Storrs L. Olson

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Storrs Lovejoy Olson (April 3, 1944 – January 20, 2021[1]) was an American biologist and ornithologist who spent his career at the Smithsonian Institution, retiring in 2008. One of the world's foremost avian paleontologists, he was best known for his studies of fossil and subfossil birds on islands such as Ascension, St. Helena and Hawaii. His early higher education took place at Florida State University in 1966, where he obtained a B.A. in Biology, and the University of Florida, where he received an M.S. in Biology. Olson's doctoral studies took place at Johns Hopkins University, in what was then the School of Hygiene and Public Health. He was married to fellow paleornithologist Helen F. James.

Storrs L. Olson
Born(1944-04-03)3 April 1944
Died20 January 2021(2021-01-20) (aged 76)
OccupationAvian paleontologist
(m. 1981; div. 2006)
Johanna Rose Humphrey
(m. 2016)

Early life and educationEdit

Olson was born April 4, 1944 in Chicago, Illinois. His father was physical oceanographer Franklyn C.W. Olson. He was named after his maternal conservationist grandfather P.S. Lovejoy.[2] Franklyn worked at the University of Ohio's Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island. In these lacustrine surroundings, Storrs developed an interest in fish.

In 1950, Olson's family moved to Tallahassee, Florida when Franklyn took a job at Florida State University. Young Olson's interests shifted to ornithology at age 12. Olson graduated from Leon High School in 1962. In 1963, he moved to Panama to assist a friend with his research on fish. He would return to Panama in 1966 as an undergraduate, to study the immunology of vultures.

His higher education began at the University of Florida under the colorful Pierce Brodkorb and spurred his interest in paleornithology. He returned to Florida State in 1968 to complete his master's degree.

Career and graduate educationEdit

Olson's work in Panama attracted the attention of Alexander Wetmore in 1967, as Wetmore was preparing a monograph on Panama bird life. Their contact at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH)—administered by the Smithsonian—earned Olson a summer job in the Fish and Wildlife Service under Richard C. Banks the next year.[2] He then became resident manager at the Smithsonian's new Chesapeake Bay Center in Edgewater, Maryland.

The Center had connections to Johns Hopkins University, and Olson was encouraged to enroll there for graduate school. He would matriculate at the School of Hygiene and Public Health in the Department of Pathobiology under Bernhard Bang. With the Smithsonian's backing, Olson went to Ascension Island and Saint Helena in 1970 and 1971, where he discovered the Saint Helena hoopoe and the Saint Helena crake.[3] This work was the basis of his dissertation on the evolution of rails. Johns Hopkins would award Olson an Sc. D. in 1972.

By August 1971 he was working at the NMNH on a predoctoral fellowship. He wrote on fossil rails for a 1977 monograph by Sidney Dillon Ripley. In March 1975, he was made curator of the Division of Birds.

In 1976 he met his future wife Helen F. James who later became another notable paleornithologist herself, focusing on Late Quaternary prehistoric birds.[4] During their pioneering research work on Hawaii, which lasted 23 years, Olson and James found and described the remains of 50 extinct bird species new to science, including the nēnē-nui, the moa-nalos, the apteribises, and the Grallistrix "stilt-owls".[5] He was also one of the authors of the description of the extinct rodent Noronhomys vespuccii.[6] In 1982, he discovered subfossil bones of the long ignored Brace's emerald on the Bahamas, which gave evidence that this hummingbird is a valid and distinct species.[7]

In November 1999, Olson wrote an open letter to the National Geographic Society, in which he criticized Christopher P. Sloan's claims about the dinosaur-to-bird transition which referred to the fake species "Archaeoraptor".[8] In 2000, he helped to resolve the mystery of Necropsar leguati from the World Museum Liverpool, which turned out to be an albinistic specimen of the grey trembler.[9]

Personal lifeEdit

Olson was married to his long-time colleague Helen F. James from 1981 until their divorce in 2006.[10]


Olson has been decorated as one of the world's foremost paleornithologists.[11] He was also the 1994 recipient of the Loye and Alden Miller Research Award.[12] He was formerly curator of birds at the United States National Museum of Natural History; as of 2009, he held an emeritus position in the institution.[13]

Several prehistoric bird species have been named after Olson, including Nycticorax olsoni,[14] Himantopus olsoni,[15] Puffinus olsoni,[16] Primobucco olsoni,[17] Gallirallus storrsolsoni,[18] and Quercypodargus olsoni.[19] In addition, a sand stargazer fish, Storrsia olsoni has its binomial derived from and honouring Olson, who collected the type off Brazil.[20]


  1. ^ Obituary: Storrs Lovejoy Olson In: The Free-Lance Star on January 2021, 27. Retrieved 2021-01-27.
  2. ^ a b "Storrs Lojevoy Olson" (PDF). The Washington Biologists' Field Club: its members and its history (1900–2006). The Washington Biologists’ Field Club. 2007. pp. 217–218. ISBN 978-0-615-16259-1.
  3. ^ Olson, Storrs L. (1975). "Paleornithology of St Helena Island, south Atlantic Ocean" (PDF). Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology. 23.
  4. ^ "Helen F. James". National Museum of Natural History Smithsonian Institution. Archived from the original on 2011-06-05.
  5. ^ James, Helen F. & Olson, Storrs L. (1991). "Descriptions of thirty-two new species of birds from the Hawaiian Islands: Part I. Non-passeriformes". Ornithological Monographs. 45 (45): 42–47. doi:10.2307/40166794. JSTOR 40166794.
  6. ^ Carleton, M.D. & Olson, S.L. (1999). "Amerigo Vespucci and the rat of Fernando de Noronha: a new genus and species of Rodentia (Muridae, Sigmodontinae) from a volcanic island off Brazil's continental shelf". American Museum Novitates (3256): 1–59. hdl:2246/3097.
  7. ^ Graves, Gary R. & Olson, Storrs L. (1987). "Chlorostilbon bracei Lawrence, an extinct species of Hummingbird from New Providence Island, Bahamas". Auk. 104 (2): 296–302. doi:10.1093/auk/104.2.296.
  8. ^ Luis Sanz, José; Ortega, Francisco (16 February 2000). "El 'escándalo archaeoraptor'" [The Archaeoraptor scandal] (in Spanish). El País.
  9. ^ Olson, Storrs L.; Fleischer, Robert C.; Fisher, Clemency T. & Bermingham, Eldredge. "Expunging the 'Mascarene starling' Necropsar leguati: archives, morphology and molecules topple a myth". Bulletin of the British Ornithologists' Club. 125 (1): 31–42. hdl:10088/1564.
  10. ^ "Helen Frances James" (PDF). The Washington Biologists' Field Club: its members and its history (1900–2006). The Washington Biologists’ Field Club. 2007. pp. 167–168. ISBN 978-0-615-16259-1.
  11. ^ "Loye and Alden Miller Research Award Recipients – Storrs Olson". Archived from the original on August 14, 2007. Retrieved 2008-01-18.
  12. ^ "Loye and Alden Miller Research Award Recipients". Archived from the original on August 14, 2007. Retrieved 2008-01-18.. Cooper Ornithological Society
  13. ^ "Birds Staff, Division of Birds, NMNH". Retrieved 2009-12-11.
  14. ^ Bourne, W. R. P., Ashmole, N. P. & Simmons K. E. L. (2003). "A new subfossil night heron and a new genus for the extinct rail from Ascension Island, central tropical Atlantic Ocean" (PDF). Ardea. 91 (1): 45–51.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  15. ^ Bickart, K. J. (1990). "The birds of the late Miocene-early Pliocene Big Sandy Formation, Mohave County, Arizona". Ornithological Monographs. 44 (44): 1–72. doi:10.2307/40166673. JSTOR 40166673.
  16. ^ Rando, J. C.; Alcover, J. A. (2007). "Evidence for a second western Palaearctic seabird extinction during the last Millennium: The Lava Shearwater Puffinus olsoni". Ibis. 150: 188–192. doi:10.1111/j.1474-919X.2007.00741.x.
  17. ^ Feduccia, A. & Martin, L. D. (1976). "The Eocene zygodactyl birds of North America (Aves: Piciformes)". Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology. 27: 101–110.
  18. ^ Kirchman, Jeremy J. & Steadman, David W. (2006). "New Species of Rails (Aves: Rallidae) From an Archaeological Site on Huahine, Society Islands". Pacific Science. 60 (2): 281–298. doi:10.1353/psc.2006.0007. hdl:10125/22565. S2CID 85677509.
  19. ^ Mourer-Cliauviré, C. (1989). "Les Caprimulgiformes et les Coraciiformes de l'Éocène et de l'Oligocène des phosphorites du Quercy et description de deux genres nouveaux de Podargidae et Nyctibiidae" [Caprimulgiformes and Coraciiformes of the Eocene and Oligocene in phosphorites form Quercy and description of two new genera of Podargidae and Nyctibiidae]. Acta Congr. Int. Ornithol. (in French). 19: 2047–2055.
  20. ^ Christopher Scharpf; Kenneth J. Lazara (29 January 2019). "Order BLENNIIFORMES: Families TRIPTERYGIIDAE and DACTYLOSCOPIDAE". The ETYFish Project Fish Name Etymology Database. Christopher Scharpf and Kenneth J. Lazara. Retrieved 6 May 2019.

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