CHS Blog

Ronald James Brooks - In Memoriam (1942 – 2023)

January 20, 2024
David Galbraith, Scott Gillingwater, David Green, Joe Crowley, Jackie Litzgus, and Patrick Moldowan

Ronald J. Brooks, Professor Emeritus of the University of Guelph, died on Monday 18 December 2023. The depth and breadth of Ron's contributions to herpetology, zoology more broadly, and to conservation in Canada are hard to summarize. For his many colleagues, often former students, his death is a personal loss.

Ron while tending to a turtle nest in Algonquin Provincial Park (2006)
Photo: Doug Armstrong

Ron's Research Career

Ron is well-known for his long-term field studies of turtle ecology in Ontario, but his academic career began with ethological studies on birds and mammals. Undertaking his Master of Science with legendary University of Toronto ornithologist J. Bruce Falls, one of the founders of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, Ron had his first exposure to the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station (AWRS) with a project on the acoustic territorial behaviour of White-throated Sparrows. This led to his doctoral work with Edwin M. Banks (1926 – 1985) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, once again in ethology but making the switch to the acoustic behaviour of small mammals, with studies of lemmings in the Arctic. Ron joined the Department of Zoology at University of Guelph in September 1969, just five years after the founding of the university. For the first decade of his academic career, he continued his mammalian wildlife biology studies. Ron's move into studies of turtles was gradual, and never completely supplanted his interest in endotherms.

The Brooks Lab was an interesting mix of herpetology and mammalogy, with research topics covering energetics, growth, ethology, and demographics. The turtle transition began with a Snapping Turtle mark-recapture study at the AWRS in the early 1970s. Several basic questions on the biology of turtles occupied the Brooks Lab, starting with Martyn Obbard's life history evolution work, leading to myriad studies into density-dependent reproductive output. These studies came into sharp focus when at the end of the 1980s, a large number of the adult snapping turtles at AWRS were killed during the winter by otters. This "pulse" of mortality was not followed by any noticeable change in reproductive output by surviving females, confirming the bet-hedging life history hypotheses and indicating the importance in protecting female turtles of reproductive age in conservation programs.

Ron at work on the study of Snapping Turtles at the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station (1986)
Photo: David Galbraith.

Ron and his lab enjoyed a lot of scientific success over the decades, with many projects dedicated to turtle biology and ecology. These included research into environmental and developmental consequences of temperature-dependant sex determination in the Snapping Turtle and Painted Turtle through in-situ field studies and ex-situ lab studies. Another important field to which Ron and his colleagues contributed was the study of environmental toxicology, which brought together concerns over conservation and pollution. Snapping Turtles were excellent subjects for monitoring organochlorides and other pollutants, as the species tends to dwell in relatively restricted areas for many years and consume a variety of foods. While Ron was known for his extensive work with Snapping Turtles and Painted Turtles, his body of work expanded over the decades to include all eight turtle species in Ontario, as well as a number of snake species, including the Blue Racer on Pelee Island and Eastern Foxsnakes along the eastern shore of Georgian Bay and southwestern Ontario.

Ron's Contributions to Herpetology Research and Conservation in Canada

Ron was a highly-influential and productive scientist and amassed over 300 publications over the course of his career. According to Google Scholar, his works have been cited over 10,700 times, referring to over 250 papers. His three most-cited works deal with the problem of autocorrelation in home range estimates, the consequences of predation-related mortality event in the Sasajewun Snapping Turtles, and his early work on individual recognition in White-throated Sparrows. His range of interests was so broad that coming up with a short characterization is impossible.

Ron's extensive academic contributions in herpetology were, however, only part of his story. He had a keen interest in environmental conservation and was especially passionate about reptile conservation, to which he dedicated much of his time later in his career. Ron contributed extensively to on-the-ground recovery work for Canadian reptiles through his involvement in the development of multi-species recovery teams and recovery plans. In particular, though, Ron was hugely influential in furthering the conservation of Canadian reptiles through his prominent role on the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). In 1995, COSEWIC separately asked both Ron and David Green at McGill University to chair its Amphibians and Reptiles Specialist Subcommittee. Ron and David both said yes and agreed to take on the task together as co-chairs, the first for any COSEWIC subcommittees. Ron handled the reptiles while David looked after the amphibians. Ron went on to serve in that role until 2012.

Before Ron got involved with COSEWIC, only 10 Canadian reptile species had been assessed and listed at the federal level, but he soon began to bring new status reports to the table. Among his first were the Eastern Hog-nosed Snake (Special Concern) in 1997, Gray Ratsnake (Threatened) and Five-lined Skink (Special Concern) in 1998, and Sharp-tailed Snake (Endangered), Queensnake (Threatened), and Butler's Gartersnake (Special Concern) in 1999. He was just getting started. By the time Ron stepped down from COSEWIC after 17 years as co-chair, there were 50 reptile designatable units (DUs) on COSEWIC's list of species-at-risk, and not much left to do but 10-year re-assessments of species statuses.

Ron was a fierce and dedicated champion of Canadian reptiles. By the time Ron had finished one of his discourses on the plight and magnificence of turtles, COSEWIC members would be sobbing onto their keyboards. He knew that representing reptiles to a community of scientific and conservation professionals required much more than just analyzing survey data and checking off assessment criteria. Reptiles, with their unfamiliar life histories and surprising sensitivities to an assortment of threats, needed to be explained. One of Ron's particular triumphs was to accomplish what seemed like an impossible task at the time: a comprehensive assessment of the status of Snapping Turtles in Canada. The turtles' appearance of being relatively widespread and abundant was only because the adults were so long-lived and could be observed over and over again. In reality, low recruitment put them at serious risk of decline and in 2008 Ron successfully argued for a status of "Special Concern". Through Ron's dedicated efforts on COSEWIC, as well as on Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO), many of Canada's reptiles have been legally listed as species-at-risk, garnering them protection of federal and provincial legislation.

Ron also contributed extensively to on-the-ground recovery work for Canada's amphibian and reptile species through his involvement in the development of multi-species recovery teams and recovery plans, a relatively new approach to species at risk planning in Canada. Ron's active participation and leadership on recovery teams and conservation-based committees and organizations had a far-reaching impact – so much so that he became well-known as a prominent ambassador for the conservation of amphibians and reptiles in Canada.

Similarly, his influence on those he served with was equally as impactful, leading to collaborations and training that would propel the study and conservation of reptiles in Canada forward. Internationally, Ron was also well-known, as he collaborated for many years with some of North America's top herpetologists, including his long-term friend and colleague, Dr. Justin Congdon. Ron's biology and evolution classes provided foundational education for thousands of students over his 36 year teaching career at the University of Guelph. His supervision of dozens of undergraduate and graduate students further inspired careers in conservation and the natural sciences.

Ron and students on a field trip to sample a Wood Turtle population (2004)
Photo: Joe Crowley.

Ron's Accolades

Ron's prolific contributions to herpetological research and conservation have been widely recognized by his peers. He was the recipient of the Blue Racer Award in 2005 (presented to an individual in recognition of cumulative contributions to the conservation of amphibians and reptiles Canada) and in 2007 he was awarded the Michael Rankin Distinguished Canadian Herpetologist Award from the CHS (presented to an individual in recognition of life-time achievement in the study of amphibians and reptiles in Canada). Ron received the Friends of Algonquin Park Directors Award in 2015, honouring his work on turtle ecology and conservation in Canada as well as mentoring and educating many students and future champions for the environment. More recently, Ron received the Pritchard Lifetime Achievement Award (2022) for his "outstanding long term contributions to education and turtle ecology studies and turtle conservation efforts in Canada" and "for mentoring and educating many students." The award dedication made note that he was "especially proud of his work on the conservation of Canada's turtles, and specifically that Snapping Turtles are no longer considered 'vermin' or 'game species'. Instead, they are regarded as a species at risk, with widespread popular public support for their protection."

Ron championed the protection of the Snapping Turtle, among many other species at risk reptiles in Canada
Photo: Patrick Moldowan.

While many individuals have worked with Ron, below are a small number of reflections from some of his past colleagues and students:

David Galbraith: In 1980, I was taking senior zoology courses at University of Guelph, and Ron was the lecturer for fourth year Animal Evolution. With that experience and positive feedback, Ron supervised me on an undergrad thesis course too, on punctuated equilibrium and evolutionary theory. It was Ron's evolutionary interests and teaching that first really attracted me. When I graduated in 1982 Ron hired me as a technician on the Snapping Turtle project in Algonquin Park, my first real exposure to field work and to turtles. During the month in the park the idea of age estimates and other demographic studies was hatched. Remarkably, I applied to grad school when back in Guelph and got in (likely with a lot of help from Ron), starting my master's under Ron's supervision that fall. Between 1982 and 1986 I worked on age estimation and population biology puzzles, and after graduation stayed on in the lab as a technician for a year. During those years there were a lot of wonderful people in Ron's lab, like Lin Schwarzkopf, Graham Nanckivell, Marty Obbard, Jay Malcolm, and Pam Londos, and the variety of research topics were fascinating. In 1986, I ran into Ian Swingland at a herpetology conference, and, casting about for a doctoral project, he said that this new thing called DNA fingerprinting had been invented in Leicester, and maybe it was a way into studying mating systems through paternity analysis. That was really interesting because it held some promise to address the ecological and evolutionary implications of environmental sex determination. With Ron as a collaborator and the AWRS snapping turtles as subjects I launched into the arcane world of molecular genetics, starting my Ph.D. in the fall of 1987 at Queen's with Peter Boag and Brad White. Following my Ph.D. and my postdoc with Swingland I reconnected with Ron and some turtle conservation initiatives including COSEWIC. What I learned from Ron's curiosity, drive, interests, and friendship are very important even today. He was a true mentor and friend.

David Green: Although I got my graduate degrees from the University of Guelph, I wasn't Ron's graduate student, and I'll never forget the hard questioning he peppered me with during my thesis defense. But once we both got involved in COSEWIC as co-chairs of the amphibians and reptiles subcommittee, we became fast friends. We worked well together for 14 years, planning strategies and supporting each other at the assessment meetings. I relied on Ron especially during the four years I served as Chair of COSEWIC. During those long, long 5-day meetings, I was lucky to have Shirley Sheppard from the COSEWIC Secretariat sitting on one side keeping me on schedule, and Ron sitting on the other side keeping me from going crazy. With every single COSEWIC status report the story of a tragedy in the making, we could laugh at each other's jokes and so let the animals have their say.

Jackie Litzgus: I first met Ron in 1987, as a 1st year undergrad in his Zoology course at UofG. He talked about Darwin and the Galapagos Islands, and I was instantly hooked. Having been educated in the restrictive Catholic school board system, my mind was blown by Ron's enthusiastic explanations of evolution. Fast-forward a few years to when I boldly asked Ron if he'd be interested in supervising my MSc on Spotted Turtle ecology. Initially, he of course forgot who I was and that he had agreed to take me on, but we obtained funding from the WWF, and I became part of the Brooks Lab, an academic family that I cherish. In more ways than I can count, my M.Sc. was a pivotal point in shaping my career. Things came full circle; I eventually became a professor myself, co-supervised grad students with Ron, and helped him run the long-term turtle project based at the AWRS. Ron's impact has been far-reaching in time and space.

Joe Crowley: Ron was instrumental in helping me get my start in the field of herpetology. I joined the fabled "Brooks Lab" in 2003. What I didn't realize was that being part of his lab wasn't just about completing a thesis or classroom studies – it was a journey into the field of herpetological research and conservation in Canada. Ron provided a multitude of opportunities for his students to engage in various aspects of herpetology and conservation, including wine-fueled philosophical debates during lab meetings, field excursions at the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station or on one of the many other projects he was involved in, and attending and participating in real-world conservation initiatives (COSEWIC meetings, provincial and federal recovery team meetings, etc.). Only a few days after arriving at UofG, I found myself on a ferry to Pelee Island to attend my fist CARCNET conference where I was abruptly thrust into the world of herpetology in Canada and met many of my future colleagues and life-long friends. In many ways that first week set the tone for the next two years. These experiences, combined with Ron's contagious passion for conservation, were a major influence on me as I charted my career path. I am very grateful for everything Ron did to help me on my journey, as well as his exhaustive efforts to foster amphibian and reptile conservation in Canada.

Scott Gillingwater: When I began work with reptiles at risk in 1994, I was always curious to meet others that shared an interest in herpetology. In 1995, I met Ron briefly during a meeting at the University of Guelph, and I was fascinated by the work he and his students were conducting. Though I was never one of Ron's students, our shared pessimistic optimism and bull-headed approach to reptile conservation in Canada eventually lead to decades of friendship and work together. It didn't matter if you were young and new on the scene or an old, jaded researcher, if you were a fighter and cared a lot about the species you worked with, Ron would take notice. Ron consistently looked out for me and assisted as I grew in my career. Ron was a mentor by accident, and in hindsight, our years of sharing information, debating everything under the sun, me witnessing his effective but non-traditional approaches, and him ensuring I was part of his research bubble, helped shape my career. Back in my early days, Ron introduced me to countless prominent herpetologists and their studies, we worked for many years together on various turtle and snake recovery teams, close to a decade together on COSEWIC's Amphibians and Reptiles Specialist Subcommittee, and we toiled away on countless other initiatives for reptile conservation. Ron used science and education to fight for the protection of reptiles in Canada, but more importantly, it was his passion that prompted concern for these creatures and their continued existence. He spoke his mind (both a good and bad thing at times), he brought scientists and conservationists together to make change, he shared data without hesitation, he assisted countless students and researchers in developing their careers, and it is likely that he did more to assist reptiles across Canada than any other single scientist. Even when he made you angry, he made you laugh, and above all else, he made you care a little bit more about a turtle or a snake.

Ron among friends (LtoR): Bob Johnson, Ron, Whit Gibbons, Scott Gillingwater, and Justin Congdon (2008)
Photo: Scott Gillingwater.

External media


Turtle research at the AWRS:

Snapping Turtles with Dr. Ron Brook: