This timeline, originally displayed in physical form at the reception, showcases the history of the Natural History of Vertebrates course at UC Berkeley from Joseph Grinnell to the 2017 reunion. Events from the history of biology and conservation are interspersed throughout the timeline to ground the class in the larger world. 


Joseph Grinnell hosts a free summer course that runs every year until 1917 titled “General Lectures on Local Zoology”. The course focuses on educating the public about various aspects of animal life in Berkeley and the Bay Area. His experiences teaching this course inform the development of the Natural History of Vertebrates class.

Joseph Grinnell at his desk in the MVZ.

Although this idea existed before him, Alfred L. Wegener expands upon the concept of continental drift, postulating that the continents were originally joined together in one or two large masses that gradually broke up and that the fragments drifted apart to form the current continents. He did not propose a mechanism for this and it isn’t until 1931 that one is offered up by Arthur Holmes. The theory is not accepted for 50 years, but is now amply supported and vitally important to the study of biogeography.


Grinnell teaches Zoology 113 “Advanced General Vertebrate Zoology” (3 units) for the first time in the spring semester. Although the class existed before Grinnell, many classic aspects of the course such as the field notes and field project are instituted by Grinnell. It also becomes associated with the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ) at this time as Grinnell serves as the director of the museum.


The National Park Service is created. Yellowstone National Park, which was originally established in 1872, is the first to be turned over to the NPS the following year. Joseph Grinnell encouraged the NPS to hire trained biologists/naturalists to conduct public education programs for visitors, but it wasn’t until 1920 that the park instituted the first official natural history program in Yosemite (the park where Grinnell did fieldwork).  


Joseph Grinnell publishes the first paper to use niche as a concept: “The niche relationships of the California Thrasher”. The paper details the particular adaptations that allow the California thrasher to live in its chaparral habitat, and defines a niche as the habitat in which a species lives and the accompanying adaptations that allow it to persist and reproduce.

Joseph Grinnell explains the concept of a subspecies.

Called the era of modern synthesis, this time period (1918-1932) sees a number of studies try and eventually succeed in reconciling Mendelian genetics with Darwinian ideas of gradual evolution and natural selection. The field of population genetics develops during this time and is instrumental in this synthesis.


Grinnell removes the word “economic” from the course description while adding the “study of habitat preferences, distribution, behaviour, and classification”. The reason ‘economic’ is removed is partly due to the creation of a new course by Grinnell that same year. The stand-alone course is titled Zoology 116 “Economic Vertebrate Zoology” which addresses how knowledge of natural history can inform policy decisions especially for important useful or harmful species.  



Charles S. Elton publishes Animal Ecology, which outlines a number of important ecological concepts such as food chains, the ecological niche (defined by Elton as an animal’s “place in the biotic environment, its relations to food and enemies”), and trophic pyramids.


E. Raymond Hall teaches mammals for the course until 1942.


Ronald Fisher publishes The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, one of the central works of the modern synthesis. It is also one of the founding works of population genetics.


Roger Tory Peterson publishes A Field Guide to the Birds, the first modern field guide. He develops the Peterson Identification System in this book, which uses readily noticeable visual impressions to identify species from a distance rather than more technical features more easily seen with a bird-in-hand. This system is adopted by many other field guides over the years for more than just birds.


Arthur Tansley coins the term “ecosystem” in his paper “The use and abuse of vegetational terms and concepts”. The term is meant to draw attention to the interactions between organisms and their environments, pushing back against the past trend of focusing solely on organisms and their associations with one another.


Georgy Gause formulates his competitive exclusion principle, which states that two species competing for the same limiting resource cannot coexist at constant population levels. One of the competitors will crowd out the other, forcing them to either go extinct or shift into a different niche. Grinnell also spoke of this principle earlier in 1904 in field observations, writing that “Two species of approximately the same food habits are not likely to remain long evenly balanced in numbers in the same region. One will crowd out the other” though he never formalized the concept.


Theodosius Dobzhansky publishes In Genetics and the Origin of Species, which applies chromosome theory and population genetics to natural populations. It is regarded as the first mature work of Neo-Darwinism.


Grinnell changes the course title to “Natural History of the Vertebrates”.


Grinnell dies in May 1939. His student, Alden H. Miller, succeeds Grinnell as director of the MVZ and takes over running the course until 1959.

Alden H. Miller.

Ernst Mayr develops the biological species concept, which defines a species not just as morphologically similar organisms but as a group of naturally breeding individuals that are reproductively isolated from other such groups.


Seth B. Benson teaches mammals until 1968.

Seth Benson.

Robert Stebbins teaches herps until 1978.

Robert Stebbins, as well as being an accomplished herpetologist and teacher, was a skilled painter.

Robert Stebbins publishes a monograph describing the ring speciation of Ensatina salamanders in California. The different forms are capable of interbreeding in most neighboring locations, creating hybrids, but not everywhere, with the intersecting Sierra foothill and Coast Range populations unable to interbreed and thus acting as distinct species. This has become a widely used textbook example of evolutionary processes.

Ensatina eschscholtzii eschscholtzii at Tilden. Credit: Natasha Stepanova.

Rosalind Franklin concludes that DNA is a double helix with sugar-phosphate backbones. The following year, James D. Watson and Francis Crick use her unpublished data in their paper on the structure of DNA. They also suggest a mechanism for DNA replication and transmission of genetic information. Their paper, as well as the Hershey-Chase experiment and Chargaff’s work on nucleotides, persuades biologists that DNA is the genetic material rather than proteins.


G. Evelyn Hutchinson popularizes the concept of the niche as an n-dimensional hypervolume where the dimensions are environmental conditions and resources (e.g. light, nutrients, water, etc) that define the requirements of an individual or a species to practice “its” way of life, more particularly, for its population to persist.


Jane Goodall documents tool use in chimpanzees, the first example of such in a non-human species, when she observes them using grass and twigs to fish for termites. Furthermore chimps strip leaves from twigs to make them more efficient, a rudimentary type of toolmaking.  


Ned K. Johnson teaches birds until 2003. Walt Koenig teaches the bird section of the course when Ned goes on sabbatical in 1986, 1990, and 1995.

Ned Johnson on the far right

In the 1960s-1970s, the core undergraduate curriculum in the Zoology Department requires a field course, a lab course, and an organismal diversity course. Because Zoology 107 satisfies all three of these requirements, it is a desirable course and enrollment hovers around 175 students. There is a large GSI/TA staff which allows labs to run 5 days a week and field groups to contain the preferred 10-12 students. Experience in animal diversity is a central theme in the department, so much so that incoming grad students were encouraged to take the course as well.


The Corral Hollow field trip is started by Sam McGinnis, a grad student of Stebbins at the time, in the early 1960s. In the early days, different groups of students go out from Tuesday to Saturday night, but with shrinking class sizes, the number of trips drops down to two, on Friday and Saturday. This field trip serves as the capstone for the class and is regarded as the highlight by many students.

Corral Hollow trip in 1992.

UC Berkeley shifts from semesters to quarters. This change splits the class into 2 quarters (winter and spring), Zoology 107A and Zoology 107B “Natural History of the Vertebrates”. Each section is 5 units.


Oliver P. Pearson teaches mammals until 1971.

Oliver P. Pearson.

James L. Patton teaches mammals. Patton alternates teaching the mammal section of the course with William Z. Lidicker between 1973 and 1993 when Bill retires, after which Jim teaches the course every year until 2002.

Jim Patton.
William Lidicker.

The Endangered Species Act is passed to prevent the extinction of imperiled plant and animal life and to allow threatened populations to recover.


Cuts to the TA budget force a cap of 125 students on the class.


Harry Greene teaches herps until 1998. 

Harry Greene.

As more budget cuts strike in the 1980s and 1990s, enrollment settles around 80-100 students.


UC Berkeley changes back to a semester system in the fall. When the class is offered in the spring of 1984, it is one class titled Zoology 107 “Natural History of Vertebrates” (5 units). Unfortunately this gives students less time to formulate a field project and take advantage of the changing seasons to conduct their field work.


Kary Mullis develops PCR (polymerase chain reaction), a technique which is still used today to amplify DNA.


Beginning in the late 1980s, before students can pre-register online and when faculty have more control over enrollment, an essay is required to get into the class. The institution of the essay is motivated by a burgeoning number of environmental science majors in CNR and growing demand for the class as well as subsequent budget crunches further eroding the TA staff and limiting class size. This continues until the early 2000s.


The course is split into 2 classes, Zoology 107 “Natural History of Vertebrates” (3 units) and Zoology 187 “Vertebrate Natural History Lab” (2 units). The rationale for this change is to retain the total unit value of 5 semester credits at a time when the campus is trying to eliminate all 5-unit courses by giving 1 credit for each lecture hour and only 1 credit for each lab. While the courses were listed separately, all students enrolled in 107 had to concurrently be enrolled in 187.


Patrick Kelly, a TA for the course at the time, applied for a course improvement grant seeking money for scopes and tripods for Zoology 107 so students could observe and identify faraway vertebrates. They received the grant and were able to purchase 3 tripods, plus an additional scope (they already had two) with money provided by the Zoology Department.

Hauling around the scope to identify waterbirds. Credit: Abhas Misraraj.

The biology departments in L&S are reorganized with parts of the old Zoology Department folding into the new Integrative Biology Department. As a result of this change, the course is retitled to IB 104 “Natural History of Vertebrates” (3 units) and IB 104LF “Vertebrate Natural History Lab” (2 units). There is also pressure at the time to turn IB 104 into a larger vertebrate diversity course including fish and an explicit temporal perspective of the fossil record. The instructors argue against such an expansion as to preserve the focus on field work dedicated to terrestrial vertebrates alone, and are successful in keeping the focus on tetrapods.  


The first entire genome of a free-living organism, a bacterium species by the name of Haemophilus influenzae (despite the name, not actually the cause of influenza), is sequenced.


The Integrative Biology Department drops previous requirements and institutes a set of sophomore-junior core classes instead. One of these classes is in organismal diversity while the other focuses on form and function. As a result of these changes, enrollment in IB 104 drops to around 40 students in spring 1999.  


Harry Greene departs for Cornell at the end of 1998. Until 2004, the herp section of the course is taught by a series of senior grad students and recent MVZ PhDs including Javier Rodriguez and Meredith Mahoney.   


The first entire genome of a vertebrate (Mus musculus) is sequenced and finished. At this time, there is also a working draft of the human genome available (published in 2001) though it is not published as complete until 2004.  


Jim McGuire starts teaching herps. The next several years feature a rotating set of instructors with only Jim remaining as a constant. Although retired, Bill Lidicker steps up to teach mammals for one year while serving as an IB 104 guide to Jim. Allison Chubb (newly-finished grad student) teaches birds that year. From 2005 to 2007, John Perrine (postdoc) teaches mammals while Jack Dumbacher (curator at Cal Academy), Kristen Ruegg (grad student), and Chris Clark (grad student) all teach birds for one year each. At this time, lecturers attend every lecture, not just their own (this practice has since been discontinued), and at least one of the two weekly field trips, both if the focus is on their speciality taxon (which has continued to this day).

Jim McGuire with Crotalus oreganus.

The instructors for the course finally stabilize with Jim McGuire on herps, Rauri Bowie on birds, and Alan Shabel on mammals. They are the instructors to this day. Andrew Rush and Sean Reilly serve as instructors when Rauri and Jim take sabbaticals respectively.        

Rauri Bowie with Spotted Towhee.
Alan Shabel with Peromyscus.

Because the IB major doubles in size during this time (at the expense of MCB), the class climbs up to ~60 students for a while. However, when the major shrinks back down, enrollment drops down to ~40 students in 2015. It is also worth noting that the class always experiences significant drops after the first lecture and the first cold, often wet field trip to Berkeley Aquatic Park.   


The course is retitled to IB 104 and IB 104LF.


The course is recombined into one class called IB 104LF “Natural History of Vertebrates with Lab” (5 units).



Due to insurance reasons, the class is no longer allowed to visit Castle Rock on the Connolly Ranch in Corral Hollow, ending a decades-long tradition. The class continues to visit Corral Hollow for 2 more years, meeting at the Carnegie ORV site instead.


The Corral Hollow final trip is replaced by an overnight trip to Hastings Natural History Reservation in Carmel Valley. The trip begins Saturday morning and features vans taking different roads, each with multiple stops, to Hastings where everyone meets in the evening. This is followed by joint night and day hikes before each van returns independently (and often along new routes) to Berkeley on Sunday.  

IB 104 class of 2016 assembled at Hastings Natural History Reservation.

The MVZ hosts a reunion for the Natural History of Vertebrates course to celebrate the class and natural history education.