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Bradley Livezey, 1954 - 2011

Fern Davies

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BRADLEY LIVEZEY died in a car accident February 2011. He was curator of Birds at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His research focused on flightless birds and on using genetic analysis to study the evolution of birds, among other things. A seminal paper he authored in 1986 led to classifications of birds adopted by many field guides and books on waterfowl.

Carnegie Museum of Natural History Grieves the Loss of Brad Livezey

The first thing most of his friends and colleagues mention is that Brad Livezey loved birds.

The renowned ornithologist died on the morning of February 8, 2011, in a two-car collision caused by icy road conditions near his home in Wexford, PA. He was 56 years old.

Brad Livezey grew up mostly in Chicago and had already expressed an interest in birds at a young age. He completed two Masters’ degrees—one in wildlife ecology, one in mathematics—and earned his Doctorate at the University of Kansas in 1985. He came to Carnegie Museum of Natural History in 1993 as Associate Curator of Birds, and was awarded full curatorship in 2001. During that time, he served as the museum’s first Dean of Science. Sam Taylor, former director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History, stated, “Brad’s intellectual capacity was profound. In his role as first Dean of Science, he set standards for scholarship and curatorial review that are still employed today.”

Brad’s contributions to the science of birds already border on legend. He was generally considered to be the world authority on the osteology—the study of skeletons—of birds. Perhaps his greatest legacy is the Higher-Order Phylogeny of Modern Birds, co-authored over the course of ten years with associate Richard Zusi of the Smithsonian Institution. This research opus analyzes more than 2,700 bird “characters”—traits such as beak shape, relative wing proportions, and feather characteristics—to create the most comprehensive bird classification scheme known to science. Brad was also one of the first researchers to embrace the concept that birds shared their evolutionary lineage with dinosaurs.

Brad was an expert in systematics, the study of the diversification of life and the relationships among living things past and present. His research focused on the subdisciplines of phylogeny, the study of how groups of organisms are evolutionarily related, and morphology, the study of the form and structure of organisms.

He was one of the top experts on the topic of waterfowl, generating seminal research on flightless species beginning with his 1986 publication on steamer-ducks. In a statement, Zhe-Xi Luo, PhD, longtime friend and former curator at the museum, affirmed that Brad’s work on how so many birds lost their capacity for flight is one of the finest examples of using phylogeny to understand the pattern of evolution.

“Brad’s morphological studies on the relationships of all families of birds are all-encompassing and exhaustive in detail, and intellectually enriching. To me, Brad’s monographs on phylogenetic relationships of bird families are the best example of scholarship in morphological studies. But this is not just my view—Brad’s works are universally appreciated, and praised by his colleagues worldwide. His work is truly the most influential and profound work in bird systematics.”

Beyond his scientific accomplishments, Brad was known to be very private but fiercely loyal to his work and to his loved ones. His closest friends tended to be people he had known since high school, and he was devoted to his dog, Bailey, a rescued Corgi. Brad was also a serious photographer who declined to move into the digital era, opting instead to stay with the traditional film format.

When it came to birds, Brad was passionate about sharing information on his research and on ornithology in general. Stephen Rogers, collection manager of the department of birds which Brad helmed, teases that “there are 9,000 bird species, and Brad had an opinion on about 10,000 of them.” Brad’s encyclopedic knowledge of birds stemmed not only from interest in their evolutionary relationships, but from simple fascination with the beauty in their details, down to the tiniest feather. He was an avid birdwatcher, and enjoyed many birdwatching trips with his brother, Kent.

Brad’s love of all things avian led to various collaborations with Carnegie Museum of Art. He was enthusiastic when asked to lend his expertise to exhibitions such as 2011's The Art of Structure, for which he collaborated on displays revealing relationships between the forms of eggshells and modern, thin-shelled architectural structures. The Museum of Art’s Curator of Education Marilyn Russell praises Brad for “going way out of his way” to support the recent Fierce Friends exhibition showcasing animals in art. Brad was very serious about bringing science to the public—he recorded entries for the exhibition’s audio guide interpreting artworks from a scientific viewpoint, an interdisciplinary approach that greatly appealed to him.

At Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Brad worked closely with the team that created the film OvirapTour for the museum theater. OvirapTour detailed the evolution of Anzu wyliei currently being studied by Carnegie Museum scientists.

He was also a stickler for accuracy. Marilyn Niedermeier, an assistant to the museum’s bird banding program, laughed through her tears at the memory of how Brad’s colleagues would rib him with such witticisms as “dodo bird” (it’s really just “dodo”) and “seagulls” (it’s technically just “gulls,” some of which happen to live near the sea).

In the same vein, Brad was known to challenge colleagues to strive for the highest possible level of scholarship. John Wenzel, PhD, director of the museum's environmental research center Powdermill Nature Reserve and Brad’s friend of more than 30 years, says that Brad was his “favorite intellectual sparring partner....Most people don’t think at that level.” Brad’s brand of heated collegial give-and-take was sometimes intimidating but was always in the interest of furthering the research that he loved. John Wible, PhD, curator of mammals, says, “My own research on understanding the evolutionary implications of mammal skeletons owes a debt to the high standards of Brad’s research.”

Brad Livezey’s unfailing commitment to detail in both his life and his work led to his reputation as one of the best scientists in his—or any other—field. His legacy of scientific excellence, collegiality, and personality is indelibly etched upon this institution, and he will be deeply missed. As museum colleague John Rawlins, PhD, curator of invertebrate zoology, laments, “There is no one else like him in our era.”

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