Ronald Pulliam

From an “Ecologist Directory” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2004-2005. Profile circa 2004.

Degree                                                                             Ph.D.

ESA Distinguished Service Citation for 2002

ronald_pulliam_profileWhen I was 14 years old I got a summer job as the Nature instructor at Camp Linwood Haynes, the local Boy Scout camp near Augusta Ga. I took the job seriously and learned everything I could about the local flora and fauna. Soon I earned the reputation as the camp expert on natural history and I was given the nickname “Bugs.” From then on I knew I wanted to work outdoors with plants and animals. At that time I had never heard of an ‘ecologist’ so I told everyone I wanted to be a ‘naturalist’. When I applied for college, I was disappointed not to find any college that offered a major in ‘natural history.’ I went to the University of Georgia and majored in Zoology. I spent my first day on campus looking for the natural history museum and was amazed to learn [?].

I did well in my first year in college but I was bored. I told a friend, a chemistry professor named Tom Walsh, that I wanted to do some research but I didn’t know how to start. He asked me what I was interested in and if there were any zoology professors that I might want to work with. I told Tom that I had heard of a famous Professor named Eugene Odum but I didn’t know how to approach him. Tom called Dr. Odum and arranged a time for me to meet him. That was a true turning point in my life. Dr. Odum took me under his wing and got me involved in a research project on using radionucleotides to measure metabolic rate of mice in the field. He also introduced me a young graduate student named Gary Barrett. I worked closely with Gary and Dr. Odum and published two papers with them by the time I finished my undergraduate degree.

After graduating from the University of Georgia, I went to Duke University where I got my PhD with Peter Klopfer, one of the leading behavioral ecologists of the time. After receiving my PhD, I took a postdoctoral position in population genetics with Dick Lewontin at the University of Chicago. I had an NSF postdoctoral fellowship at Chicago to study allozyme variation in fruit flies. After several months of trying to read electrophoretic gels and staying inside, my desire to get back in the field and do natural history was overwhelming. I talked to Lewontin about my frustrations and together we wrote a letter to NSF saying that studying bill-size variation in finches in Costa Rica was intellectually the same problem as studying allozyme variation in fruit flies in Chicago. NSF approved and I escaped Chicago for the wilds of Costa Rica. Years later I was fortunate enough to spend a sabbatical year with John Maynard Smith at Sussex University in England. In 1994, I was appointed Director of the National Biological Survey and had the privilege of working closely with Bruce Babbitt Secretary of the Interior. I feel very fortunate to have trained with a leading ecologist (Odum), a leading behaviorist (Klopfer), two world renown geneticists (Lewontin and Maynard Smith), and the most accomplished Secretary of the Interior of the 20th century (Babbitt).

I have worked on a lot of organisms, from birds, to ants, to plants, and in a lot of places but especially the desert grasslands of Arizona and deciduous forest of the southeastern United States. My biggest current project is a study of how understory forest herbs respond to climate variability but in addition to the herbs I am interested in their interactions with pollinators, seed dispersers, fungi, and other plants species. I like to think of myself as the naturalist that I wanted to me back when I was 14. In addition to natural history, I am also interested in ecological theory and the policy implications of ecological science but I am always try to make sure that both my theory and policy recommendations are well grounded in an understanding of the natural history of real organisms and ecosystems.

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