Hakai Magazine

Ian McTaggart Cowan eating breakfast at a research camp at Rose Spit, Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands). Note the tray of Keen’s mouse specimens in the foreground. Photo courtesy Bristol Foster

For the Information of Others

Consummate naturalist Ian McTaggart Cowan spent a lifetime documenting the biodiversity of British Columbia in detailed nature journals.

Authored by

by Briony Penn

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Rose Harbour, August 16, 1946. Spent all last night at the bird colony in Moore Point bay. It is a colony of Rhino [Rhinoceros] Auklets numbering perhaps 200-300 birds. … Returned to camp at 5 o’clock in the morning and had about 2½ hours sleep. Then went back to photograph the colony.

This typical entry in the journals of wildlife biologist Ian McTaggart Cowan (1919-2010) recounts his visit to the south end of Haida Gwaii (then called the Queen Charlotte Islands) and captures his indefatigable enthusiasm for chronicling the biodiversity of British Columbia. His popular wildlife guides on mammals and birds, scientific articles, and nature television series, Web of Life (a show that preceded the still-popular The Nature of Things), were all inspired by the raw material of Cowan’s 50-plus field journals—the species he observed and where they occurred in the northeast Pacific, an area then relatively undocumented by western science.

When he made this journal entry, Cowan was with his student Charles Guiguet surveying the breeding locations of seabirds, such as rhinoceros auklets. He was also taking careful notes on the mice and shrews he found on the dozens of islands in the archipelago. This trip, and many others like it, inspired Cowan to ask questions about how isolated islands influenced the evolution of species, an area of research now called island biogeography. Speciation, for instance, occurs when the geographic separation of islands prevents populations from interbreeding, resulting in the formation of new species. Cowan was particularly fascinated with speciation, whether in black-tailed deer, dusky shrews, song sparrows, or Mopalia (a genus of chiton). Fittingly, Cowan’s detailed observations helped biologists understand what an ecological gem the island archipelago was, and today—with echoes of Charles Darwin’s revolutionary voyage—Haida Gwaii is sometimes referred to as the Galapagos of the North.

Cowan started keeping journals as a Boy Scout in 1926. For the next 50 years he recorded species that he found up and down the coast, from California to the Arctic’s Mackenzie Delta. His curiosity, his versatility on the range of animals that he studied, and his stamina in the field were legendary.

Cowan was trained as a classic naturalist-scientist, a tradition advocated by his professor, Joseph Grinnell, under whose wing he got his PhD at University of California, Berkeley. Grinnell encouraged conservation biology, a discipline that required his students to be good field biologists as well as advocates for the protection of the natural world. Grinnell’s philosophy is evident in these instructions to students that Cowan pasted inside his journal:

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 specimens and notes, to be preserved for all time. All this is for the information of others; strive to make your record 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. – J. Grinnell, September 12, 1933

Cowan was mentored by Grinnell and a passionate cohort of naturalist-scientists that included Aldo Leopold, regarded by many as the father of wildlife ecology. And, in turn, Cowan went on to become an extraordinary mentor. His large flock of students, like Guiguet, carried on his work in vertebrates for museums, government departments, and institutions around the world. Virtually every recommendation for conservation designations in British Columbia was influenced by Cowan during his later career as scientific advisor and administrator. Inevitably, an area up for protection would have been visited by Cowan and documented in one of his field journals. When the Haida Gwaii seabird colonies were proposed as ecological reserves, and later when Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve was championed, it was Cowan’s early observations of species like the rhinoceros auklet, that documented, informed, and inspired their protection.