Friday, December 5, 2008

Birthday celebration

Today is the birthday of C. Hart Merriam, one of the natural history pioneers in North America in the 1800s. Born on this day in 1855, probably Merriam's most lasting contribution to the field of natural history was his introduction of what we call today "Merriam's life zones," an early attempt to describe regions based on their plant and animal communities. When I was a kid, Merriam's system of life zones (e.g., Sonoran, Hudsonian) was the primary method my little brain used to organize a vast amount of natural history information, making it possible for me to make sense of what I was seeing around me as I began to travel more widely, especially in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Although we now have far more sophisticated ways of subdividing the landscape, Merriam set the stage for subsequent generations of natural historians and geographers.

From Wikipedia ...

Clinton Hart Merriam (December 5, 1855-March 19, 1942) was an American zoologist, ornithologist, entomologist and ethnographer.

He was born in New York City in 1855. His father, Clinton Levi Merriam, was a U.S. congressman. He studied biology and anatomy at Yale University and went on to obtain an M.D. from the School of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in 1879.

In 1886, he became the first chief of the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy of the United States Department of Agriculture, predecessor to the National Wildlife Research Center and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. He was one of the original founders of the National Geographic Society in 1888. He developed the "life zones" concept to classify biomes found in North America. In mammalogy, he is known as an excessive splitter, proposing, for example, tens of different species of North American brown bears in several genera.

In 1899, he helped railroad magnate E. H. Harriman to organize an exploratory voyage along the Alaska coastline.

Some species of animals that bear his name are Merriam's Wild Turkey Meliagris gallopavo meriami, the now extinct Merriam's Elk Cervus elaphus merriami, and Merriam's Chipmunk Tamias merriami. Much of his detail-oriented taxonomy continues to be influential within mammalogical and ornithological circles.

Later in life, funded by the Harriman family, Merriam's focus shifted to studying and assisting the Native American tribes in the western United States. His contributions on the myths of central California and on ethnogeography were particularly noteworthy.

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