Clinton Hart Merriam

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Clinton Hart Merriam
Picture of Clinton Hart Merriam.jpg
Picture of Clinton Hart Merriam, by Frances Benjamin Johnston
Born (1855-12-05)December 5, 1855
New York City
Died March 19, 1942(1942-03-19) (aged 86)
Berkeley, California
Nationality USA
Fields Zoology
Institutions United States Department of Agriculture
National Geographic Society
Known for Life zone concept
Author abbrev. (botany) Merriam

Clinton Hart Merriam (December 5, 1855 – March 19, 1942) was an American zoologist, ornithologist, entomologist, ethnographer, and naturalist.

Life and career[edit]

Known as "Hart" to his friends, Merriam was born in New York City in 1855. His father, Clinton Levi Merriam, was a U.S. congressman.

Merriam studied biology and anatomy at Yale University and obtained an M.D. from the School of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in 1879. He taught for a while at Harvard University.

Merriam died in Berkeley, California in 1942.

His sister Florence Augusta Merriam Bailey was a pioneering ornithologist who introduced popular field guides for bird identification. She married Vernon Bailey a field naturalist and long-time collecting partner of C. Hart Merriam's. His grandson Lee Merriam Talbot (born 1930) was a geographer and ecologist who was among the IUCN team which rediscovered the Persian fallow deer in 1957, and secretary general of the IUCN from 1980 to 1983.


In 1886, he became the first chief of the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy of the United States Department of Agriculture, predecessor to the National Wildlife Research Center and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1883, he was a founding member of the American Ornithologists' Union.[1] He was one of the original founders of the National Geographic Society in 1888. He developed the concept of "life zones" to classify biomes found in North America along an altitudinal sequence corresponding to the zonal latitudinal sequence from Equator to Pole. In mammalogy, he is known as an excessive splitter, proposing, for example, tens of different species of North American brown bears in several genera.

In 1899, he helped railroad magnate E. H. Harriman to organize an exploratory voyage along the Alaska coastline.

Some species of animals that bear his name are Merriam's wild turkey (Meliagris gallopavo meriami), the now extinct Merriam's elk (Cervus elaphus merriami), Merriam's pocket mouse (Perognathus merriami) and Merriam's chipmunk (Tamias merriami). Much of his detail-oriented taxonomy continues to be influential within mammalogical and ornithological circles.[citation needed]

American Mammalogy[edit]

Merriam was commonly known as the Father of Mammalogy, a branch of Zoology referring to the study of mammals – a class of vertebrates with characteristics such as homeothermic metabolism, fur, four-chambered hearts, and complex nervous systems. He began his career in Natural Science, at the age of 16, with an 1872 Harden Survey. At 18, he published a report of his biological studies on mammals and birds. Following his induction into natural sciences, Merriam studied at Yale and received his M.D from Columbia in 1879.

After college, while he began with a brief career in medicine, in 1883 he revived his early fascination with the study of mammal species, and became one of the founding members of the American Ornithologists’ Union in 1883 where he continued his studies on different species of mammals. The first term he coined was "Atophyrax bendirii" in 1884. Following his growing notoriety in the natural science sphere, he became close friends with former president Theodore Roosevelt, and, at the age of 30, was asked to take charge of the newly established section of ornithology in the Entomological Division of the United States Department of Agriculture in 1885. This later on became known as the Bureau of Biological Survey in 1905. Heading the Bureau for 25 years, he became known as a national figure and improved the scientific understanding of the birds and mammals of the United States.[3]

As the head of the Bureau, Merriam inaugurated the North American Fauna series where he described 71 new species and several new genera of mammals. After revising brown and grizzly bears of North America, he named an additional 84 species. Later on, in 1898, Merriam was able to visit Colorado Plateau in 1889. He published the results of a biological survey of the San Francisco Mountain region and desert of the Little Colorado, Arizona in 1890, where he developed the idea of "Life Zones." Merriam’s explanation of “Life Zones,” seven categories based on temperature and humidity, was nevertheless an important idea that he developed after an expedition into the Painted Desert. In 1899, he helped organized the Harriman Alaska Expedition, with Edward Harriman, where they explored coast of Alaska for two months, from Seattle to Siberia and back again. After that was named the President of American Ornithologists' Union in 1902.

However, around 1910 he began to focus more so on ethnology of California Indians.[4]

Native Americans[edit]

During Merriam's multiple trips to western North America to research and catalog biological organisms, he came to rely on the indigenous "locals" (Native Americans) for valuable information about the mammals he was studying. Through these inquiries and encounters, Merriam tried to learn Native languages to communicate with his contacts. He also became fascinated with various California Native American cultures. As the North American Indian populations decreased so dramatically in the late nineteenth century, Merriam realized that the people, languages, culture, and knowledge of these diverse tribes was being lost. He became determined to collect as much information about Native American tribes of California as possible, before it was lost. Merriam stunned his colleagues in East Coast academic institutions by abandoning his distinguished career in mammalogy in order to do anthropological and linguistic field work, for which he had no formal training. When Merriam's dear friend Harriman died, his widow offered Merriam an open academic grant and encouraged him to study whatever he pleased. Funded by the Harriman family, Merriam's focus shifted to studying and assisting the Native American tribes in the western United States. His contributions on the myths of central California and on ethnogeography were particularly noteworthy. Merriam is credited for collecting vast amounts of field notes on tribes that would have otherwise gone unstudied, and much of their languages and customs lost. Merriam published many papers on his findings, and used his findings to advocate for California tribes, but the vast majority of his field notes remain unpublished, and are largely stored in the basement of the University of California Berkeley Anthropology Library, where they were transferred from The Smithsonian Institute, Merriam's academic home base.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The American Ornithologists' Union", Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club VIII (4), October 1883: under cover 
  2. ^ "Author Query for 'Merriam'". International Plant Names Index. 
  3. ^ Sterling, Keir (1973). Last of the Naturalist (Revised ed.). Columbia University. 
  4. ^ Sterling, Keir (1973). Last of the Naturalist- The Career of C. Hart Merriam (Revised ed.). Columbia University. 
  • Bean, Lowell John. 1993. "Introduction". In The Dawn of the World: Myths and Tales of the Miwok Indians of California, by C. Hart Merriam, pp. 1–12. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.
  • Kroeber, A. L. 1955. "C. Hart Merriam as Anthropologist". In Studies of California Indians, by C. Hart Merriam, pp. vii–xiv. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  • Sterling, Keir B. 1974. The Last of the Naturalists: The Career of C. Hart Merriam. Arno Press, New York.
  • Anon. 1942 [Merriam, C. H.] Ent. News 53:150
  • Anon. 1942 [Merriam, C. H.] Science 95: 318
  • Daubunnire, R. F. 1938: [Merriam, C. H.]. Quart. Rev. Biol. 13:327–332

External links[edit]