Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 7: UBC 1927-1929

“It was only after I went to university that I discovered you could make a living at biology.”

– Ian McTaggart Cowan

UBC was a new, small university in 1927–28 on the northwest part of Point Grey. Cowan published a scientific article on the fauna of this campus two years into his degree. He described the place and denizens he came to know intimately: “Civilization is fast encroaching on the remaining wild areas, so that in a few years hardly any of the more timid species will be found here.” Starting as a student in this virtual island of biodiversity within the sea of the city provided a unique opportunity for him to witness and document extirpations as the islands of wild land were cut off. He was aware of the early observations first put forward by scientists like Alfred Wallace for the delineation of species by geography, i.e., the Wallace Line. But it was the next generation of scientists like Cowan who really emphasized how human modification could be as effective and disruptive to species as the edge of a sea, a mountain range or a major river. A sea of suburbia may in some cases be even more daunting to more “timid” species than a sea of saltwater. It wouldn’t be until 1967 that Edward O. Wilson and Robert McArthur at Harvard would actually quantify and predict rates of extinction based on the size of the “island” of habitat and coin the term “island biogeography” for the next generation of ecologists.

UBC zoology class (1931)

Some of the “timid species” that Cowan observed then included Ermine and Western Spotted Skunks on the UBC Endowment Lands (now reduced in size but conserved as Pacific Spirit Park) and today are extirpated from the Point Grey region. Both species are dependent on forests and so disappeared with the carving up of their habitat and isolation from a larger population. As with Darwin, the study of islands became a central focus throughout Cowan’s life. Islands not only provoked questions about evolution at work but also evolution in reverse – the simplification of biological diversity by human modification. His studies of island insularity of mice and shrews on BC’s coast were carried out over 40 years. The long duration of his stay on campus allowed him to witness first-hand the swinging fortunes of other species with the arrival of humans. The Washington Hare had briefly expanded then disappeared while the rare (then) Pacific Raccoon became a ubiquitous top predator. 

Ermine specimen : adult female

When Cowan started at UBC, the biology departments were very small and located in a few of the scattered buildings. His first-year biology course was taught out of the botany department and Cowan sailed through it with a first class. The zoology department had been set up by Charles McLean Fraser, Cowan’s second-year professor, whom he counted amongst his most influential teachers. In his third and fourth years, there were only seven students and Cowan had the almost undivided attention of one of the world’s experts on the difficult taxa of hydroids. 

Another huge influence on Cowan was entomologist and naturalist George J. Spencer. Today at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, one can wander from the Cowan Tetrapod Collection to the Spencer Entomological Collection. Spencer, like Cowan, was another colonial boy-naturalist, although he had been raised in southern India, immersed in insects, snakes and the real Kiplingesque world. Spencer was also to have a very practical influence on Cowan. As a member of the Burrard Field-Naturalist Society and a friend of Racey, he was able to get Cowan his first summer job as a biologist working for his colleague and friend Ronald Buckell, a Cambridge-educated entomologist (who had also survived the First World War) and retreated from the world by collecting in the “undescribed” grasslands for the Dominion Entomological Division. Cowan was heavily influenced by these field scientists with less conventional research paths, at a time when they had more freedom to pursue whatever ignited their curiosity. “Those were the men that I studied with. I learned a lot about teaching techniques from these men.” 

George Spencer with butterfly net (1960s)

In the laboratory, Cowan was to develop his skills for dissection, anatomy and taxonomy and to augment his burgeoning skills as a field biologist and alpha taxonomist, which required collecting specimens. Collecting was to continue over the next twenty years. Cowan’s biography is laid out in the specimens lying today in the various museums, from his earliest in 1929 until his last specimens prepared in the winter of 1977, collected from his garden on Acadia Road at UBC for a Creeping Vole and Coast Mole. For every one of his specimens, Cowan also remembered an autobiographical detail. For example, he and his future father-in-law travelled out to naturalist J.W. Winson’s farm at Huntingdon on a blustery March day in 1929 and trapped a Mountain Beaver, an elusive creature famous for harbouring the world’s largest flea, at a third of an inch.  

No doubt discussions were had, as the two men crawled their way through the thickets of Thimbleberries and Vine Maple, on the subject of where Cowan should aim for postgraduate studies and his intentions regarding Joyce. Racey being well-connected through the ‘B’ and familiar with the scholarship going on in Berkeley, would have directed him to the door of the director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, Joseph Grinnell, cousin of George Grinnell of the ‘B.’

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