine biologist,” he states.

Also, a lot of time will have to be spent in school, and one needs to enjoy writing, which will involve a lot of it. He advises, “Focus on the things you find most interesting, and pour as much energy into it as you can. Work hard, and have fun!”

Lawrence R. Heaney, Ph.D., can be reached at lheaney@fieldmuseum.org.

The author wishes to thank Almira Astudillo Gilles, Ph.D., for her assistance in obtaining the interview.

*Video follows


 Rey E. de la Cruz

Rey E. de la Cruz

Rey E. de la Cruz, Ed.D., Positively FIlipino Correspondent, writes from Chicagoland when he is not loving the arts and traveling. He is the author of the children’s book, Ballesteros on My Mind: My Hometown in the Philippines, which also has Ilocano, Spanish, and Tagalog versions.


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