Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 16: Berkeley 1933-1935

“Each of those boys is now free to bear down hard on his thesis – Orr on the rabbits, Cowan on the deer.”

– Professor at Berkeley

In his second year, Cowan was head teaching fellow in charge of 12 assistants for the princely sum of $600. One of his tasks was to assist his professor, Frank Daniels, with lecturing in the big classroom, which held 400 people. From Daniels he learned both lecturing and media technology skills. He made two field trips to Mendocino County and the Coast Range with zoologist James Moffitt and his wife, Elizabeth, a well-known family with affiliations to John Muir and the early Sierra Club. Accompanying the Moffitts on extended camping trips would have been a high honour for the young graduate student and provided him free transport and access to some of the large ranches, like the 20,000-acre tract of rolling grasslands and live oaks in Mendocino County. Cowan described the long days roaming over the grasslands and down into the ravines of redwood with the couple, both keen naturalists. The evenings were spent by the fire sharing ideas on deer characteristics and their utilization of acorns and oak leaves. One night he narrowly sidestepped a rattlesnake and during another was awakened in his tent by the calls of Pygmy and Spotted owls.

Moffitt’s specialty was the ecology of the Brant, the charismatic small goose that migrates along the Pacific flyway and became an important focus latterly for Cowan and his colleague Neil Dawe, one of the co-authors of the Birds of BC. The Englishman River estuary on the east side of Vancouver Island was protected by the Nature Trust of BC and Dawe started the Brant Festival to raise awareness of the bird locally.

Ian McTaggart Cowan in his office at Berkeley (1935)

The oak grasslands of Mendocino imprinted themselves on Cowan. He forever had a great affinity for this coastal grassland–oak woodland ecosystem that started around Berkeley and stretched up a narrow coastal strip to its northern limit in the rain shadow of southern Vancouver Island. His first job at the museum and his last job as the chancellor of the University of Victoria were in this northern limit of this endangered coastal grasslands, where he eventually retired.

Cowan’s third and final year at Berkeley was busy. He wrote and passed his final qualifying exam so he was free to write up his thesis, but he was still teaching, and wanted to access the collection at Berkeley to write up the distribution of the different races of Sitka White-footed Mouse (now officially a separate species called Keen’s Mouse). Alexander and McCabe had been collecting on many of the islands to the southeast of Alaska and Cowan compared those specimens to Racey’s and his own collections from isolated islands in BC to propose a series of new races. That study precipitated the major research project into island insularity a decade later. In the spring of 1935, with his doctorate in sight, Cowan was also looking for a job. He had to secure a reliable income before he could marry Joyce, and the job prospects were poor.

Ian McTaggart Cowan with Eileen and Joyce Racey (1935)

In BC however, changes were underway politically. Under the former Conservative government, faculty members of UBC had rebelled against cuts and five professors joined T. Dufferin (Duff) Pattullo’s Liberal party on a “socialized capitalism” platform, running for office in the next election. One of them was George Weir, a professor of education at UBC who became minister of education and provincial secretary. Bent on social reform of education, Weir had a pivotal role in selecting and placing the brightest and keenest from UBC ranks in “the upper-levels of those professional hierarchies” where they would be able to provide the schools and institutions with the quality of teaching and guidance that was needed. (Weir was also responsible for bringing in one of the early forms of public health insurance.) University budgets were quickly restored, and McLean Fraser at UBC was scouting for talent to restaff the institutions that had been cut. Cowan was one of the prospects he contacted for assistant curator at the provincial museum.

Cowan was delighted at the prospect of getting home and earning a salary. His mother, Joyce and the Racey family all travelled down for his commencement exercises on May 17, 1935. The pictures show a delighted young couple standing in front of the columns of the Vertebrate Museum and Laura Cowan and son in front of one of the cedars – close to where he had spotted the Great Horned Owl nest on his first day. After the celebrations and packing up, they headed into the Mojave Desert to look for the White-tailed Antelope Squirrel and Mohave Ground Squirrel for Racey’s and Cowan’s collections.

Graduation portrait of Ian McTaggart Cowan (1935)

Interestingly, the Mohave Ground Squirrel captured that day was used in 2012 by two Czech researchers looking at the drivers of sexual dimorphism, or the difference in size or colouration between the sexes. Ground squirrels don’t exhibit much sexual dimorphism, despite having a wide range of behaviours that might cause it. What Cowan had observed in grasslands from Chezacut to the Mojave was that despite this family of animals sharing qualities (liking open country, using burrows, being diurnal and omnivorous and reproducing once a year) they vary greatly between species as to body size, behaviour and social systems. For example, some ground squirrels demonstrate quite conservative mating behaviours, while others are highly promiscuous.

Bernhard Rensch, who had developed the rassenkreis concept Cowan used for his dissertation, later developed Rensch’s Rule, which predicted that the greater the demand for male aggression against other males to hold females, the greater the male body size. But the rule doesn't hold up with ground squirrels. In fact they are an exception. It is fitting that just as Joyce and the families came to fetch Cowan home for job and marriage, he was laying the foundation for future research into a greater understanding of the battle of the sexes with some of his favourite mammals.

Ian McTaggart Cowan field notes (1934) : black-tailed and mule deer in California, etc.
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