Alvariño, Angeles: 1916—: Marine Biologist, Oceanographer

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Angeles Alvariño: 1916: Marine biologist, oceanographer

Dr. Angeles Alvariño, also known by her married name of Angeles Alvariño de Leira, is an expert on marine zooplankton. These are nonphotosynthetic, primarily microscopic organisms that drift in the upper layers of salt water and form the base of the marine food chain. Much of Alvariño's research has focused on the zooplankton of fish spawning grounds. Over a career spanning more than 50 years, Alvariño has discovered 22 new marine species. Since her retirement from the Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC) in La Jolla, California, as an emeritus scientist, Alvariño has been researching the biological collections made by early marine expeditions.

Angeles Alvariño was born on October 3, 1916, in El Ferrol, Spain. Her parents, Antonio Alvariño Grimaldos and Maria del Carmen Gonzáles Díaz-Saavedra de Alvariño, encouraged her early interest in natural history. From a very young age, she read the volumes on zoology in her father's library. Alvariño studied piano throughout her childhood until she entered the university; but from the age of four, she was determined to become a physician like her father. However, her father vehemently opposed this choice because he did not want her to experience the pain and suffering associated with patients whose conditions were untreatable.

Dreamed of Becoming a Doctor

As an undergraduate Alvariño attended the Lycee Concepcion Arenal in El Ferrol. There she studied the natural sciences, physics, chemistry, and mathematics, as well as languages, world literature, history, geography, philosophy, psychology, logic, and art history. In 1933 Alvariño received her baccalaureate degree, summa cum laude, from the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, after passing her final examinations and submitting dissertations in both sciences and letterson social insects, bees, and ants, and on the women in Don Quixote.

Although her ambition to study medicine remained strong, Alvariño's father continued to object. Therefore she entered the University of Madrid (now University Complutense) in 1934 to study the natural sciences, a curriculum that shared several subjects with the medical course. However, the university closed in 1936 and remained closed for the duration of the Spanish Civil War. During this period Alvariño improved her French and began studying English. When the university reopened in 1939, she resumed her studies, earning a master's degree with honors in natural sciences in 1941. During her years at the University of Madrid, Alvariño lived in the Women's Residence of University Students, under the directorship of Dr. Maria de Maeztu. There she immersed herself in an international intellectual environment that included students from around the world who had come to study Spanish art and literature. In 1940 Alvariño married Sir Eugenio Leira Manso, an officer in the Royal Navy of Spain and a Knight of the Royal and Military Order of Saint Hermenegild.

At a Glance . . .

Born Angeles Alvariño on October 3, 1916, in El Ferrol, Spain; daughter of Antonio Alvariño Grimaldos and Maria del Carmen Gonzáles DíazSaavedra de Alvariño; married Sir Eugenio Leira Manso, 1940; children: Angeles Leira Alvariño. Education: University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain), baccalaureate degree, 1933; University of Madrid (now University Complutense), MS, 1941, doctoral certificate, 1951, DSc, 1967.

Career: El Ferrol (Spain), instructor, biology, zoology, botany, geology, 1941-48; Department of Sea Fisheries (Spain), fishery research biologist, 1948-52; Superior Council of Scientific Research, histologist, 1948-52; Spanish Institute of Oceanography, biologist-oceanographer, 1952-57; Marine Biological Laboratory, Plymouth, England, British Council fellow, 1953-54; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Fulbright fellow, 1956-57; Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, La Jolla, biologist, 1958-69; SWFSC, National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA, fishery research biologist, 1970-87, emeritus scientist, 1987; National Autonomous University of Mexico, associate professor, 1976; San Diego State University, associate professor, 1979-82; Federal University of Paraná (Brazil), visiting professor, 1982; University of San Diego, associate professor, 1982-84; National Polytechnic Institute of Mexico, visiting professor, 1982-86.

Memberships: Emeritus fellow, American Institute of Fishery Research Biologists; fellow, San Diego Society of Natural History; Association of Natural History Societies; Biological Society of Washington; Hispano-American Association of Researchers on Marine Sciences.

Awards: Great Silver Medal of Galicia, 1993.

Address: Home 7535 Cabrillo Ave., La Jolla, CA 92037-5206.

After earning her degree Alvariño taught biology, zoology, botany, and geology at various colleges in El Ferrol until 1948, when she moved to Madrid with her husband and daughter. There she joined the Department of Sea Fisheries, as a fishery research biologist. Between 1948 and 1952 she also worked as a histolo-gist at the Superior Council of Scientific Research.

Alvariño wanted to continue her studies at the Spanish Institute of Oceanography in Madrid. However, women were officially barred from the institute because research in marine biology was conducted on vessels belonging to the Spanish Royal Navy and a law, dating back to Charles III, prohibited women from staying on navy ships. Nevertheless, based on her academic qualifications, Alvariño was admitted to the institute's courses in biological, physical, and chemical oceanography and she was allowed to begin conducting research there. Simultaneously pursuing her studies at the University of Madrid, Alvariño earned her doctoral certificate in chemistry in 1951 with three separate dissertations: a study of personality for a thesis in experimental psychology, a study of phosphates in the ocean for a chemistry thesis, and a study of the distribution, uses, and commerce of seaweeds for a plant ecology dissertation. In 1952, as a result of a competitive examination, Alvariño won an appointment as a biologist and oceanographer at the Spanish Institute of Oceanography. Since the institute was a part of the Spanish navy, Alvariño was given an honorary military rank of captain.

Became Zooplankton Expert

The following year Alvariño was awarded a British Council Fellowship to study zooplankton at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Plymouth, England. There she worked with the prominent English marine biologist, Dr. Sir Frederick Stratten Russell, an expert on zooplankton, particularly the medusae or jellyfish. Thus Alvariño began her lifelong study of the Chaetognatha, Siphonophora, medusae, and fish larvae. Very little was known about these animals in the 1950s. Chaetognaths, a phylum of about 50 species of marine plankton, also called arrowworms, are abundant, tiny carnivores that feed on other zooplankton. Their responses to small chemical and physical characteristics of sea water make them important biological indicators of water type. Siphonophores and other hydrozoans are colonial, swimming or floating animals of the phylum Cnidaria (coelenterates), including Physalia, the Portuguese man-of-war. These organisms are made up of zooids, colonial cells that are specialized for floating, sensing, feeding, or reproduction. The gastrovascular canals of all of the zooids in a colony are contiguous. New colonies bud from the stem of the siphonophore.

Siphonophores, like the chaetognaths, are predators that feed on other plankton, including fish larvae and krill (small shrimp-like crustaceans). Medusae are the free-swimming forms of the hydrozoan cnidarians.

Alvariño studied all of the zooplankton groups that were found in collections from the Bay of Viscay and the English Channel. She discovered Sagitta friderici in plankton samples of the chaetognatha. This is a species normally found in the shallow, warm or temperate waters of the eastern Atlantic coast. She also found abundant eggs and larvae of Sardina pilchardus in samples from herring fishery areas. Her discovery of these organisms off the British coast indicated the abnormal northward movement of warm water that was displacing the herring fisheries.

Returning to Spain in 1954, Alvariño began designing and manufacturing plankton nets, which she gave to Spanish fishing boats and research ships for collecting samples. This enabled her to study zooplankton collected from the Iberian Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. In 1956 Alvariño was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to work with Dr. Mary Sears at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. Sears, a well-known expert on zooplankton, especially the Siphonophora, and chair of the First International Congress on Oceanography, was so impressed with Alvariño's research and the breadth of her knowledge, that she recommended her to Dr. Roger Revelle, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California in La Jolla. From 1958 until the end of 1969, Alvariño worked as a biologist at Scripps, examining the chaetognaths, siphonophores, and medusae in plankton collected off the coast of California and from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. During those years she was a grantee of the U. S. Office of the Navy and the California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations. Between 1961 and 1969 she also held grants from the U. S. National Science Foundation. Alvariño also became a United States citizen in 1966.

An expert on taxonomy and zoogeography, Alvariño's discoveries included 12 new species of Chaetognatha, nine new species of Siphonophora, and a new medusa. She also established the worldwide three-dimensional distribution of various species of chaetognaths and siphonophores. Alvariño's research at Scripps earned her a doctor of sciences degree summa cum laude in 1967 from the University of Madrid.

Joined the SWFSC

In 1970 Alvariño accepted a position as a fishery research biologist at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC), a division of the newly formed National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA). Alvariño's research focused on the geographic distribution and ecology of zooplankton, especially the distribution of chaeognath and siphonophore species in the Pacific and Antarctic Oceans and on the relationships between zooplankton and the ocean environment. She examined the effects of plankton predation on fish larvae survival and the impact on fisheries and the biotic environment of fish spawning grounds. She identified zooplankton that are indicator species, based on their associations with specific ocean currents and other forms of ocean dynamics or with other types of organisms, such as spawning fish, eggs, and larvae. She also studied the artificial transport of plankton into new areas of the ocean, via pollution and ship bilge tanks, and the effects of these exotic organisms on the biotic environment.

Between 1977 and 1979 Alvariño coordinated oceanic research for Hispano-American countries. She held Antarctic research grants between 1979 and 1982 and grants from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Alvariño directed doctoral theses candidates at various universities in the western hemisphere and served on thesis committees in the United States and abroad. Her concurrent university appointments included associate professorships at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1976, San Diego State University between 1979 and 1982, and at the University of San Diego between 1982 and 1984. She held visiting professorships at the Federal University of Paraná in Brazil in 1982 and at the National Polytechnic Institute of Mexico between 1982 and 1986.

Alvariño has published more than 100 original scientific books, book chapters, and journal articles. On July 23, 1993, King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sophia of Spain awarded her the Great Silver Medal of Galicia. She is an emeritus fellow of the American Institute of Fishery Research Biologists and a fellow of the San Diego Society of Natural History. She is a member of the Biological Society of Washington and the Hispano-American Association of Researchers on Marine Sciences. In addition to Spanish and English, Alvariño is fluent in French and Portuguese and speaks some German. A lover of art, classical music, and literature, Alvariño and her husband, a retired naval captain, have one daughter, Angeles Leira Alvariño, who is an architect and city planner.

Angeles Alvariño has continued her scientific work on plankton and other subjects since her official retirement from the SWFSC as an emeritus scientist in 1987. The first woman scientist to work on a British research vessel, she has continued to participate in expeditions on the research vessels of various countries. In recent years Alvariño has conducted historical research focusing on early oceanography, including the explorations of Spanish navigators who discovered the oceans of the world and the main oceanic currents and the First Scientific Oceanic Expedition that sailed the western Atlantic Ocean and all of the Pacific Ocean between 1789 and 1794. In 2000 she published an account of this expedition. A second edition of this work, with additional illustrations in full color, is forthcoming. She also has prepared English and Spanish manuscripts on the scientific study of 100 species of animals, including plankton, mollusks, turtles, fish, and birds, that were collected from the western South Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and illustrated in color, during the expedition.

Selected writings

Books and reports

Distributional Atlas of Chaetognatha in the California Current Region During the CALCOFI Monthly Cruises of 1954 and 1958, California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations, 1965.

The Chaetognatha of the NAGA Expedition (1959-1961) in the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 1967.

Atlantic Chaetognatha. Distribution and Essential Notes of Systematics, Travaux Spanish Institute of Oceanography, 1969.
Siphonophores of the Pacific with a Revision of the World Distribution, University of California Press, 1971.
The Relation Between the Distribution of Zooplankton Predators and Engraulis Mordax Larvae (Anchovy), California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations Reports, 1980.

(With S. C. Hosmer and R. F. Ford) Antarctic Chaetognatha: United States Antarctic Research Program, ELTANIN Cruises 8-28, American Geophysical Union, 1983.

(With D. F. Verfaillie and R. F. Ford) Antarctic Chaetognatha: United States Antarctic Research Program, ELTANIN Cruises 10-23, 25 and 27, American Geophysical Union, 1983.

(With Joan M. Wojtan and M. Rachel Martinez) Antarctic Siphonophores from the Plankton Samples of the United States Antarctic Research Program, ELTANIN Cruises from Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter (Cruises 3-4, 6-23, 25-28, 30, 35 and 38), American Geophysical Union, 1990.

Spain and the First Scientific Oceanic Expedition (1789-1794). Malaspina and Bustamante with the Corvettes DESCUBIERTA and ATREVIDA, (in Spanish) 2000.

Book chapters

"Chaetognatha," in Oceanography and Marine Biology: Annual Review, George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1965.

"Chaetognatha. Oogenesis, Ovoposition, and Oosorption," in Reproductive Biology of Invertebrates, Vol. 1, John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 1983.

"Chaetognatha. Spermatogenesis and Sperm Function," in Reproductive Biology of Invertebrates, Vol. 2, John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 1983.

"Fertilization, Development and Parental Care in Chaetognatha," in Reproductive Biology of Invertebrates, Vol. 4, Oxford & IBH Publishing, 1990.

"Sexual Differentiation and Behavior in Chaetognatha. Hermaphroditism," in Reproductive Biology of Invertebrates, Vol. 5, Oxford & IBH Publishing, 1990.

"Asexual Propagation and Reproductive Strategies in Chaetognatha," in Reproductive Biology of Invertebrates, Vol. 6, Oxford & IBH Publishing, 1991.


"Two New Pacific Chaetognaths: Their Distribution and Relationship to Allied Species," Bulletin of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 1962.

"Egg Pouches and Other Reproductive Structures in Pelagic Chaetognatha," Pacific Science, 1968.

"Distribution of Siphonophores in the Regions Adjacent to the Suez and Panama Canals," U.S. Fishery Bulletin, 1974.

"The Importance of the Indian Ocean as Origin of Species and Biological Link Uniting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans," Journal of the Marine Biological Association of India, 1974.

"The Depth Distribution, Relative Abundance and Structure of the Population of the Chaetognatha Sagitta scrippsae Alvariño 1962, in the California Current off California and Baja California," Anales Indtituto Ciencias del Mar y Limnologia, 1983.

"Pandea cybeles a New Medusa from the Sargasso Sea," Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 1987.

"Abundance of Zooplankton Species, Females and Males, Eggs and Larvae of Holoplanktonic Species. Zooplankton Assemblages and Changes in the Zooplankton Communities Related to Engraulis mordax Spawning and Survival of the Larvae," Memoirs III Encontro Brasileiro de Plancton, 1989.

"Hydromedusae: Daylight and Night and Seasonal Bathymetric Abundance off California and Baja California, and Study of the Species in the Eastern Pacific and Other Regions," Revista de Biología Marina y Oceanografía, 1999.



"From Johah To NOAA: Women in the Fisheries Profession," Women in Natural Resources Magazine, (May 13, 2003).


Information for this profile was obtained through personal communications between Dr. Alvariño and Contemporary Hispanic Biography in February, 2003.

Margaret Alic

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Alvariño, Angeles: 1916—: Marine Biologist, Oceanographer

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