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Professor emeritus and noted zoologist Oliver Pearson dies at 87

– Oliver Payne Pearson, former director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert on the ecology of small mammals and birds, died Tuesday, March 4, of heart failure at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Pearson, who lived in Orinda with his wife, Anita, since 1952, was 87.
 Oliver Pearson
Oliver Pearson

A professor emeritus of zoology at UC Berkeley, Pearson specialized in field studies of small animals, concentrating on their behavior, physiology and energetics. He once calculated the amount of flower nectar a hummingbird needed to fly its migration route across the Caribbean from South America to the United States, and devoted years to studying the predator-prey relationships among feral cats and meadow voles in local Tilden Park.

"He would go into the field at night and literally follow a mouse around, investigating and recording what it did," said James Patton, UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology and a former director of the museum. "That ability and single-mindedness in studying physical interactions in the field was unparalleled."

Pearson made fundamental contributions in many fields, from systematics, field natural history and biogeography to animal behavior and energetics. When he taught a course in ecology at the University of Buenos Aires in 1964, it was the first such course anywhere in South America. During his time in Argentina, he trained a cadre of students, many of whom went on to become the leading ecologists in their country. His field studies in the Patagonian steppe and the Valdivian rainforests focused on the biology and taxonomy of the native rodents.

"Starting in 1994, Oliver helped me enthusiastically with his amazing and deep knowledge about recent micromammal assemblages from northern Patagonia, (where) he spent about 25 years trapping and studying mammals," said former student Dr. Ulyses F. J. Pardiņas, now a research scientist at the Centro Nacional Patagonico and an associate professor at the Universidad Nacional de la Patagonia. "Dr. Pearson always assisted anybody in regards to Argentinean mammalogy topics."

Upon receiving a Doctor Honoris Causa from the University of La Plata in 2000, Pearson told some 300 assembled mammalogists, "Yo soy un simple atrapador de ratones, y nada hubiese sido posible sin Anita" ("I'm simply a mouse-trapper, and nothing has been possible without Anita"), Pardiņas noted.

In recent years, Pearson and his wife had been studying mouse populations in Patagonia, hoping to chart their boom and bust as the local bamboo ended its 60-year blooming cycle and died out. That work, with museum scientist Richard Sage, will continue.

"He was amazingly energetic," Patton said, noting that when Pearson developed an embolism in his leg two years ago, he chose amputation as the quickest way to recover and return to the field. He was back in Patagonia a few months later.

"At 85, he was worried about getting out in the field to trap rats," Patton said.

Claiming to be the original hippie, Pearson outfitted a bus as an RV in the early 1950s and had it shipped to Peru. Then, he and his wife packed up their two kids and embarked on a six-month trip to study small animal populations in Peru and Bolivia.

Upon his first retirement in 1971, the couple and their two younger children set off again for several months to chart the distribution of small mammals, birds and reptiles from the ocean to the 16,000-foot Andean peaks of southern Peru.

Born in Philadelphia on Oct. 21, 1915, Pearson obtained his BS from Swarthmore College in 1937 and his MA and PhD from Harvard University in 1939 and 1947, respectively. His doctoral thesis was based on field observations of the reproductive biology of the mountain vizcachas, rodents of Andean Peru. He continued his education with lengthy trips to Panama and Peru, where he collected a wide variety of scientific specimens for the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, and, principally, for UC Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

He first came to UC Berkeley in 1947 as an instructor in zoology and was named an assistant professor of zoology and assistant curator of mammals at the museum in 1949. He remained at UC Berkeley as professor until his active retirement began in 1971, though he took a leave of absence in 1964-65 to serve as a visiting professor of ecology at the University of Buenos Aires. He was director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology from 1967 until 1971.

As a teacher, he mentored numerous graduate students and taught for many years the basic undergraduate biology course for non-majors.

Pearson combined a lifelong love of photography with his studies, once developing a method for measuring the flight speed of Anna's hummingbird. His method for measuring the metabolism of flying birds was celebrated with a cover story in Scientific American in January 1953.

As the third director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, he brought modern experimental techniques to add to the standard collecting and taxonomy, making the museum a pioneer in the use of molecular methods to test evolutionary principles. He also was quick to embrace new technologies, introducing and promoting computerized cataloging to the museum in the 1960s.

He served as a director of the American Society of Mammalogists for a total of 17 years between 1952 and 1990, and was elected a Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences in 1964. He also was a member of the board of directors of the San Francisco Zoological Society in 1959-60. His other awards include honorary membership in the Sociedad Argentina para el Estudio de los Mamiferos and the Comite Argentino de Conservacion de la Naturaleza.

Pearson is survived by his wife of 58 years, Anita Kelley Pearson; son, Peter Pearson, of Livermore, Calif.; daughters, Carol Ralph of Arcata, Calif., Sandy Ivey of Orinda, and Alison Pearson of Sonoma, Calif.; and five grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned for Saturday, March 15, at 2 p.m. in the Great Hall of the Faculty Club at UC Berkeley.

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