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Ecologists Drown During Research Trip

A spring break research trip has ended in disaster, leaving the tight-knit world of professional ecologists mourning the loss of five of its own. The scientists--two Americans from the University of California (UC), Davis, and two Japanese from Kyoto University--died Monday after their boat capsized in high seas off Baja, Mexico. A third Japanese scientist is missing and presumed dead.

The victims of the Sea of Cortez's unpredictable weather were expedition leader Gary Allan Polis, 53, a spider and scorpion expert from UC Davis; Michael Rose, 28, a postgraduate researcher in Polis's lab; termite ecologist Takuya Abe, 55, of the Center for Ecological Research at Kyoto University; and colleagues Masahiko Higashi, 45, and Shigeru Nakano, 37.

The team's two small boats were making a 4 nautical mile voyage from a study site on the island of Cabeza de Caballo to the tiny Mexican port of Bahia de los Angeles. The boats became separated and one capsized. Survivors say Polis apparently died of a heart attack after clinging to the overturned boat for several hours, while the others drowned. At least four other researchers and students survived the accident and swam to shore.

Polis was among ecology's most prominent stars. After receiving his doctorate from UC Riverside in 1977, Polis went on to become a respected authority on the factors, such as climate and food availability, that affect insect populations. His work attracted broad attention, including more than $500,000 in grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) over the last decade, making him one of the world's best-funded ecologists. An enthusiastic educator, he was also the subject of numerous popular magazine articles and a children's book. Takuya Abe was also a prominent leader in his field, studying the complex cooperative relationship between termites and the plants they eat. He was particularly interested in how the ratio of carbon and nitrogen in plant cell walls influenced the social habits of insects, and how those arrangements rippled through entire ecosystems.

News of the accident stunned officials at both universities, with UC Davis Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef calling it "the most tragic in our history." NSF Director Rita Colwell eulogized the researchers in a statement. "Like so many colleagues who diligently pursue a better understanding of our world," she said, "these researchers put their commitment to knowledge before their comfort and personal security."