Lincoln Brower: A Life Well Spent

Remembering a ground-breaking monarch researcher, a passionate advocate for monarchs, and a beloved member of the conservation community.

I first met Lincoln Brower in 2002, when both of us were presenting at a conference. He was speaking about monarch butterflies and I was talking about the Xerces Society and insect conservation. Earlier, as a young student of ecology, I had known of Lincoln and his work from reading many of his papers. The most memorable was the 1967 study with the famous cover showing a blue jay throwing up after eating a monarch caterpillar. Monarch caterpillars feed on milkweeds, plants that contain chemicals called cardiac glycosides that the insects absorb. While the toxins do not harm the butterflies, they give monarchs a bitter taste that can cause vomiting in birds that feed on them.

Although the “barfing blue jay” cover had grabbed my attention, it was the substance of Lincoln’s work that really made me take notice. His early research on insect adaptive coloration led to collaborations with chemists and ecologists in exploring the chemical ecology of milkweeds, monarch butterflies, and bird predators. He authored or coauthored more than two hundred scientific papers.

Lincoln first began studying monarch butterflies as a graduate student at Yale in the 1950s. He maintained a focus on monarchs throughout his career in teaching and research, first at Amherst College, then at the University of Florida, and finally at Sweet Briar College, where he remained until his death. After the overwintering sites in Mexico were located in the mid-1970s, his attention shifted to understanding the monarch migration and then to protecting this remarkable phenomenon.

In addition to being a great scientist, Lincoln was also an ardent conservationist. As an idealistic graduate student, I had been talking at conferences about why scientists needed to speak out on conservation and policy issues and make sure that their scientific ideas and data were infused into the conservation debate. I had some teachers, though, who felt that scientists should not take positions and should try to be “neutral.” Lincoln was an example of a top-notch scientist who also felt it important to speak out about conservation issues—someone I very much looked up to even before I met him.

As one of the first scientists to advocate on behalf of monarchs, Lincoln pushed to end excessive logging at overwintering sites. In the 1980s he worked with community groups and nonprofit organizations in Mexico and with the Mexican government, to establish sanctuaries to protect the crucial Oyamel fir forests where the butterflies overwinter. This was also the time during which he became involved with the Xerces Society, joining founder Robert Michael Pyle in helping to guide the Society’s early monarch efforts. Lincoln was a staunch defender of the butterflies, never shy about speaking up if he felt that they were not being adequately protected, whether it was calling out the Mexican government for failing to prevent illegal logging in the sanctuaries, or railing against the large-scale use of “Roundup-ready” corn and soy in the United States, which, because of their role in the loss of milkweed in midwestern fields, are implicated in the precipitous decline in monarch populations.

Lincoln Brower’s advocacy for monarchs continued throughout his life. In 2014, he joined with the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Food Safety, and the Xerces Society in submitting a petition seeking federal protection for the butterfly. We do not yet know whether monarchs will receive federal protection, but the petition has resulted in an unprecedented effort to conserve them.

I was a little nervous when I met Lincoln all those years ago. I need not have been, as he was an incredibly nice and generous person. These are the qualities that I will remember most. Here was a man who did so much, but who in person was just very selfless and down to earth.

We at Xerces are all saddened by Lincoln’s passing, and many staff and colleagues have been sending emails expressing what he meant to them. This message from Sarina Jepsen, director of our endangered species program, sums it up well: “I have had the good fortune of working with Lincoln on monarch conservation and meeting him in person on a few occasions. In addition to being an amazing—even legendary—scientist and a passionate advocate for monarchs, I found him to be genuine, approachable, and not at all pretentious. He will be missed.”

Written by Scott Hoffman Black, Xerces Society Executive Director.

Lincoln Brower

Photo courtesy of Linda Fink.

This piece appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of Xerces’ biannual publication WingsClick to view the full Fall 2018 issue.

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