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UC Berkeley Press Release

Ichthyologist, animal behaviorist George Barlow has died

– Animal behaviorist and evolutionary biologist George W. Barlow, a professor emeritus of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a well-known expert on cichlid fishes, died July 14 at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula after a massive stroke. Barlow, a resident of Berkeley, was 78.

George Barlow
George Barlow (Bicka Barlow photo)

"George was the preeminent figure in fish biology in North America, if not in the world, throughout his career," said David L. G. Noakes, Barlow's first Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley and now a professor of fisheries and wildlife at Oregon State University in Corvallis. "He wasn't an ichthyologist in the sense of cataloguing fish; he was always interested in what the animals did, about evolution, and with comparing behaviors."

As a boy growing up in the sand and surf of Long Beach, Calif., Barlow scoured the beaches for hermit crabs and sea anemones and raised them in water-filled jars. He acquired his first 10-gallon fish tank at the age of 10 to raise tropical fish, at the same time indulging an interest in racing pigeons. He eventually gravitated to the study of fish behavior, in what at the time was the new field of ethology, the study of animal social behavior.

He studied with the two legendary founders of ethology - Konrad Lorenz of Austria and Nikolaas Tinbergen of the Netherlands - and brought back to the United States a European emphasis on the natural history and evolution of social behavior, which contrasted with the U.S. emphasis on learned behavior, according to Noakes. Barlow helped seed this European view around the country and defended it against those who attacked the field of ethology and its successor, sociobiology.

Thanks to scientists such as E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins, whom Barlow recruited to UC Berkeley in 1967 for his first academic job, sociobiology is now well accepted among scientists, Noakes said, though it continues to alarm members of the public who object to applying Darwin's theory of evolution to humans, particularly human behavior.

"The field of ethology and sociobiology has prospered enormously because a lot of people who think very critically on both sides of the question forced us to stop and look and think about the problems of applying evolutionary principles to humans and human behavior," Noakes said. "George was one of the first people to do that."

Barlow ended up focusing on one of Lorenz's favorite subjects, the cichlid fishes, a worldwide family of colorful and aggressive fish prized for aquariums. Known for their elaborate rituals of parental care, Barlow found them interesting because they seemed to be one of the few fishes that establishes monogamous relationships. He studied their social behavior primarily in laboratory aquaria, though he dove to study fish in areas ranging from Nicaragua and the Caribbean to the coral atolls of the Pacific Ocean. One of his many students, Ken McKaye, now a professor at the University of Maryland, named a cichlid from Lake Malawi Metriaclima barlowi after his mentor.

Barlow also studied the behavior and physiology of the desert pupfish of California's Salton Sea, gobies such as the long-jaw mudsucker, coral-reef fishes like the surgeonfishes, file fishes and leaf fishes, and sticklebacks. His main interests were parental behavior, reproductive behavior, the structure of stereotyped displays, speciation, life-history strategies and aggression.

In recent years, he delved into the lessons animal aggression hold for human aggression.

"A lot is going on in our culture that we are not aware of," and a study of animal behavior can give us a new perspective, he said in 2002, adding that a lot can be learned from "discussions of aggression from evolutionary principles relating to competition for territory and resources and issues surrounding kinship and development, that is, how you start your life."

In his later years, Barlow spent a lot of time with cichlid hobbyists, according to his daughter, Bicka Barlow of San Francisco. The American Cichlid Association established an online chat room forum after his death, in which many people commented on his enthusiasm and willingness to discuss and offer advice on raising cichlids, to the point of encouraging people to observe, write down and even publish their observations of fish behavior.

"I would mention, in an e-mail or phone conversation, some strange fish behaviour I (had) seen and within 4 days an envelope stuffed full of scientific papers referencing that behaviour or fish would show up at my house from George," wrote Robert Shields of Gilroy, Calif. "That was George in a nutshell: Friend, Mentor, Motivator, Cichlid Geek to the Umpteenth Power."

Even after retiring in 1993 and until just a few years ago, Barlow continued to work with undergraduates at UC Berkeley. One interesting project involved the cichlids known as "julies" of Lake Tanganyika in Africa, which are unique in exhibiting true polyandry - each female maintains a lasting relationship with two males.

"He took a lot of pleasure in mentoring undergraduates," Bicka Barlow said, noting that the family hopes to establish travel fellowships for undergraduates through some of the scientific societies to which her father belonged.

Born on June 15, 1929, in Long Beach, George Barlow attended Woodrow Wilson High School and entered UCLA in 1947 with the expectation of becoming a doctor. After a lackluster freshman year, he switched to biology, and formulated plans to get a Ph.D. in ichthyology.

While at UCLA, he also was a starter on the freshman and varsity water polo teams, and long maintained an involvement with UC Berkeley's water polo team.

After graduating with an A.B. in biology in1951, he joined the Coast Guard and was stationed in Honolulu during the Korean War. In 1953, he returned to UCLA to earn a Ph.D. in 1958. He immediately embarked on a two-year fellowship in Germany at the Max Planck Institute in Seewiesen, Bavaria, where he studied with Konrad Lorenz.

Though Barlow had raised cichlids as a boy, he only began to study their social behavior while in Bavaria. He continued his studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana, where he was offered a job in 1960, and remained with their zoology department until he moved to UC Berkeley's Department of Zoology in 1966. He also served for a long time as curator of ichthyology at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

From 1966 until he retired, Barlow led the campus's animal behavior undergraduate and graduate programs, teaching classes that inspired not only students but also fellow faculty members. Stephen Glickman, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology, noted that as a faculty member, he sat in on one of Barlow's undergraduate ichthyology lectures and ended up attending all of them. His was "the best sort of teaching: beautifully organized, enthusiastically presented, and informed by contemporary research, including his own. Just a special experience."

Barlow subsequently studied with Nikolaas Tinbergen at Oxford University in 1974 and 1975, and organized a year-long workshop on behavioral development at Bielefeld University in Germany. He co-edited and published the workshop's proceedings in 1981. He also edited the papers from a 1978 conference on conflicts within the field of sociobiology that were published as "Sociobiology, beyond nature/nurture?" (1980).

"He was a wonderful teacher and scholar, bringing vast knowledge and enthusiasm for the discipline to bear in both classroom teaching and individual supervision of student research," said Glickman, who later co-taught courses with Barlow. He added that Barlow always maintained "a proper historical perspective on the evolution of behavior, but always keeping abreast of changing perspectives in the field, which, during his tenure as a faculty member, moved from the classical ethology of Lorenz and Tinbergen through a sociobiological phase represented by E. O. Wilson and others and on to contemporary investigations of behavioral ecology."

He was instrumental in negotiating with department store magnate Richard Gump the 1981 transfer of land to create UC Berkeley's Richard B. Gump South Pacific Research Station in Moorea, Tahiti, for which he served as the first director. The station hosts students each year doing research on tropical ecosystems.

Barlow authored more than 160 scientific articles and three books, including "The Cichlid Fishes: Nature's Grand Experiment in Evolution" (2000). He was a fellow of the American Behavior Society and served as its president in 1979, and was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the California Academy of Sciences. He served on the board of governors of the American Society of Ichthyologists & Herpetologists from 1970 until 1975, and was a member of the American Society of Zoologists. He was awarded a Miller Professorship at UC Berkeley in 1972.

He also was editor of the journal Ethology from 1987 until 1990, and served on the editorial boards of the journals Animal Behaviour, Environmental Biology of Fishes, Behavioral Ecology & Sociobiology, Biologie du Comportement, Acta Natural l'Ateneo Parmense, Cahiers d'Ethologie Applique, Acta Ethologica and Copeia.

Barlow is survived by his wife of 52 years, Gerta M. (Offczarczyk) Barlow of Alameda; daughters, Linda Barlow of Denver, Colo., Bicka Barlow of San Francisco and Nora Barlow of Anchorage, Alaska; and six grandchildren.

A campus memorial service is tentatively planned for early September at UC Berkeley's Alumni House. Those interested in donating to student travel scholarships should contact Bicka Barlow at bickabarlow@sbcglobal.net.