Geologist Francesco Sauro, 29, was named as a winner on Tuesday at the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science.
He was one of five “young visionaries” awarded the prize, for their work to “improve the well-being of the community and the environment, as well as to advance scientific knowledge,” Rolex said in a statement.
Sauro beat off competition from 1,800 applicants to wins funds to advance his exploration of the mountains and caves of South America.
The Italian’s research focuses on the table-top mountains on the Brazil-Venezuela border, known as the tepuis, described by Sauro as “a kind of lost world”.
Over the past five years he has led five expeditions to the area, as part of the Italian association, La Venta, in coordination with a team of Venezuelan explorers. Sauro’s trips into the mountains have led him to discover new animal species and a new mineral in the cave, Rolex said.
The prize money will be used to fund further expeditions in the region over the next three years, with the aim of collecting more data.
Sauro said the research will offer “insights into the evolution of landscape and life in central South America after the opening of the Atlantic Ocean 100 million years ago.”
His work is so otherworldly that the European Space Agency (ESA) asked him to work on its training programme, taking astronauts into caves to help them cope with the extreme environments they will encounter in space.