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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Kenneth S. Norris: Naturalist, Cetologist & Conservationist, 1924-1998: An Oral History Biography


The Regional History Project conducted a series of interviews with Kenneth S. Norris, UCSC Professor of Natural History Emeritus, in the spring and summer of 1998. Halfway through the interviews, Norris, who had been in poor health, was hospitalized unexpectedly and died on August 16, 1998. Rather than publish an incomplete set of his edited interviews, the project was reconceived. We interviewed a group of his colleagues and former students who could discuss many of the topics the interviewer had not had an opportunity to discuss with him. These additional interviews include recollections of Norris’s myriad research interests (desert biology, herpetology, marine mammalogy) and his scientific legacy; his teaching philosophy and how it was so creatively manifested for almost two decades in the celebrated Natural History Field Quarter class; and his founding role in the creation in 1965 of UC’s Natural Reserve System.

On October 24, 1998, at the Norris Memorial, held at UCSC, celebrating his life and work, many of his far-flung students and colleagues gathered together from around the country. During that weekend project interviewer Irene Reti, conducted interviews with Stephen R. Gliessman, Donald J. Usner, and Shannon M. Brownlee, for their recollections of the Natural History Field Quarter. Randall Jarrell conducted interviews with Robert M. Norris, William N. McFarland, William F. Perrin, and later, with Roger J. Samuelsen, and Lawrence D. Ford, who discussed the genesis of the NRS and Norris as scientist and naturalist.

Norris was born August 11, 1924 in Los Angeles when Southern California was still a rural place with easy access to wild things. His mother and father relished the outdoors and were unusually encouraging of their boys’ naturalist interests. They took Ken and his older brother Robert on many family camping trips and hiking in the mountains and by the time he was about ten, Ken’s taste for natural history and collecting was already well developed.

Norris graduated from Van Nuys High School in 1942 and entered UCLA. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1944 until 1948, when he returned to UCLA, and earned his bachelor’s degree in biology in 1948, after having almost completed his degree in geology. When he was a senior he met up with Raymond B. Cowles, who had a transformative influence on the direction of his life.

Norris earned a master’s degree in desert zoogeography at UCLA in 1951, with Ray Cowles as his major professor when he wrote his thesis, “The Evolution of the Iguanid, genus Uma.” He moved from the desert to the sea when he began work towards his Ph.D. under the legendary Carl L. Hubbs, at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. Two years into his doctoral work Norris was hired as the founding curator at the country’s second oceanarium, Marineland of the Pacific in Palos Verdes, California, where he began his pioneering work with marine mammals during the period 1953 to 1960. He continued working on his dissertation on the opaleye, named after its lovely bluegreen eyes, a perch-like fish of the sea chub family Kyphosidae, in which he investigated the effect of water temperatures on this intertidal fish. For the groundbreaking ecological approach he developed in this dissertation, “The Functions of Temperature in the Percoid Fish, Girella nigricans (Ayres),” he received the Mercer Award of the Ecological Society of America for the best study by a young scholar in 1963.

He received his Ph.D. from Scripps in 1959 and in the same year Norris returned to UCLA where he was hired as Ray Cowles’s successor and taught biology and herpetology and continued his research on desert reptiles. He was at UCLA until 1972, where he advanced to full professor of Natural History (the only professor of natural history in the UC system). In 1965, due to his efforts, UC’s Natural Reserve System was established under UC President Clark Kerr. While continuing at UCLA on a part-time basis, he became the founding director of the Oceanic Institute in Hawaii, from 1968 until 1971. In 1972, he moved north when he was appointed at UCSC and founded Long Marine Laboratory and the Institute of Marine Sciences. He was Professor of Natural History until he retired in 1990 after eighteen years at UC Santa Cruz.

In these interviews Norris and his colleagues discussed the unusually varied range of his scientific discoveries and conservation activities. At UCLA his work as a desert herpetologist and ecologist led to his discoveries of the function of color changes in amphibians and reptiles and of circadian rhythms in snakes. His pioneering investigations in marine mammalogy confirmed dolphin echolocation skills in a series of elegant experiments. Much of what is now known about whales and dolphins, specifically their social and familial interactions is due to his work. His expertise in marine mammalogy also resulted in his strong influence on public policy in the crafting of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. His leadership and research were also instrumental in the national campaign to reduce the dolphin kill in tuna fishing. Norris was the author of over a hundred scientific papers and several books on dolphins and porpoises.

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