Chapter 1

Something inside you brings out the interest track.

Scotland 1910–1913

Young Cowan in Scotland, 1913

Young Cowan in Scotland, 1913

Image Cowan_PP_002 courtesy of University of Victoria Special Collections.
Cowan with mouse at UBC.

Cowan with mouse at UBC.

Photograph by Dept. of Extension Services, UBC. Image Cowan_PP_029 courtesy of University of Victoria Special Collections.
Cowan subspecies of Snowshoe Hare

Cowan subspecies of Snowshoe Hare

Lepus americanus pallidus Cowan at Royal BC Museum. Photograph by Michael Wall. Image Cowan_PH_424 courtesy of University of Victoria Special Collections.
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Scotland in 1913 was, in modern terms, a wildly unbalanced ecosystem that was most memorable to a child for its plague of European rabbits. It was this introduced species that captured Ian McTaggart Cowan’s imagination as a 3-year old prior to his own “introduction” into North America. Two feral populations of the European Rabbit have persisted in British Columbia and curiously were linked to Cowan until the end of his life. One feral colony survived on remote Triangle Island (now an ecological reserve) in competition with a subspecies of Townsend’s Vole, Microtus townsendii cowani, unique to the island and named after Cowan by his student Charles Guiguet. The other feral colony reached plague proportions on the campus of the University of Victoria, where Cowan as chancellor would trip over them on the walk to his office, not unlike his childhood memories from Holyrood Park…

In the opening remarks for his 1961 “Of Mice and Men” lecture, with the subtitle of “or the Biology of Numbers”, Cowan began:

Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, this business of animal numbers is an interesting and important one. It is one of certain rather dramatic complexities. I am always amused by the little story that came to me some years ago about two little rabbits on a fine spring morning that were chased into a hollow log by two hunting dogs on a spree. It is reported that the rabbits said to one another: “Say, let’s stay here until we outnumber them.” This they’re very well equipped to do.3

The topic of that lecture was an exploration of the diversity of ways that populations of animals regulate and/or are regulated by their environment, leading to the inevitable discussion around the question of human populations – a subject that was to increasingly interest him as the world’s population doubled each generation he lived through. Fittingly, he was to name a subspecies of one of British Columbia’s native Snowshoe Hares (also called “Varying Hare” then) (Lepus americanus pallidus Cowan).4

 

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3Ian McTaggart Cowan, “Of Mice and Men> – or the Biology of Numbers” (public lecture, Vancouver Institute, March 18, 1961). https://circle.ubc.ca/flashstreamview/bitstream/handle/2429/36425/ubc_at_010_cowan.mp3?sequence=1 (streaming audio, 78:59, accessed October 19, 2013).

4 Ian McTaggart Cowan, “Notes On the Hares of British Columbia with the Description of a New Race,” Journal of Mammalogy 9, no. 2 (1938): 240–243.
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