natural history

Book Review – Louis Agassiz, a biography by Christoph Irmscher

Agassiz coverI first heard of Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) in my beginning geology courses. A Pleistocene lake, Lake Agassiz, which covered parts of Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan, North Dakota, and Minnesota, was named after Agassiz posthumously because of Agassiz’s research on glaciers in the Swiss Alps.

Aggasiz was born in Switzerland and educated there and in Germany, receiving a PhD. in 1829 in natural science, and a Doctorate in surgery and medicine in 1830, the later to please his Calvinist father.

In 1846 he moved to America where he became a professor of Zoology at Harvard, founded the Anderson School of Natural History near Cap Cod (one of the first coed colleges) that eventually became Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Agassiz was a passionate collector and established what would become the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He advertized far and wide for specimens, living or dead.

According to Irmsher, Agassiz was a complex man, a great friend to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and an arch-rival to Charles Darwin. He was a passionate scientist and part P.T. Barnum. And he had a dark side.

Irmsher writes that Agassiz’s story is “riven with the contradictions of a man who wanted to come across as both rigorously professional and unrelentingly popular, a man who believed that science practiced with due diligence could clear up not only the little problems that confounded the specialists but also the whole cosmic puzzle itself. Agassiz was one of the first to establish science as a collective enterprise. Yet he insisted on putting his own personal stamp on anything that came out of the museum he had founded and forbade his assistants to claim credit for any part of their own research done on company time. He was an ardent advocate of abolition, yet he also believed in the racial inferiority of blacks.”

Agassiz’s study of glaciers and fossils lead him to reject Darwin’s new theory of evolution. Rather, Agassiz was somewhat of a Creationist, but not as the term is currently used. Agassiz believed not in continuous evolution, but a series of creation events, in “oscillations,” where ice ages killed off everything and God created and recreated life anew.

Agassiz published over 400 books and scientific articles and was one of the first to propose that Europe and North America were once covered by glaciers. He was, however, a great proponent of field work, “study nature, not books.” He was also the consummate lecturer and his lectures were not confined to the classroom. His “popularity in America transcended class as well as regional boundaries.”

Irmsher spins an interesting story of a complex man based largely upon abundant correspondence from Agassiz, his contemporaries, and his wife and sister.

One of Agassiz’s great strengths was his ability to explain science to the layman. Irmsher writes in the epilogue, “as Louis Agassiz drifts into the sunset of this narrative, it is worth remembering how his struggles, problems, and aspirations are still with us. Yes, we haven’t moved beyond his biases and blindnesses as much as much as we would like to think we have, but that isn’t all. In my view, Louis Agassiz was never more provocative than when he argued science ought to be part of the general fabric of society.” I agree. More emphasis on science is needed in general education.

If you are interested in the history of science, its development and its characters, you will be interested in the story of Louis Agassiz.

The book is available is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is available at Amazon as a hardcover book (to be released Feb. 5) and a Kindle edition. It is also available from Barnes & Noble.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum celebrates its 60th anniversary this weekend, Join the celebration

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM) first opened for business on Labor Day, 1952. Since then, ASDM has been providing education and enjoyment to thousands of visitors with its zoo, botanical gardens, Docent tours and interpretations. It also has a thriving Art Institute.

Since its founding in 1952, the Desert Museum’s mission has been to instill in visitors a deeper understanding, appreciation, and concern for stewardship of the remarkable ecosystem of Sonoran Desert region.



Some new exhibits/programs:

There is a new Great Blue Heron exhibit down in the grasslands habitat.

You can see some behind the scenes activity with the new Keepers Interaction Program. Watch the Museum’s professional keepers working with individual animals in training exercises, feedings or enrichment activities. Upon arrival, check the Plan Your Day board at the Entrance Patio for a daily list of animals, times & locations!

Come join the celebration.

The Greater Roadrunner, a wily predator

The greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) may have a clownish reputation due to a popular cartoon series, but the roadrunner is a wily predator.


The greater roadrunner is our largest cuckoo with a body length of 20-24 inches and a wingspan of 17-22 inches. It avoids flying and prefers to run at speeds up to about 15 mph. Even just standing on the ground, it is fast enough to snatch a hummingbird out of the air.

Roadrunners feed on anything they can catch; that includes small birds, snakes, lizards, and mice. Young roadrunners are fed on insects. Roadrunners also eat some fruits and seeds. I recall seeing a roadrunner on my back wall eyeing a family of baby gambel’s quail. Momma quail would have none of this and flew right into the roadrunner, knocking it off the wall.

The roadrunner hunts by walking or running after prey and can jump straight up to capture insects and birds.

According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum:

The pair bond in this species may be permanent; pairs are territorial all year. Courtship displays include, but are not limited to, presenting the mate with a twig or piece of grass and chasing one another.

The nest, which is constructed of twigs, is frequently found in cholla, mesquite, or palo verde. White eggs (three to six) are laid at intervals; if food is scarce the older, larger hatchlings will quickly seize all the food from the parents thus causing the younger, smaller ones to starve. Rarely do all nestlings reach maturity. If not enough food is available, these younger birds will be fed to the other, stronger hatchlings.

Roadrunner skin is heavily pigmented. On cool mornings, the bird positions itself with its back towards the sun and erects its feathers, thus allowing the sun to strike directly on the black skin which quickly absorbs heat energy. This makes it possible for the bird to achieve body heating without unnecessary expenditure of metabolic energy.

Often it seems curiously unafraid of humans. Trotting up close to peer at us, raising and lowering its mop of a shaggy crest, flipping its long tail about expressively, it looks undeniably zany.

Roadrunners are in turn preyed upon by hawks and coyotes, and snakes may go after eggs in the nest. Roadrunners are a signature bird of the southwest. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, roadrunners expanded their range during the 20th Century to include southern Missouri and western Louisiana. Unlike the cartoon “beep-beep,” roadrunners have some distinct sounds, listen here.

See 54 more photos of roadrunners from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum digital library here.

The greater roadrunner is the state bird of New Mexico. There are many cultural stories about roadrunners. Some Indian tribes believe that roadrunners help ward off evil spirits. Some early frontiersmen believed roadrunners would help lost people find trails. Cowboys tall tales claim that roadrunners would seek out rattlesnakes to pick fights, or would find sleeping rattlers and build fences of cactus joints around them. In parts of Mexico, the roadrunner brings babies, just like the stork is reputed to do in European legend.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum digital library adds new features

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has long maintained a public online digital library featuring photographs of plants and animals: click here.

If you click on the photos, that will bring up a short explanation of the natural history for many of the subjects.

There is now a new feature: digital zoom, where you can zoom in and out on photos of selected plants, animals, minerals, and biotic communities: click here. With this feature you can see some awesome close-ups.

 Give it a try. Then come out to the museum to see the real thing.

For more information on the natural history of the Sonoran Desert, see the natural history section of my ARTICLE INDEXpage.