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Grinnell in the field
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28 Feb, 2016. 0 Comments. Services, Surveys, Uncategorized. Posted By: Jeff Davis

Joseph Grinnell was born on this date (February 27) in 1877. Grinnell was California’s preeminent naturalist.


Following Grinnell’s death on May 29, 1939, Don McLean, biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, wrote, “Dr. Grinnell’s knowledge of birds and animals of California and the West was as complete as one person could possibly be capable of assimilating. He was as interested in a small mouse from Death Valley as in a Roosevelt elk from Humboldt County.”


Grinnell was the editor of the Condor for 34 years—far longer than any other editor—and Director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ) at U.C. Berkeley for 31 years, from its foundation in 1908 until his death in 1939. He published over 550 scientific papers, monographs, and books and kept meticulous field notes. “If it’s worth observing, it is worth writing down,” he used to say. Reviewing his field journals at MVZ several years ago, I discovered this passage relevant to the San Joaquin Valley:


“…Tried to drive on toward Tulare Lake, which we were told now consisted of some 30 square miles of open water, newly accumulated from flood waters of Kings, Kaweah, Tule and Kern rivers. …From Kettleman City we drove up a road onto the Kettleman Hills, from which point we could see the really large area of yellow water out on the bed of Tulare Lake Basin. With our 8x glasses we could see dikes out a ways, then completely submerged; also partly submerged pumping plant derricks. The estimate of 30 sq. miles seemed to me conservative for the area of open water now.” – Joseph Grinnell, Field Notes, March 25, 1937


This was during an unusual flood event as the former Tulare Lake, the second largest freshwater lake entirely in the United States, dried up by 1899.


Grinnell and others from MVZ conducted several faunal surveys across important regional transects in California. He suggested the value of the specimens and data collected on those surveys would increase over time. And was he ever prescient. Today, MVZ is repeating those transect surveys as part of a comparative study called the Grinnell Resurvey Project.

Grinnell publications

One of my favorite publications of Grinnell, one published posthumously by his former graduate student Alden Miller in 1944, is The Distribution of The Birds of California. As old as it is, I still refer to it routinely for its concise yet detailed information on the status, distribution, and habitats of our state’s birdlife.


— Jeff Davis, Principal Scientist

About the Author

Jeff Davis

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