Dr. Peter Marler, a distinguished UC Davis animal behaviorist whose pioneering research into the trills and whistles of birds influenced modern scientific understanding of learning and communication skills in animals, has died at 86.
The cause was pneumonia, said his wife, Judith. He died July 5 while his family was evacuated from his Winters home because of the nearby Monticello wildfire.
Dr. Marler, who was a UC Davis professor emeritus of neurobiology, physiology and behavior, was recognized worldwide as an expert on birdsong. His lifelong study of animal communication demonstrated how birds acquire vocalization and helped produce important insights into memory, learning and behavior in humans and wildlife.
“It wasn’t just birds, but also with primates, and he did some human cognition things,” UC Davis adjunct professor Marilyn Ramenofsky said. “He was a giant in the whole area of communication.”
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In the 1950s, using a sonic spectrograph that was developed for detecting submarines in World War II, Dr. Marler shed light on how birds communicate by calls and songs. His research at Cambridge University in England established that birds learn their songs from other birds, rather than instinctively – a rare example of cultural transmission of communication in animals, along with with humans and cetaceans.
His groundbreaking research continued at UC Berkeley, where he obtained his first full-time faculty position in 1957. He studied white-crowned sparrows that hop around the Bay Area to show that birds, like humans, develop regional dialects in their communication.
“Dialects are so well marked that if you really know your white-crowned sparrows, you’ll know where you are in California,” he told The Sacramento Bee in 1997.
Dr. Marler also studied communication in monkeys and apes at UC Berkeley, where he established the animal behavior program. On a sabbatical in Uganda, he worked with other researchers to record the vocal sounds of several species of forest monkeys and studied whether they responded to calls warning of an immediate threat – such as a leopard – reflexively or with rational thought.
In 1971, after having left Berkeley several years earlier to join Rockefeller University in New York, he worked with renowned primate expert Jane Goodall to document chimpanzee calls in Tanzania.
He was recruited in 1989 to UC Davis, where he taught courses in animal behavior and ornithology and helped establish the Center for Neuroscience. Upon retiring in 1994, he became a professor emeritus and continued to publish scientific articles and books.
In 2008, he was inducted as a foreign member into the Royal Society – the British equivalent of the National Academy of Sciences – which welcomed him as a member since 1971.
Peter Robert Marler was born Feb. 24, 1928, near London in Slough, England. He told the California Aggie newspaper at UC Davis in 2008 that he had enjoyed listening to birds since he was 8.
“They used to have a couple of pet birds that were allowed to fly free,” said his wife of almost 59 years. “Certainly when we were married, I was introduced to birds very early.”
Although he earned a doctorate in botany from University College London in 1952, Dr. Marler remained fascinated by birdcalls. He received a fellowship from Cambridge University to study with ethologist William Thorpe, who had just created a field station to study birdsong and had access to a sonic spectrograph, which visualized and recorded sound waves. He earned a second doctorate, in zoology, from Cambridge in 1954.
Widely regarded as a brilliant scientist – his Royal Society peers include Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking – Dr. Marler was also a generous mentor who encouraged young researchers, said Ramenofsky, a bird migration expert who did postdoctoral work with him early in her career.
“He opened his lab and research station to me and gave me wonderful opportunities,” she said. “Sometimes, people who get to those high places don’t offer a hand down the ladder – but Peter did.”
In addition to his wife, Dr. Marler is survived by a son, Christopher; two daughters, Catherine and Marianne; a brother, Colin; a sister, Pauline; and two grandchildren.
No funeral service is planned. A celebration of his life will be held at a later date.