Charles Herbert Lowe, Jr.,
Noted Desert Ecologist, Herpetologist, and Professor,
Dr. Charles H. Lowe, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, who arrived at the University of Arizona in 1950 and retired in 1995, died Friday night, September 13, 2002, after a period of declining health.
Dr. Lowe was an intense and colorful character who for many years was the leading naturalist and ecologist of the Southwest. In 1964 he published “The Vertebrates of Arizona”, a landmark book that also included his detailed descriptions of all of Arizona’s natural environments. For many years he taught a very popular and well-regarded course on the natural history of the Southwest at the University of Arizona. During the 1960’s, he and his students, especially John Wright, Jay Cole, and Bob Bezy resolved the most difficult problem in North American herpetology (the study of amphibians and reptiles) by showing that many of our whiptail lizard species were in fact of hybrid origin, and were all-female species, reproducing without males (in a clone-like fashion). Although a herpetologist at heart, his ecological interests were exceedingly broad. From 1969-1983, with National Park Service Naturalist Scotty Steenbergh, he published a key series of books and papers on the natural history, population decline, and physiology of the saguaro cactus in the Tucson area and elsewhere in the Sonoran Desert, and in 1980 he co-authored (with David E. Brown) the still-authoritative map of the Biotic Communities of the Southwest. In 1986 he published “The Venomous Reptiles of Arizona” with Cecil Schwalbe and Terry Johnson. His students have gone on to successful positions as major museum curators from coast to coast, as professors, and as key conservation professionals in Arizona.
Born in Los Angeles, California, on April 16, 1920, the young Charles quickly developed a love of the desert, and especially of reptiles and amphibians. Highly competitive, he went to UCLA with a basketball scholarship, where he nonetheless pursued his desire to become a professional herpetologist. After graduating from college, he served in World War II as a U.S. Navy Ensign, Lt. (jg) in the Pacific, resuming study at UCLA in 1946. In 1950, with new Ph.D. in hand, he immediately departed for Arizona and the uncharted ecological realms of the Sonoran Desert region. During his graduate studies he also worked as an ecological consultant at Ground Zero in White Sands with two of his great lifetime collaborators, Kenneth Norris and Richard Zweifel. For most of his life, Lowe had a superb mastery of the scientific literature, and he and several students, including Wallace Heath, David Hinds, and Annette Halpern, performed a fascinating series of laboratory experiments on the ecology and physiology of diverse animals ranging from fish to lizards to roadrunners and jackrabbits. For example, their determination that the desert pupfish can tolerate temperatures up to 112 degrees Fahrenheit remains the known benchmark for fish; they also demonstrated the pupfish’s remarkable ability to tolerate low oxygen levels. Although he was strong in the library and laboratory, it was his dedication to direct learning and exploration in the field that became his trademark and an example successfully followed by many students.
Dr. Lowe flew with backcountry pilot Ike Russell to the unknown reaches of Sonora and the islands in the Sea of Cortez, and explored even more widely on the ground, inspiring generations of “desert rats”. He and his wife Arlene chaperoned ecologists, movie stars, and journalists through the natural and cultural history of the Sonoran Desert. He built one of the world’s largest and most representative collections of Southwestern amphibian and reptile specimens, discovered and described no less than 20 new species and subspecies, and published over 136 scientific articles and books (at last count). He had a widely-known ego to match, and in later years expressed many varied regrets for having allowed it to roam all-too-freely. He suffered with the decline of the desert, and, in the past two decades, struggled with declining health and a house fire that destroyed invaluable materials and research in progress. In these decades he also enjoyed a much-mellowed autumn with his children and grandchildren, precious nurse Rosalie Peralta, his assistant George Bradley, and his students, including work with Philip Rosen on ecological monitoring in the National Parks system, and with Daniel Beck and Brent Martin on Gila monsters and beaded lizards. While he could be aggressive and was not particularly tolerant, his drive to learn and achieve brought him great success and led to wide renown as a researcher. Matching this was his enjoyment of teaching, as well as the many stories about him that made him much larger than life. Yet larger still were his thoughtfulness, generosity, and his depth of feeling for nature and for those working with him.
Dr. Lowe was husband of the late Arlene Patten Lowe, and is survived by his loving son Charles A. (Cal) of Tucson, and daughter Catherine Anne and grandchildren Griffen Kathleen (9) and Michael Ryan (12) of Los Angeles. A small service for family and close friends will be held on September 29. A larger public memorial will be held in October at a site and date to be determined. Those desiring to be placed on the contact list for the memorial can contact Phil Rosen or George Bradley (520-621-3187; firstname.lastname@example.org), Cecil Schwalbe (email@example.com, 520-571-9550 phone/fax), or family members. Donations in his memory may be made to the Charles H. Lowe, Jr., Herpetology Research Fund at the Tucson Herpetological Society, P.O. Box 709, Tucson, AZ 85702-0709, or to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.