Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 15: Berkeley 1932-1933

“If you were studying them [deer], they took you everywhere.”

– Ian McTaggart Cowan

Upon arriving at Berkeley, Cowan was met by the new, gleaming-white classical Life Sciences building rising above the treetops of the campus arboretum of oaks, madronas (arbutus) and exotic eucalyptus. Still imposing today, Athenian columns rise up from bases carved with bas relief of birds, snakes, shells, bighorn sheep and other native fauna of northern California; the Trajan inscription “Zoology” spans the elegant stairs up to the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. For the 22-year-old, fresh from a small Canadian campus, there would have been no doubt that the life sciences and museum were a going concern at Berkeley. Characteristically, Cowan makes no comments on the built landscape in his journal. His first entry is made up the hills behind the campus where the city limits end, not surprisingly featuring small mammals like the Great Basin Pocket Mouse, Perognathus [now Chaetodopus] californicus. These mice had yet to be distinguished into subspecies but Cowan was already ruminating on their geographic variability. 

Great Basin Pocket Mouse specimen : male
Ian McTaggart Cowan with camera (1932)

He had landed on his feet with the mentorship awaiting him at Berkeley. In addition to the wildlife he found all around campus, Cowan was delighted with Grinnell and considered himself lucky to have been accepted by such a famous quantitative ecologist. Luck wasn’t really part of it. The brotherhood and sisterhood had worked hard behind the scenes to get him there. Annie Alexander, patron of the museum, who had long funded Grinnell’s salary, the collecting expeditions and the teaching–research fellowships associated with the museum, had run into some limits to her philanthropy that summer: the Depression and the new construction of the Life Sciences Building and Museum had drained her annual bequests. In correspondence with Alexander, Grinnell voluntarily opted to take a 25 per cent cut in his salary that year, together with a staff readjustment, to free up $1,200 for several fellowships. Cowan squeaked in on one of those.

Cowan had come to Berkeley with the thesis that he had started on as an undergraduate – that the complex evolutionary story of deer had yet to be properly told. What better task for an acolyte of the venery than to describe the distribution of deer (venison). This animal lived in all kinds of landscapes from mountain ranges to the islands of the Pacific slope of the continent, and their distribution was told through the clues in their colouration, antlers, size and other adaptations. Cowan was always up for a challenge and wanted to statistically test and map the distribution of the “races” of Mule/Black-tailed Deer and the White-tailed Deer (at that time they were also referred to as blacktails and whitetails, all within the genus Odocoileus) that made it to the west side of the mountains from Baja to Alaska. It came from his experience with small mammals where variation between valley and islands revealed their evolutionary history.

Ian McTaggart Cowan with pinecone (1932)

In 1932 the new science was quantitative ecology, which required statistical samples to test assumptions of uniqueness. Cowan had to get hold of hundreds of specimens from a large geographic area. His training with Racey and Laing in the art of citizen science was put to immediate use upon arriving in Berkeley. He wrote far and wide to local naturalists, hunters, trappers, taxidermists, game wardens and curators for deer skulls and hides from Baja to BC. Amongst his earliest collaborators was Gus Nordquist, an “enthusiastic“ taxidermist from Oakland, California.

In the days before DNA, teasing out the subtle differences between species and subspecies very much relied on what is referred to as the “taxonomic eye.” The best taxonomists had an uncanny ability to detect distinguishing traits (obscure pelage, skull or dental traits) from visual inspection. These were often later confirmed from measurements and statistical analysis. Field biologists had to be able to distinguish uniqueness of similar populations that might already vary internally depending on age, sex or nutrition. Ernest Thompson Seton had established a framework for describing animals based on physical features, behaviours and geographic range, which Cowan used in his undergraduate papers. The great skill of the early taxonomists was to have such an intimate understanding of a population that they could select a type specimen to typify the race, taking into account the natural variations of the population.

Grinnell was also establishing the framework for conservation biology. The key to detecting a decline in any given population was to know what had been there to start with – a baseline. To this end he handed out a small typewritten note at the start of each year that was to be attached to his graduate students’ field journals:

The objects of our field work are: to ascertain everything possible in regard to the natural history of the vertebrate life of the regions traversed, and to make careful record of the facts gathered in the form of specimen and notes, to be preserved for all time. All this is for the information of others; strive to make your records in all respects clearly intelligible. Remember that the value of our manuscripts increases as the years go by and faunal changes take place. Some of our earlier notebooks describe conditions now vanished in the localities they dealt with.

Mule deer 03 : doe with single antler

In a sense, the Grinnellian training was the first attempt to legitimize traditional ecological knowledge garnered from “outdoorsmen” whether native trappers or non-native hunters. Merriam, with whom Grinnell and Alexander developed the principles of the MVZ, was as much a scholar of North American indigenous cultures as he was a naturalist, likewise Grinnell’s cousin, George Bird Grinnell, a member of the ‘B’.

Cowan collected anecdotal accounts and then measured and analyzed his specimens to map the ranges of what he proposed as a circle of nine coastal “races” of black-tailed deer, between which there is limited gene flow. The deer he was most familiar with was the Columbian Black-tailed Deer (columbianus), coinciding with the range between his own summer and winter habitats of Vancouver and Berkeley. The notion of a wandering buck ranging over this low-lying oak woodland ecosystem backed by the Coast Mountains would have been a credible scenario to Cowan, given the travelling back and forth over the same landscape to see Joyce. There were only a few minor barriers like rivers to cross (deer are adept swimmers). Deer specimens dominate his journals but his enquiry into small mammals also continued. 

Ian McTaggart Cowan field notes (1932-1934) : Califonia, Oregon, British Columbia
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