Mares, Michael A.: 1945—: Mammologist, Field Biologist

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Michael A. Mares: 1945: Mammologist, field biologist

Mammalogist Michael A. Mares has a rodent, a bat, and a parasite named after him. Mares, the world's foremost expert on the natural history of desert rodents, is responsible for the discovery of the three creatures. When he isn't setting up field research in the deserts of Argentina, Iran, Egypt, or the United States, Mares is a professor at Oklahoma University and, until 2003, was director of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. Under Mares' leadership, the museum underwent an extensive overhaul that resulted in skyrocketing attendance.

Mares was born on March 11, 1945, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Ernesto Gustavo and Rebecca Gabriela (Devine) Mares. Mares grew up in New Mexico and enrolled as an undergraduate biology major at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque in 1963, with his sights set on a career in medicine. Less than two years later, his focus had shifted to zoology, and he took his first foreign field-research trip to Mexico in 1966. Mares returned from the trip with an infectious disease he picked up in a bat cave. The infection landed him in the hospital and almost killed him, but did not deter him from his developing passion for field biology.

The disease did get in the way of Mares getting drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, however; he was given a permanent deferment because of damage to his lungs. He married Lynn Ann Brusin, now an attorney, in 1966. The couple has two sons, who were born on their parents' field trips to Argentina.

Studied Desert Life During Field Research

After graduating from the University of New Mexico, Mares pursued his master's degree at Fort Hays State College in Hays, Kansas. There, he received thorough training in what he referred to as the "ologies" in A Desert Calling: Life in a Forbidding Landscape: mammalogy, herpetology, ornithology, ichthyology, plant and animal ecology, wildlife ecology, field biology, human ecology and conservation, the biology of the Southwest, and comparative physiology. He was then accepted to the Ph.D. program at the University of Texas at Austin, where he was sent into the deserts of South America to study mammals. Mares claimed mammalogist Oldfield Thomas as his hero; Thomas named nearly 3,000 species and subspecies of mammals during his lifetime.

At a Glance . . .

Born on March 11, 1945, in Albuquerque, NM; son of Ernesto Gustavo and Rebecca Gabriela Mares; married Lynn Ann Brusin, August 27, 1966; children: Gabriel Andres, Daniel Alejandro. Education: University of New Mexico, BS, 1967; Fort Hays Kansas State College (now University), MS, 1969; Univ of Texas at Austin, PhD, 1973.

Career: Universidad Nacional de Cordoba, Argentina, adjunct professor of zoology, 1971; Universidad Nacional de Tucumán, Instituto Miguel Lillo, Tucumán, Argentina, adj prof of zoology, 1972, visiting professor of ecology, 1974; Univ of Pittsburgh, assistant/associate prof of biological sciences, 1973-81; Univ of Arizona Tucson, visiting prof of ecology and evolutionary biology, 1980-81; Univ of Oklahoma, Department of Zoology, assoc prof of zoology, 1981-85, Stovall Museum, assoc curator of mammals, 1981-85, OK Museum of Natural History, director, 1983-03, curator of mammals, 1985, Department of Zoology, prof of zoology 1985, distinguished research professor, 2003; Sam Noble OK Museum of Natural History, distinguished research curator, 2003.

Selected memberships: American Association for the Advancement of Science; Amer Society of Mammalogists; Assn of Science Museum Directors; Ecological Soc of America; Sociedad de Biología de Chile; Southwestern Association of Naturalist.

Selected awards: Fulbright-Hays Research Fellow, 1976; National Chicano Don W. Tinkle Research Excellence Award, Southwestern Assn of Naturalists, 1989; C. Hart Merriam Award, Amer Soc of Mammalogists, 2000; OK Higher Education Hall of Fame, 2002; AAAS Fellow, Amer Assn for the Advancement of Science, 2002.

Addresses: Home 3930 Charing Cross Court, Norman, OK 73072. Office Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK 73072.

Mares has devoted much of his career to studying desert mammals and how they have adapted to survive in what is commonly seen as a hot, dry wasteland. To the average observer, it might seem that Mares' job is a tedious and boring one. "The animals that I study are not as charismatic as the African lions ," Mares wrote in A Desert Calling. "I have focused instead on the uncharismatic, the rodents and other small mammals that pass remarkable lives mostly hidden from view." What keeps Mares intrigued, he continued, is that "Field biology involves daily encounters with the wondrous."

Field biologists, especially those who work in foreign countries, face disease, accidents, bureaucratic glitches before their work even starts, often for months or years at a stretch. While many scientists deplore fieldwork, because it often takes place under appalling and dangerous conditions, Mares thrives on it. "Mares has put himself into great discomfort and occasional danger in nearly every desert of the world, largely because he is consumed by a personal quest to understand ," colleague Stephen Jay Gould wrote in his foreword to A Desert Calling.

Wrote Field Narratives While Teaching

What also sets Mares apart from other scientists is his lively and engaging writing style. The author constructed A Desert Calling: Life in a Forbidding Landscape to be both informative and descriptive of his field experience, but the book also succeeded in being entertaining and autobiographical. His tales of both the hardships and rewards of field work prove his worth as a storyteller, as well as a scientist. Mares "paints amazing portraits" of desert animals and the ways they have adapted to survive, according to Science News. Tim Markus of Library Journal elaborated: "It is a testament to his love of biology and his abilities as a writer that he is able to convey the excitement that accompanies the discovery of a new species after surviving the numerous hardships of extended field-work."

"Field narratives have certain conventions," Gould observed in his foreword, "and Mares follows them there, but with a verbal freshness (and a fine sense for a good yarn) that will delight even the most sophisticated urbanite." Of the two major requirements of the field-narrative genre, Gould continued, "one must first tell terrific stories about animalsas Mares does again and again. Second, one must relate the tales of danger, biting bugs, venomous snakes, near drowning, strandings in the desert, and meetings with weird and dangerous peoplethe occasional but inevitable incidents that no one really loves when they are happening, but that more than repay the debt in the pleasure of later telling." Mares is also the author of more than 155 articles, as well as reviews, lectures, addresses, grants, and contracts. He has served as editor of numerous books and scientific publications.

In addition to his research work in barren desert environments, Mares has spent his career thoroughly entrenched in academia. A string of assistant and associate professorships led to his title as distinguished research professor in the department of zoology at the University of Oklahoma. Mares also is distinguished research curator for the University-affiliated Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, a post he took in 2003 after stepping down as the museum's director.

Shared Wondrous World Through Museum

Mares became the director of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in 1983. After struggling for some years with both an up-and-down economy and shifts in university and museum administration, Mares undertook a $40 million renovation of the museum. Mares himself worked to raise the money from public and private donors. In the end, the museum became a state-of-the-art attraction and educational facility. The museum included classrooms for Oklahoma University graduate and undergraduate students, and featured digital and interactive exhibits that left the old, yellowed bones of yesterday's natural history museums in the dust. "You can't present this stuff in a dry manner anymore," Mares told the Wall Street Journal. "People won't come and see it." But come and see it they did; in the first two months after its reopening, the museum attracted 100,000 visitorsmore people than had previously attended the museum in a year.

Gould summed up Mares' achievements in his fore-word to A Desert Calling: "Mares has truly proven that we live on a most wondrous planet, a place where every nook of space and every sentient object (even the insentient ones, for that matter) loudly proclaim the truth of Shakespeare's appended examples for his famous proclamation about the sweet uses of adversity: 'sermons in stones, and good in every thing.'"

Selected writings

(Editor, with H. H. Genoways) Mammalian Biology in South America, Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology, Special Publication, 1982.

(Editor) Charles Banks Wilson's Search for the Pure-bloods, Special Publication, 1983.

Heritage at Risk: Oklahoma's Hidden Treasure, Special Publication, Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, 1988.

(With R. A. Ojeda, and R. M. Barquez) Guide to the Mammals of Salta Province, Argentina, The University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

(With Caire, W., B. P. Glass, J. T. Tyler) The Mammals of Oklahoma, The University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

(Editor, with D. J. Schmidly) Latin American Mammal-ogy: History, Biodiversity and Conservation, The University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

(With Barquez, R. M. and R. A. Ojeda) The Mammals of Tucumán (Los Mamíferos de Tucumán), Special Publication, Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, 1991.

(With Barquez, R. M., and N. Giannini) Guide to the Bats of Argentina (Guía de los Murciélagos de Argentina), Special Publication, Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, 1993.

(Editor) Encyclopedia of Deserts, University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

(Editor, with Barquez, R. M. and J. K. Braun) The Bats of Argentina, Special Publications, Museum of Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas, 1999.

(Editor) A University Natural History Museum for the New Millennium, Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, 2001.

A Desert Calling: Life in a Forbidding Landscape, Harvard Univ. Press, 2002.

Also is the author of more than 155 articles, as well as reviews, lectures, addresses, grants, and contracts. In addition, wrote and produced the video Behind the Rain: The Story of a Museum, in 2002.



Mares, Michael A., A Desert Calling: Life in a Forbidding Landscape, Harvard Univ. Press, 2002.


Journal Record (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), September 28, 1994.

Library Journal, April 1, 2002, p. 135.

New Scientist, May 4, 2002, p. 56.

Science, July 1, 1983, p. 49.

Science News, June 22, 2002, p. 399.

Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2000, p. W12.


Additional information for this profile was provided by Michael A. Mares.

Brenna Sanchez