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Allan Baker, 1943 - 2014


Ellen Paul

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Allan Baker, Senior Curator of Ornithology and Head of the Department of Natural History at the Royal Ontario Museum, passed away on 19 November 2014.  He was a Fellow of the American Ornithologists’ Union, an Affiliate Member of the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution in Massey University in New Zealand, and an Associate Editor of Systematic Biology and a member of the Editorial Board of BMC Evolutionary Biology.

 

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Allan was born in Westport, New Zealand. His Ph.D. reconstructed the evolutionary history and historical biogeography of the world’s oystercatchers. He ran a DNA laboratory at the ROM and taught molecular evolution at the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Toronto.  His research group in molecular evolution and systematics received funding from NSERC, NSF, Genome Canada, World Wildlife Fund and the ROM Governors. Allan co-chaired the All Birds Barcoding Initiative (ABBI) steering committee, which aims to identify all the >10,000 species of birds in the world with unique DNA sequences from the COI gene.  He has been invited to lecture in 16 countries around the world, and is a member of the Committee of 1000 in the International Ornithological Congress (IOC).  He has organized and spoken at symposia at the IOC since 1986, has published over 160 papers in scientific journals, and has edited one book on molecular ecology.

Allan’s research focused on reconstructing the avian tree of life with molecular markers, and then mapping other biological characters such as life history, behaviour, geographic distributions and ecology on the tree to understand their evolution.  Apart from studying how biodiversity has evolved, he also was heavily involved in conservation of migratory shorebirds, which are declining around the world.  Along with Professor Theunis Piersma of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, he co-founded  the Global Flyway Network of collaborative researchers to provide an early warning service for identifying migratory shorebirds at risk.

 

In 2006, the Society of Canadian Ornithologists awarded the Doris Huestis Speirs Award for Outstanding Contributions to Canadian Ornithology to Dr. Baker. The presentation read:

 

The Doris Huestis Speirs Award is the most prestigious award of the Society of Canadian Ornithologists and is presented annually to an individual who has made an outstanding lifetime contribution to Canadian ornithology. On behalf of the SCO/SOC, it is my great pleasure to present the 2006 Doris Huestis Speirs Award to Dr. Allan Baker. Allan is Senior Curator of Ornithology and Head of the Department of Natural History at the Royal Ontario Museum and a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Toronto. We honour Allan with this award for his contributions to research and training in ornithology and for his service to the field, both in Canada and abroad. Allan began his scientific career at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, where he studied the evolutionary history and historical biogeography of the world’s oystercatchers. Shortly after completing his PhD, Allan moved to Canada where he has spent the last 30 years working on the population genetics, molecular systematics and biogeography of birds, but also mammals and fish. During his career, Allan has produced an edited book on Molecular Methods in Ecology and over 130 papers on topics including: patterns and processes of differentiation in introduced bird populations,
cultural evolution of bird song, molecular genetics and phylogeography of shorebirds, and population structure and phylogeny of birds ranging from parrots to seabirds. Allan’s contributions to ornithology also extend beyond his many research publications. Over his career, he has trained 39 graduate students and post-docs, with many holding academic positions inuniversities throughout the world. He has served as Associate Editor for the Auk and Systematic Biology, and is a member of the Editorial Board of BMC Evolutionary Biology. He is the co-chair of the All Birds Bar-coding Initiative, which aims to identify all the world’s bird species with unique DNA sequences and he is a co-founder of the Global Flyway Network, which provides an early warning system for identifying migratory shorebirds at risk. Amazingly, he has also convened a symposium at every IOC held in the last 20 years. For these contributions, the SCO/SOC is pleased to present the 2006 Doris Huestis Speirs Award to Dr.
Allan Baker. 

 

In 2007, the American Ornithologists' Union presented Allan with the William Brewster Memorial Award for his outstanding and influential work in avian molecular evolution. This prestigious award is given annually to the author or co-authors (not previously so honored) of the most meritorious body of work on birds of the Western Hemisphere published during the 10 calendar years preceding a given AOU meeting.

 

2007 recipient of the William Brewster Memorial Award

baker.jpg
Allan J. Baker, July 2006
(Photograph by Oliver Haddrath)

Allan J. Baker, a leading scholar in avian molecular evolution, is the Senior Curator of Ornithology and Head of the Department of Natural History at the Royal Ontario Museum. A hallmark of Baker's research program is its depth and breadth. His Ph.D. dissertation reconstructed the evolutionary history and historical biogeography of the world's oystercatchers. He was a leader in using allozyme electrophoresis to study geographic variation in birds, multivariate morphometrics, and the comparison of genetic and morphological data. He also helped pioneer the application of population genetics to the transmission of song memes in birds. Baker was among the first ornithologists to switch to analyses of mtDNA to investigate evolutionary questions within avian species, and his study of the Dunlin (Calidris alpina) was a landmark paper in avian phylogeography. He incorporated modern DNA sequencing methods and retroposon insertions both to answer questions in deep avian history and to investigate evolutionary processes at the population level. His systematic studies were at the forefront of the field, owing to his use of mitochondrial genomes. For example, his studies of ancient DNA from moas has provided a fascinating glimpse into this extinct part of avian evolutionary history, as well as important insights into the tempo and mode of moa evolution. Lately, his work has made fundamental contributions to our understanding of rates of avian molecular evolution.

Baker is co-chair of the All Birds Barcoding Initiative (ABBI) steering committee, which aims to identify the >10,000 species of birds in the world with unique DNA sequences from the COI gene. Another major research theme focuses on reconstructing the avian tree of life with molecular markers and then mapping other biological characters such as life history, behavior, geographic distribution, and ecology on the tree to understand their
evolution. Apart from studying how biodiversity has evolved, Baker is very active in conservation of migratory shorebirds, which are declining around the world. In another landmark paper, he demonstrated that the rapid population decline in Red Knots (Calidris canutus) was caused by overfishing of horseshoe crabs and their eggs in Delaware Bay, thereby preventing most birds from refueling properly and lowering their annual survival in the Arctic breeding grounds. Along with Professor Theunis Piersma, Baker is cofounder of the Global Flyway Network, which provides an early-warning service for identifying migratory shorebirds at risk.

Throughout his career, Baker's many publications have been aimed at general audiences and have resulted in fundamental contributions to our knowledge of the evolution of birds at multiple taxonomic tiers and of evolutionary processes in general. For his outstanding and influential work in avian molecular evolution, the AOU presents Allan J. Baker with the William Brewster Memorial Award for 2007.

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From the Toronto Star, 25 Nov 2014:

 

ALLAN JOHN BAKER "Ka hinga te tõtara o te wao ñui o Tãne." - A mighty tõtara tree has fallen. Encircled by family and friends, on November 20, 2014 at the age of 71. Hugely missed by beloved wife of 44 years Susan, proud and loving sons Daniel and Benjamin, adoring daughters-in-law Jenny and Jean-Marie and little buddy Jordan. Survived by a legacy of work, by his collaboration with his many mates and colleagues in the scientific community around the world and by his encouragement of the multitude of students he was privileged to influence in over 40 years at the Royal Ontario Museum and the University of Toronto. We will dearly miss his great mind, his silly and mischievous sense of humour and the hugeness of his heart, which had room for so many. We are all heartbroken. Donations invited to the Allan Baker Fund at the Royal Ontario Museum, which is being set up in his honour, or The International Conservation Fund of Canada (http//icfcanada.org). Donations will be used to support research in the field to which he devoted so much passion. Life to be celebrated on Tuesday, December 2nd at 2:00 p.m. in Bronfman Hall at the Royal Ontario Museum. All are welcome to help us remember our mighty tõtara.
 
Published in the Toronto Star on Nov. 25, 2014

- See more at: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/thestar/obituary.aspx?n=allan-john-baker&pid=173274666#sthash.oJva6Iiq.dpuf

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