MISSOULA – Douglas Emlen, a Regents Professor of Evolutionary Biology, got quite the surprise Tuesday at the University of Montana.

Dr. Emlen, a noted researcher and author, was teaching his Genetics and Evolution class to 200 students in Urey Lecture Hall. They were learning about cancer – not the most uplifting subject – when he was interrupted. His colleague Rich Bridges, another distinguished UM Regents Professor, appeared and marched boldly to the front of the class, handing Emlen a cell phone.

The esteemed scientist on the line (David Hillis of the University of Texas at Austin) informed Emlen he had been selected for induction into the National Academy of Sciences. Emlen becomes only the second person ever chosen for the honor from UM and only the fifth from Montana.

A stunned Emlen forgot to shut off his microphone, so the entire class of students learned the news at the same moment as him. They broke into several rounds of applause and cheers.

“I’m still having a hard time processing it,” Emlen said. “It’s an incredible honor, and I can’t help feeling there are so many others who are more worthy. It was a bit hard to concentrate on my class after receiving that news.

“This honor comes with a great deal of responsibility – to help inform our government and policymakers, and to be an active ambassador for science,” he said. “I love that the National Academy is a real champion for science, and I’m excited to become a part of that.”

The NAS is a private, nonprofit institution that was first established under a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It recognizes achievements in science by election to membership, and – with the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine – provides science, engineering and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.

UM’s other NAS member is Jim Elser, director of UM’s Flathead Lake Biological Station, who was elected to the prestigious group in 2019.

“This is an incredible honor for Doug and well deserved,” said Scott Whittenburg, UM vice president for research and creative scholarship. “Membership in the National Academy for many disciplines is only surpassed by a Nobel Prize. For UM to have two active members in the NAS speaks to the world-class research being conducted by our faculty.”

The son of a scientist, Emlen earned his doctorate from Princeton University in 1994 and was a postdoctoral researcher at Duke University before joining the UM faculty in 1994.

Emlen’s research has focused on why certain animal species get into evolutionary arms races that result in massive weaponry, like the (relatively) huge horns of many beetles, the antlers of elk, the claws of fiddler crabs or the teeth of saber-toothed tigers.

With one of his first study species, dung beetles, Emlen learned that weaponry like bigger horns usually provide the most access to females, as big-horned males guard tunnels to their mates. Bigger horns usually win beetle battles. However, evolving massive horns eats up resources, and some smaller, faster males of the same species will forgo this cost altogether to reach females via side tunnels and pass on their genes. So bigger is usually better, but evolution makes exceptions.

In 2020, Emlen was named a Regents Professor, the highest professor rank in the Montana University System. In 2016, he became the first researcher from any Montana institution to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He earned a Presidential Early Career Award in 2002, the E.O. Wilson Naturalist Award in 2013 and UM’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 2014. He was named the Montana Professor of the Year in 2015 from the Carnegie Foundation and Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

Emlen also is an accomplished author. His 2015 book “Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle” earned the Phi Beta Kappa science book of the year in 2015. The textbook he coauthored, “Evolution: Making Sense of Life,” is used by more than 250 universities and colleges and is in its third edition. He also wrote a book for middle school readers, “Beetle Battles: One Scientist’s Journey of Adventure and Discovery,” which was released in 2019.

Additionally, a national organization recently ranked Emlen’s ecology and evolution courses among the top 25 programs globally, above such universities as Arizona State, Yale, Harvard and Princeton.

Six years ago, NOVA and Britain’s BBC partnered to create a documentary about Emlen’s work titled “Nature’s Wildest Weapons: Horns, Tusks and Antlers.” It includes a memorable scene where the horse Emlen is riding near Flathead Lake is bluff-charged by an elk. His research also has been in featured in outlets such as The New York Times, National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” and “Science Friday,” “SciShow” on YouTube and “MeatEater.”

Emlen even has lectured for the U.S. military, which is interested in how naturally occurring arms races in the animal world can shed light on the escalation of human weapon systems, like Minuteman nuclear missiles.

The professor has been published in major scientific journals. Twenty of his articles have been cited over 100 times, and his top eight have been cited more than 300 times, signaling a body of work that is broadly respected and has far-reaching influence around the globe.

- by UM News Service -

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