Pierre Morvan

1987 Laureate, Science & Health
France, Born 1935

Project Goal

Study ground beetles to improve understanding of what triggers evolutionary change

Location: Nepal

Amateur Entomologist

Years of painstaking work, in particular his recent discovery of a simple means of distinguishing members of the genus Batenus from other genera of ground beetles, have earned Pierre Morvan, a globetrotting amateur entomologist, the esteem of specialists worldwide.

"You see those two distinctive marks on the head?" Morvan, his eyes riveted down a rudimentary binocular microscope, points out two miniscule dots on either side of the head of a tiny metallic-tinted beetle, a Batenus from Asia. "The importance of these marks had long escaped entomologists," exclaims gleefully the collector from Brittany. "But having studied all the known specimens, I’m now convinced that this characteristic alone is enough to identify insects belonging to the genus Batenus, irrespective of whether these originate from Siberia, Turkey, the Indian continent or central Europe."

Decisive Discovery

At 62, Morvan appears to have made a decisive discovery. These seemingly banal hallmarks may allow specialists to distinguish the tiny Batenus from the two other genera with which they are often confounded, Colpodes and Platinus. The distinction comes as a welcome discovery to even the most seasoned entomologists who have difficulty finding their way among the ground beetles.

What is clear is that all these insects — which have an appetite for larva and small crustaceans — belong to the only known family of Coleopteres that are carnivorous: the Coleoptera Carabidae, a family whose members are found all over the planet. The group is a taxonomist’s nightmare, "with the genus of Colpodes alone comprising 100,000 species at a conservative estimate," confirms Thierry Deuve, an entomologist at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, who specialises in the Carabidae. "Pierre Morvan notably has had the merit of putting the house in order."

Two-thirds of the species ascribed to Batenus occur in Asia, with most of these concentrated around the Tibetan plateau, the favourite hunting ground of the Breton globe trotter. "On Batenus, I’ve become incontestable," smiles Pierre Morvan, with the calm assurance of someone who has done his homework. He is aware that his hypothesis — almost too simple — concerning the taxonomic significance of the body marks of Batenus has already prompted debate in entomological circles. From New York to Cologne, only five entomologists specialize in the study of the tiny bugs that make up Batenus, and over the years they have struck up a fruitful relationship with Morvan, and closely followed his work.

Prolific Author

Author of over 50 scientific publications, Pierre Morvan continues to publish regularly. "Since 1987, I’ve put out a dozen articles," he says, adding that to clear the backlog of findings he is now considering publishing a comprehensive review himself. He is currently completing the first volume of The Fauna of the Carabidae of Nepal, which will be illustrated by 350 diagrams drawn with his own hand.

Morvan’s recent work is largely the fruit of his winning a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 1987. The 50,000 Swiss francs of prize money, combined with the sale of his taxi, allowed him to retire five years earlier than planned to the small village of Carentoir, in the Morbihan region of Brittany, in the north-west of France.

Here Morvan spends over 50 hours per week in the ground floor laboratory of his house studying his favourite Coleopteres. Back from an expedition, he passes hours preparing and preserving specimens, laying them out meticulously on square sheets of paper tissue, which are then layered one on top of the other in small cardboard boxes.

Afterwards, Morvan’s hours are spent glued to his microscope, diligently dissecting the beetles, analysing them, and scrupulously reproducing their smallest anatomical details on paper with a practised stroke of his pen.

"Thanks to the windfall of the Rolex Award, I was able to collect an abundant amount of material; thousands of insects," acknowledges Morvan. "I was able to organize two expeditions to the Himalayas, from September to December 1987, and then again from April to June 1989."

"Last October, I travelled to Bhutan," explains the relentless voyager, glancing with a look of recognition at his wife, Delia. A modern Penelope, Delia has always accepted without protest the long absences of her husband. She politely declines to dust the glass covers of the myriad boxes housing his collection of some 100,000 insects, but she remains his most faithful supporter.

Amateur Contribution

Pierre Morvan’s passion for insects and the continent of Asia dates from his early teens. Later, in the late 1960s, while working as a taxi driver in Paris, he began a series of expeditions to the Caucasus, Iran, Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet, territories which were then difficult for Western scientists to reach because of the political climate. In 1971, Morvan managed in two days to obtain an authorisation to visit the upper valleys of Nepal, for example, whereas several professional expeditions had waited in vain for months to obtain the same. His expeditions, financed from his own pocket until he won a Rolex Award, have yielded an impressive harvest of Coleoptera Carabidae specimens whose existence had never even been suspected.

The bugs, collected along the length of the Himalayas, were to open to Morvan the doors of the world’s most prestigious laboratories, such as those of the British Museum, and the museums of Leningrad, Kathmandu, Copenhagen, and Milan. "Ninety per cent of the museum collections are provided by amateurs like me," asserts Morvan proudly.

Henry de Lumley, director of the Natural History Museum of Paris, confirms this. "Amateurs play a very important role (in the constitution of collections)," he says, adding that while the museum tries to encourage amateurs, much still depends on relationships developing between individual amateurs and scientists within the museum.

Morvan has cultivated close relationships with scientists such as Deuve who speaks warmly of their long friendship. "Men such as Morvan, who are capable of adventuring – even clandestinely – in areas previously unexplored by specialists are rare and extremely precious," says Deuve, who has known Morvan for over 15 years.

Strong Bond of Respect

The two men share a strong bond forged from mutual respect and the inevitable passionate quarrels over what may seem to be arcane details within their field. With a paternal smile, Morvan adds that he nicknames the well-known researcher "little Deuve". For his part, Deuve emphasises with tenderness "the bloody stubborn character of the Breton amateur", which accounts in no small way for Morvan’s talents of persistence and perfectionism.

"All by himself, Morvan has in the space of 30 years described over 300 new species and five genera within the family Carabidae," Deuve says. "Without doubt he has the inevitable gaps in knowledge, but he has compensated for this by an enormous amount of hard work. His work will underpin the research of entomologists all over the world, and allow specialists to better understand the evolution of the Carabidae."

This praise touches the heart of Pierre Morvan, who left school when he was just 14. Working outside of the scientific establishment, and never tied to any organisation, Morvan now warns that "amateurs risk becoming a species in danger of extinction," and argues that the professionalisation of science is leaving less and less room for the self-taught.

He admits, however, that being an amateur can also be a handicap, and describes the practical difficulties both in gaining access to libraries and collections and in financing expeditions. Museums such as the Natural History Museum in Paris are poorly geared to the needs of amateurs, he says, pointing out for example the simple fact that buildings are often closed during lunchtimes and evenings. According to Morvan, the British Museum in London is one of the best in terms of access and its collections are better organised than those of the cash-strapped Paris museum.

Morvan explains that it is also difficult to go beyond his core competences into other areas. "I recognise that genetics is outside my competence," he says, adding that this has not stopped him from formulating hypotheses based on his extensive observations in the field. In 1991, after three years of work, he completed a 90-page manuscript on biogeographical speciation. Morvan’s ambition is to provide a global and more logical view of the classification of the Coleoptera Carabidae, by retracing their evolution in relation to their bio-geographical environment.

Geographical Speciation

The Carabidae are in fact excellent environmental indicators, as is testified to by the astonishing resemblance between species from two mountainous regions, the Caucasus and the Pyrenees. Morvan has therefore set about describing the mechanisms that lead to the appearance of new species.

"We generally consider that it is geographical isolation which results in speciation, but I don’t believe that this classical interpretation is sufficient," Morvan asserts. For him, the cause of speciation lies elsewhere, in the climatic conditions. "It is the climatic changes, such as a fall in temperatures or a reduction in rainfall that forced these insects to change their ecological niches, triggering genetic mutations," he speculates.

As a frontier zone between two starkly different worlds, the Himalayas have provided a natural laboratory for Morvan to study his ideas. The range was thrown up some 38-million years ago during the Eocene period when India collided with Tibet. "The geographical separation which resulted coincides exactly with an evolutionary branching of winged and wingless species," argues Morvan.

"If we observe the distribution of Batenus in Asia, we can see two directions in the evolution of their morphology. To the east of the Himalayas, from Japan to Nepal, in an area which is characterized by heavy monsoon rains, the Carabidae have retained their primitive winged form. To the west, the climate is much more arid. Here the insects were forced to adapt to a new habitation. As vegetation became scarcer, they left the bush, becoming terrestrial creatures and gradually losing their wings as they switched to searching for humidity in ponds and lakes."

These new restricted niches resulted in isolation and subsequent speciation, he speculates, arguing that as the climate began to warm up in later periods, each generation climbed higher into the mountains in search of cooler climates. It was in this way that entire groups became geographically isolated, resulting in speciation, he says. "We notice that there are seven times more species on the western side of the Himalayas than on the eastern side," concludes Morvan.

For Morvan, the evolution of the Carabidae therefore follows closely the geological and climatic history of the planet. The search for a common branch of Carabidae, linked to Wegner’s theory of continent drift fascinates him, and his dream is to retrace the genealogy of the Carabidae by following their migration over the ages across the world.

Other 1987 Laureates