Douglass H. Morse, Distinguished Naturalist 2010

Douglass Morse photoThe Rhode Island Natural History Survey 2010 Distinguished Naturalist Award was presented to Douglass H. Morse at its 14th annual conference, “Emerging Threats to Amphibian Conservation in New England with Attention to Chytrid and Ranavirus,” held at the Quonset O Club in North Kingstown on April 9, 2010. Presenting the award were Morse’s long-time colleagues at Brown University, Mark Bertness, Brown biology professor, and Johanna Schmitt, at-the-time Brown University professor of natural history, as well as URI colleague, Keith Killingbeck, URI biology professor and RINHS Board of Directors member:

Imagine a handful of 3rd graders racing across an open field trying to keep pace with tiny puffs of milkweed seeds drifting on the wind. Easy enough to imagine. Now add at least a decade to those kids and transform them into sophisticated undergraduates at Brown University chasing those same airborne spheres of gossamer. Not so easy to imagine, right? Quite implausible in fact, unless you knew that somewhere in that field was a Brown University professor skillfully challenging eager minds to both ask, and answer, questions about these agents of dispersal catching a free ride toward some unknown destination. Teaching, no motivating larval biologists to think for themselves is an art form practiced repeatedly by the winner of this year’s Distinguished Naturalist Award, Douglass H. Morse.

Born in Maine and still retaining at least a bit of that distinctive Downeast accent, Doug and his bicycle have been a fixture in Rhode Island ever since he arrived in the Ocean State in 1979. We mention the two-wheeled transportation because Doug was way ahead of the curve in creating a low carbon footprint well before Brown became green. Pedal-power still gets him to Walter Hall seven mornings of every week before anyone else arrives. This is particularly noteworthy given that Doug officially “retired” from Brown five years ago as the Hermon Carey Bumpus Professor of Biology Emeritus.

The dedication Doug has shown to the study of natural history has been nothing short of remarkable. A zoologist by training with degrees from Bates College (B.S.), the University of Michigan (M.S.), and Louisiana State University (Ph.D.), his acute powers of observation and his unquenched curiosity for the natural world have lured him into studies that range in breadth from tool use in brown-headed nuthatches (1968) to size-related foraging differences in bumble bees (1978) to interactions between spiders and ichneumonid egg predators (1988) to foraging patterns in crab spiders (1998) to trophic level interactions in a fern-herbivore-parasitoid-hyperparasitoid system (2008). These five decades of research have resulted in more than 140 papers and more seminars and lectures than the tarsal hairs on a crab spider. Doug has also published three major books, all with Harvard University Press: Behavioral Mechanisms in Ecology (1980), American Warblers: An Ecological and Behavioral Perspective (1989), and Predator Upon a Flower (2007).

This high level of research prowess was but one of the many contributions Doug has made to the record of natural history in Rhode Island. Doug taught generations of students to probe and poke at natural history and natural selection until a visceral understanding of some aspect of the distribution and abundance of an organism was theirs. The formal courses Doug offered were Problems in Field Biology, Vertebrate Ecology, Current Concepts in Biology II, Ecology in Current Society, Insect Biology, and Natural History of the New England Landscape, the last two of which he still teaches. Did we mention that Doug retired five years ago?

Discovery is a seductive motivator, and Doug has used it to great advantage in a less formal independent study course that has drawn more than 40 undergraduates into his web of experimental natural history. These students learned that observations lead to hypotheses, hypotheses that lead to experiments, and experiments lead to light-bulb moments that absolutely guarantee a life-long fascination with nature and its enduring complexity. No fewer than a dozen of these undergraduates are now passing on the torch in universities at which they are now professors. The lasting friendships Doug has forged with his students, along with the papers they published as undergraduates and the careers they have grown into are all testaments to the power of motivation and inspiration. Doug inspired them all.

As if this were not enough to fill the days and résumés of a full clutch of respected scientists, Doug impacted the state and his adopted university through his commitment, skill, and foresight in the academic dark-side: administration. A scary thought indeed until one realizes that Doug did not succumb to the faulty siren call of power or fame, but rather, he responded to a challenge for change, and quite simply, he wished to spare younger colleagues from this formidable black hole of time. Chair of the Section of Population Biology and Genetics, Interim Dean of Biology, and Chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) were some of the administrative hats he wore. Perhaps this last role was his most significant given that he built Brown EEB into what is today, a vibrant, talented department with a flourishing graduate program. No small feat, especially for an experimental ecologist who would much rather brandish binoculars than dictate directives.

As a keen observer of natural history and an ardent supporter of its study, Doug Morse has quietly, but confidently set an example of excellence of which we can all be proud. Although he would be the last one to even whisper news of this well-deserved recognition, we are most pleased to address Doug today as Distinguished Naturalist, a moniker known long ago to his students and colleagues.