Hubbs, Carl Leavitt

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(b. Williams, Arizona, 18 October 1894; d. La Jolla, California, 30 June 1979)


Hubbs was considered one of the last general naturalists and was the dean of American ichthyology for half a century. His father, Charles Leavitt Hubbs, was variously a prospector, assayer, and land developer. Hubbs’s early years were spent in San Diego, California, then a city of fewer than twenty thousand people and considerable open country. He became acquainted with the local wildlife and began collecting seashells. After the local wildlife and parents in 1907. he and his brother. Leonard, lived with their mother, Elizabeth Goss Johnson Hubbs, who from 1908 ran a private school in Redondo Beach, California. There he devoted his spare time to roaming the beaches and barren hills. When his mother married Frank Newton, the family moved to the San Joaquin Valley near Turlock, California, where he attended high school and, in his words, ’ plunged ito nature study with a vengeance, ’ with a special interest in birds. An indifferent student in his early years he became a keen one in high school and considered becoming a chemist.

Hubbs’s final year of high school was in Los Angeles, and he then attended junior college, where George Bliss Culver interested him in the local freshwater fishes. Hubbs entered Stanford University, then the center of American ichthyology under the leadership of David Starr Jordan and Charles Henry Gilbert: the latter was his mentor. He received his A.B. in 1916 and his M.A. in 1917. by which time he had become assistant curator of fishes, amphibians, and reptiles at the Field Museum in Chicago. In 1918 he married Laura Clark, a fellow student at Stanford who had majored in mathematics. They had one daughter and two sons.

In 1920 Hubbs became curator of the fish divisionof the museum of zoology at the University ofMichigan and an instructor on the faculty. He wasawarded a Ph .D. by that university in 1927 and in1940 was promoted to full professor . In 1944 Hubbsbecame professor of biology at the Scripps Institutionof Oceanography, a graduate school of the Universityof California in La Jolla . He remained there for therest of his life, as professor emeritus from 1969 .

Among thevarious honors that Hubbs received were election to the National Academy of Sciences (1952) and the Joseph Leidy Award and Medal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (1964).

The primary work of this indefatigable scientist was in ichthyology. When he entered it, the study of fishes in the United States was advancing from the descriptive stage to broader aspects of ecology and behavior. Noted from his student days to the end of his life as a keen and meticulous worker, Hubbs was an outstanding taxonomist of fishes. He was also an intense collector who enlarged the holdings at the University of Michigan and the Scripps Institution enormously. While at Michigan, Hubbs and his wife conducted studies on hybridization in various fishes in nature and in the laboratory. In an investigation of geographic variation. Hubbs concluded that differences in temperature during growth could lead to variation in numbers of vertebrae in fishes (1922).

Hubbs wrote many papers on the systematics, distribution, and habits of cyprinodont fishes. Other groups to which he devoted considerable effort were lampreys, catastomid fishes, sculpins, and hagfishes. He also published regional studies, most notably on the fishes of the Great Lakes region (1941) and of California (1979). The latter, a publication that had been in preparation for thirty-five years, was a shortened version of his ideal goal: to record and define taxonomically all fishes in the fresh and marine waters of that state. Hubbs was also involved in fisheries management, with the Michigan Institute for Fisheries Research in the 1930’s and with the California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigation in the 1950’s.

One of Hubbs’s major interests was the relict fishes, survivors from an earlier epoch of extensive river systems in the western Great Basin. He first observed these in 1915 with John Otterbein Snyder of Stanford while conducting a survey of the fishes of the Bonneville Basin in Utah. He returned to the western basins many times to trace the distribution of surviving fishes and its relationship to the hydrographic history of the region (1948, 1974). He proposed the common name’ pupfish’ for the genus Cyprinodon and pushed successfully for the inclusion of the freshwater spring at Devil’s Hole, Nevada, in Death Valley National Monument, in order to save a species of pupfish.

Studies begun on fishes often led Hubbs down other scientific paths. When he moved to California and began collections of local fishes, he soon became involved in directing a program during the 1950’s on the total ecology of the kelp beds. His earlier interest in the effects of temperature variations on fishes was continued in California. It led him into a consideration of past climatic changes, derived from measurement of oxygen isotopes in mollusk shells of known ages. In the 1960’s he conducted an extensive study of aboriginal middens in Southern California and Baja California, Mexico.

Hubbs’s first trip to the islands off the coast of western Mexico in 1946 was to collect fishes in a little-studied area and to determine island endemism. He returned to Guadalupe Island many times, chiefly to record and tally the endangered Guadalupe fur seal and the northern elephant seal. For a decade Hubbs conducted an annual count of gray whales on their migration and at the calving lagoons in Baja California. He became a valued spokesman for the conservation of marine mammals.

Hubbs, an intense worker and prodigious writer, kept many projects going simultaneously. The participation of his wife was an important factor in his accomplishments; she worked with him always, for many years as a volunteer. He devoted considerable time to each of his many graduate students, who were awed by his energy and attention to detail. Hubbs’s goals were to carry out scientific research as steadily as he could, and to encourage students and colleagues to do likewise.


I.Original Works. Hubb’s bibiography runs to more than seven hundred entries, of which half are on fishes. The others are on marine mammals, birds, archaeology, and climatology, plus book reviews and obituaries. His early temperature studies were summarized in’ Variations in the Number of Vertebrae and Other Meristic Characters of Fishes Correlated with the Temperature of Water During Development, ’ in American Naturalist, 56 (1922), 360– 372. His Ph.D. dissertation was’ The Structural Consequences of Modifications of the Developmental Rate in Fishes, Considered in Reference to Certain Problems of Evolution, ’ originally published in American Naturalist, 60 (1926), 57–81. The first edition of the work on Great Lakes fishes was’ Guide to the Fishes of the Great Lakes and Tributary Waters, ’ in Bulletin of the Cranbrook Institute of Science, no. 18 (1941). written with Karl F. Lagler; the last edition was Fishes of the Great Lakes Region (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1964). The long-pursued California project was’ List of the Fishes of California, ’ in Papers of the California Academy of Sciences, 133 (1979), 1–51, written with W. I. Follett and Lillian J. Dempster; Hubbs saw it in published form just three weeks before he died.

Work on relict fishes was first summarized by Hubbs and his son-in-law, Robert Rush Miller, in’ The Zoological Evidence: Correlation Between Fish Distribution and Hydrographic History in the Desert Basins of Western United States, ’ in The Great Basin, with Emphasis on Glacial and Postglacial Times, which is Bulletin of the University of Utah, 38 (1948), 17–166. A later summary, which Hubbs called his’ opus, ’ was’ Hydrographic History and Relict Fishes of the North-Central Great Basin, ’ in Memoirs of the California Academy of Sciences, 7 (1974), 1–259, written with Robert Rush Miller and Laura C. Hubbs.

With George S. Bien and Hans H. Suess, Hubbs wrote’ La Jolla Natural Radiocarbon Measurements I–V, ’ in American Journal of Science Radiocarbon Supplement. 2 (1960), 197–223, 4 (1962), 204–238, 5 (1963), 254–272, 7 (1965), 66–117, and 9 (1967), 261–294 (with Bien only).

Hubbs gave his large personal library and his extensive correspondence and scientific files to Scripps Institution of Oceanography; his files include many biographical and autobiographical items.

II. Secondary Literature. An account of Hubbs’s life is Elizabeth N. Shor, Richard H. Rosenblatt, and John D. Isaacs, ’ Carl Leavitt Hubbs, ’ in Biographical Memoirs, National Academy of Sciences, 56 (1987), 214– 249, which includes a partial bibliography. A very warm account is Kenneth S. Norris, ’ To Carl Leavitt Hubbs, a Modern Pioneer Naturalist, on the Occasion of His Eightieth Year, ’ in Copeia (1974), 581–610, which includes a selected bibiography by Laura C. Hubbs. A complete bibiography is in Frances Hubbs Miller, The Scientific Publications of Carl Leavitt Hubbs: bibiography and Index, 1915–1981, Special Publication no. 1. Hubbs– Sea World Research Institute (La Jolla, 1981).

Elizabeth Noble Shor