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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Call of the wild

Vocal repertoires, song notation, sound recordings and acoustic signals.

From the sound of his academic vocabulary, one could easily mistake Peter Marler for a professor of music. While he is not one in the conventional sense, many consider him to be the pioneering professor of nature’s music.

The UC Davis professor emeritus of the department of neurobiology, physiology and behavior has spent nearly a lifetime studying animal communication, particularly among songbirds and primates.

Marler, 80, is the “acknowledged father” of the field of birdsong study, said colleague Doug Nelson, a professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at Ohio State University.

“No one [has] had a greater impact on the growth of the field than he,” Nelson added.

Other colleagues of Marler have also sung his praises, particularly for his landmark discoveries in the animal communication field.

“His work in showing that animals other than humans actually learn vocalizations and communicate [with them] was so fundamental and opened up such a large field,” said UC Davis professor John Wingfield, a recent addition to the NPB department and former assistant professor to Marler at Rockefeller University.

“He’s really regarded as one of the founders of modern animal behavior and one of the world leaders of that entire field,” Wingfield said.

For his lifetime of contributions to the field, Marler will be officially inducted Thursday into the Royal Society, the British equivalent of the National Academy of Sciences. He was also elected into the latter in 1971.

 

Hatching the egg

Marler’s passion for birds began when he was an 8-year-old boy growing up in London in the 1930s. His early fascination with winged creatures came from the simple pleasures of looking at and listening to them.

“People who become passionate about a particular group of animals often turn out to have been fixated for no obvious reason when they were quite young,” Marler said.

By the time Marler reached high school, he began to study seriously the chirps and clucks of birds, known as bird vocalization. Marler had still considered this area of study only as a hobby when he enrolled at University College London to pursue a career as a botanist, a time in which he became fascinated by a common British bird called the chaffinch.

Marler received his doctorate in botany in 1952, but his passion remained with studying birdsong. At the time, however, scientific technology was not yet advanced enough to significantly assist in such a field.

“It was the Dark Ages,” Marler joked.

So he took matters into his own hands, developing his own system for transcribing bird songs in the same way a composer would create notation.

Then, Marler earned a fellowship at Cambridge University to study with famed ethologist William Thorpe, who had just launched a field station for the specific purpose of studying birdsong. In 1954, Marler earned his second doctorate in zoology from Cambridge.

 

The monkey and the bird

Marler left England with his wife Judith in 1957 after getting tabbed to jumpstart the animal behavior program at UC Berkeley in his first faculty position. During this time, he also visited Uganda on sabbatical to record and analyze the vocal repertoires of forest monkeys.

In 1966, Marler switched coasts once again, moving to New York City to continue his work at Rockefeller University. There, he made one of his most famous discoveries with the African Vervet monkey, which even graced the front page of the New York Times.

“A lot of people didn’t believe it, but it was the whole idea of animal sounds functioning in a sort of symbolic way,” said Marler, giving the example of unique alarm calls by monkeys that signal for different types of predators. “It was alien to people.”

He returned to Africa in the summer of 1971 to work with world-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall at her chimpanzee study site in Tanzania. There, he was able to document vocal repertoires of chimps for the first time ever.

“Since then, there have been sort of two parallel themes in my research world,” Marler said, “split up evenly between primates and birds.”

“Peter was always clairvoyant in keeping his eye on the field in a broad sense,” said Harvard psychology professor Marc Hauser, a longtime friend and colleague of Marler’s and a former UC Davis professor. “He saw that his understanding of animal behavior was really going to move forward, so he put his tendrils into neighboring areas like with his primate work.”

 

West coast is the best coast

Marler left Rockefeller University in 1989 with a choice among Cornell University, Duke University and UC Davis. He and his wife found the comfort of being back in California too good to pass up.

“We realized when we went out to places like Woodland that we had sort of been imprinted on the California landscape in a real sort of visceral sense,” said Marler, who currently lives with his wife in Winters. “It’s a slightly weird idea and I’m not sure if it’s [real] or not, but we’ve been content ever since we came back to California.”

After teaching courses in animal behavior and ornithology at UC Davis for a few years, Marler retired in 1994 and became a professor emeritus. Fourteen years later, he is being recognized as a foreign member of the Royal Society, of which Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking are also members.

“It’s an incredible honor to be considered [both] Royal Society and National Academy-caliber out of all the people in the world,” Wingfield said. “For him to be one … gives you an idea of his stature in the science and biology world.”

“It’s very gratifying,” said Marler, who will officially become the fourth-ever UC Davis professor to be elected to the Royal Society on Thursday in London. “But the recognition in itself is not important, [only] that it helps encourage others to pick up some of the same topics and themes of birdsong and primate physiology.

“It sort of says something to the rest of the scientific world – especially to young people – that [my field] may be something they would like to look into further,” he said.

 

RAY LIN can be reached at features@californiaaggie.com.

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