It was only after I went to university that I discovered you could make a living at biology.

University of British Columbia 1929

Cowan (in back row right)

Cowan (in back row right)

Image Cowan_PP_311 courtesy of University of Victoria Special Collections.
Short-tailed Weasel

Short-tailed Weasel

Mustela ermine fallenda Kamloops, BC 1939. Photograph by George J. Spencer. Image Cowan_PH_338 courtesy of Mrs. Ann Taylor
Cowan at lake on Black Mountain 1929

Cowan at lake on Black Mountain 1929

Image Cowan_PP_360 courtesy of University of Victoria Special Collections. Zoology Class 5, UBC, 1931
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UBC was a new, small university in 1927–28 on the northwest part of Point Grey. Cowan would be publishing his second refereed scientific article on the fauna of this campus two years later. In his first, he described the place and denizens he came to know intimately:

So far as mammals are concerned Point Grey is rather peculiarly situated in that it is completely shut off, by the city, from all communication with other areas of wild land. Civilization is fast encroaching on the remaining wild areas, so that in a few years hardly any of the more timid species will be found here. On the northwest corner are the lands and building of the University of British Columbia; on the east and south, building and road-making are going on apace.20

Starting as a student in this virtual island of biodiversity within the sea of the city provided a unique opportunity for him to witness and document the phenomenon of the disappearance of “the more timid species” as the islands of wild land were cut off. He was aware of the early observations first put forward by scientists like Alfred Wallace for the delineation of species by geography, i.e., the Wallace Line. But it was the next generation of scientists like Cowan who really emphasized how human modification could be as effective and disruptive to distribution of species as the edge of a sea, a mountain range or a major river. A sea of suburbia may in some cases be even more daunting than a sea of saltwater for some species. It wouldn’t be until 1967 that Edward O. Wilson and Robert McArthur at Harvard would quantify and predict these rates of change and coin the term “island biogeography” for the next generation of ecologists.

The following species Cowan observed on what were the UBC Endowment Lands between 1927 and 1929 (now reduced in size but conserved as Pacific Spirit Park) and today are extirpated from the Point Grey region. The weasel is dependent on forests and so disappeared with the carving up of their habitat and isolation from a larger population.

Streator’s Weasel [Ermine or Short-tailed Weasel]

Mustela streatori [Mustela erminea fallenda]

Rare, single specimen, a male, no. 1028, was taken by Mr. A.S. Walker on March 24, 1923, and is now in the collection of Mr. K. Racey. Since that time I do not know of any specimens being seen or taken.21

As with Darwin, the study of islands became a central focus throughout Cowan’s life. Islands not only provoked questions about evolution at work but also evolution in reverse – the simplification of biological diversity by human modification. His studies of island insularity of mice and shrews on BC’s coast continued for another 40 years.22


20 Cowan, “Mammals of Point Grey,” The Canadian Field-Naturalist 44, no. 6 (September 1930): 133. www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/89659 - page/167/mode/1up. (accessed October 31, 2014).

21 Cowan, “Mammals of Point Grey,” 134.

22 Ian McTaggart Cowan to BC Premier Hon. William Vander Zalm, July 6, 1987, Cowan_PN_016.

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