Storrs L. Olson

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Storrs L. Olson
Born (1944-04-03) April 3, 1944 (age 72)
Chicago, Illinois
Occupation Ornithologist
Spouse(s) Helen F. James (m. 1981; div. 2006)

Storrs Lovejoy Olson (born April 3, 1944) is an American biologist and ornithologist currently employed at the Smithsonian Institution. One of the world's foremost avian paleontologists, he is best known for his studies of fossil and subfossil birds on islands such as Ascension, St. Helena and Hawaii. His early higher education took place at Florida State University and the University of Florida, and his doctoral studies at Johns Hopkins University. He has been married to fellow paleornithologist Helen F. James.

Early life and education[edit]

Olson was born April 4, 1944 in Chicago, Illinois. His father was physical oceanographer Franklyn C.W. Olson. He was named after his maternal conservationist grandfather P.S. Lovejoy.[1] Franklyn worked at the University of Ohio's Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island. In these lacustrine surroundings, Storrs developed an interest in fishes.

In 1950, Olson's family moved to Tallahassee, Florida when Franklyn took a job at Florida State University. Young Olson's interests shifted to ornithology at age 12. In 1963, he moved to Panama to assist a friend with his research on fishes. He would return to Panama in 1966 as an undergraduate, to study the immunology of vultures.

His higher education began at the University of Florida under the colorful Pierce Brodkorb and spurred his interest in paleornithology. He returned to Florida State in 1968 to complete his master's degree.

Career and graduate education[edit]

Olson's work in Panama attracted the attention of Alexander Wetmore in 1967, as Wetmore was preparing a monograph on Panama bird life. Their contact at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH)—administered by the Smithsonian—earned Olson a summmer job in the Fish and Wildlife Service under Richard C. Banks the next year.[1] He then became resident manager at the Smithsonian's new Chesapeake Bay Center in Edgewater, Maryland.

The Center had connections to Johns Hopkins University, and Olson was encouraged to enroll there for graduate school. He would matriculate at the School of Hygiene and Public Health in the Department of Pathobiology under Bernhard Bang. With the Smithsonian's backing, Olson went to Ascension Island and Saint Helena in 1970 and 1971, where he discovered the Saint Helena hoopoe and the Saint Helena crake.[2] This work was the basis of his dissertation on the evolution of rails. Johns Hopkins would award Olson an Sc. D. in 1972.

By August 1971 he was working at the NMNH. He wrote on fossil rails for a 1977 monograph by Sidney Dillon Ripley. In March 1975, he was made curator of the Division of Birds.

In 1976 he met his future wife Helen F. James who later became another notable paleornithologist herself, focusing on Late Quaternary prehistoric birds.[3] During their pioneering research work on Hawaii, which lasted 23 years, Olson and James found and described the remains of 50 extinct bird species new to science, including the nēnē-nui, the moa-nalos, the apteribises, and the Grallistrix "stilt-owls".[4] He was also one of the authors of the description of the extinct rodent Noronhomys vespuccii.[5] In 1982, he discovered subfossil bones of the long ignored Brace's emerald on the Bahamas, which gave evidence that this hummingbird is a valid and distinct species.[6]

In November 1999, Olson wrote an open letter to the National Geographic Society, in which he criticized Christopher P. Sloan's claims about the dinosaur-to-bird transition which referred to the fake species "Archaeoraptor".[7] In 2000, he helped to resolve the mystery of Necropsar leguati from the World Museum Liverpool, which turned out to be an albinistic specimen of the grey trembler.[8]

Personal life[edit]

Olson married his long-time colleague Helen F. James in 1981.[9]


Olson has been decorated as one of the world's foremost paleornithologists.[10] He was also the 1994 recipient of the Loye and Alden Miller Research Award.[11] He was formerly curator of birds at the United States National Museum of Natural History; as of 2009, he holds an emeritus position in the institution.[12]

Several prehistoric bird species have been named after Olson, including Nycticorax olsoni,[13] Himantopus olsoni,[14] Puffinus olsoni,[15] Primobucco olsoni,[16] Gallirallus storrsolsoni,[17] and Quercypodargus olsoni.[18]


  1. ^ a b "Storrs Lojevoy Olson". The Washington Biologists' Field Club: its members and its history (1900–2006) (PDF). The Washington Biologists’ Field Club. 2007. pp. 217–218. ISBN 978-0-615-16259-1. 
  2. ^ Olson, Storrs L. (1975). "Paleornithology of St Helena Island, south Atlantic Ocean" (PDF). Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology. 23. 
  3. ^ "Helen F. James". National Museum of Natural History Smithsonian Institution. Archived from the original on 2011-06-05. 
  4. ^ James, Helen F. & Olson, Storrs L. (1991). "Descriptions of thirty-two new species of birds from the Hawaiian Islands: Part I. Non-passeriformes". Ornithological Monographs. 45: 42–47. doi:10.2307/40166794. 
  5. ^ Carleton, M.D. & Olson, S.L. (1999). "Amerigo Vespucci and the rat of Fernando de Noronha: a new genus and species of Rodentia (Muridae, Sigmodontinae) from a volcanic island off Brazil's continental shelf". American Museum Novitates. 3256: 1–59. hdl:2246/3097. 
  6. ^ Graves, Gary R. & Olson, Storrs L. "Chlorostilbon bracei Lawrence, an extinct species of Hummingbird from New Providence Island, Bahamas". Auk. 104 (2): 296–302. 
  7. ^ Luis Sanz, José; Ortega, Francisco (16 February 2000). "El 'escándalo archaeoraptor'" [The Archaeoraptor scandal] (in Spanish). El País. 
  8. ^ Olson, Storrs L.; Fleischer, Robert C.; Fisher, Clemency T. & Bermingham, Eldredge. "Expunging the 'Mascarene starling' Necropsar leguati: archives, morphology and molecules topple a myth". Bulletin of the British Ornithologists' Club. 125 (1): 31–42. hdl:10088/1564. 
  9. ^ "Helen Frances James". The Washington Biologists' Field Club: its members and its history (1900–2006) (PDF). The Washington Biologists’ Field Club. 2007. pp. 167–168. ISBN 978-0-615-16259-1. 
  10. ^ Loye and Alden Miller Research Award Recipients – Storrs Olson at the Wayback Machine (archived August 14, 2007)
  11. ^ Loye and Alden Miller Research Award Recipients at the Wayback Machine (archived August 14, 2007). Cooper Ornithological Society
  12. ^ "Birds Staff, Division of Birds, NMNH". Retrieved 2009-12-11. 
  13. ^ Bourne, W. R. P., Ashmole, N. P. & Simmons K. E. L. (2003). "A new subfossil night heron and a new genus for the extinct rail from Ascension Island, central tropical Atlantic Ocean" (PDF). Ardea. 91 (1): 45–51. 
  14. ^ Bickart, K. J. (1990). "The birds of the late Miocene-early Pliocene Big Sandy Formation, Mohave County, Arizona". Ornithological Monographs. 44 (44): 1–72. doi:10.2307/40166673. 
  15. ^ Rando, J. C.; Alcover, J. A. (2007). "Evidence for a second western Palaearctic seabird extinction during the last Millennium: The Lava Shearwater Puffinus olsoni". Ibis. 150: 188. doi:10.1111/j.1474-919X.2007.00741.x. 
  16. ^ Feduccia, A. & Martin, L. D. (1976). "The Eocene zygodactyl birds of North America (Aves: Piciformes)". Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology. 27: 101–110. 
  17. ^ Kirchman, Jeremy J. & Steadman, David W. (2006). "New Species of Rails (Aves: Rallidae) From an Archaeological Site on Huahine, Society Islands". Pacific Science. 60 (2): 281–298. doi:10.1353/psc.2006.0007. hdl:10125/22565. 
  18. ^ Mourer-Cliauviré, C. (1989). "Les Caprimulgiformes et les Coraciiformes de l'Éocène et de l'Oligocène des phosphorites du Quercy et description de deux genres nouveaux de Podargidae et Nyctibiidae" [Caprimulgiformes and Coraciiformes of the Eocene and Oligocene in phosphorites form Quercy and description of two new genera of Podargidae and Nyctibiidae]. Acta Congr. Int. Ornithol. (in French). 19: 2047–2055. 

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