Chapter 23

They seem to spend their time playing and every sand dune bears their tracks.

UBC and Okanagan 1940–1942

Pygmy Short-horned Lizard

Pygmy Short-horned Lizard

Phrynosoma douglasii douglassii collected in Okanagan and held by Royal BC Museum. Photograph by Michael Wall Image Cowan_PH_438 courtesy of University of Victoria Special Collections.
Cowan at Spotted Lake, Okanagan

Cowan at Spotted Lake, Okanagan

1968. Image Cowan_PP_035 courtesy of University of Victoria Special Collections.
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The description of the Spadefoots, as they appeared in the first museum guide to amphibians, captured the spirit of those moonlit evenings traipsing across the sand dunes and along the shorelines of the alkali lakes in search of the toads.67…Cowan loved these animals and wrote about them rapturously. He talked about their ability to conserve moisture in the arid desert lands and the rapid transformation from egg to toadlet in a matter of days to take advantage of the brief appearance of pools of rainwater. The two men eventually tracked the Spadefoots half a mile from Spotted Lake – named after its circular alkali crust formations, hence the “spotted” – to their foraging grounds in the sand dunes…

Whether Cowan was watching for bats or listening to the chorus of the mating toads, these sensory images of the grasslands and in particular the sand dunes resonated with him. They certainly animated his lectures. One of his popular talks, called “The Frigid Desert,” described Canada’s unique ecosystem and the animals that have adapted to its harsh conditions. His lecture notes started out with the Spadefoot Toads and their extraordinary ability to sense rainfall, which triggers their migration to temporary rain ponds for a brief courtship and hatchings.68 He also wove in stories of the White-tailed Jackrabbit playing in the dunes, with its long legs and ears evolved to disperse heat; the Great Basin Pocket Mouse, with its cheeks stuffed full of seeds from redgrass; the Fairy Shrimp, ancient crustaceans, surviving in the alkali lakes as if in vestigial seas; the elusive Pygmy Horned Lizard burying itself to sit motionless waiting for ants; and the chemical-producing cacti that “deter creatures that would seek their stored water.”69

Cowan’s lectures were electrifying for his students and moved several generations of biologists to point their lenses at the area, both to better understand it and to protect it. Human activities in the Okanagan have had a profound impact on all these grassland and semi-arid species and no biologist or wildlife manager could avoid the evidence that agriculture and urbanization were some of the greatest threats. Cowan found his greatest ally in this regard at UBC, in his friend and guru of the grasslands Bert Brink. Cowan described him as “an agronomist by training and a geneticist by trade, keenly involved in environment from the very beginning… He was ahead of the game in his concern for the environment.”70


67 Ian McTaggart Cowan to Clifford Carl, August 1, 1941, GR_011 Box 03, File 03, 1936–1941, BCA.

68 Ian McTaggart Cowan, “Desert Lecture,” n.d., Cowan_PN_333.

69 Cowan, “Desert Lecture,” Cowan_PN_333

70 Cowan, interview, July 9, 2002.

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