Remembering Jim Murray

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

James J. Murray Jr., “Ecological Geneticist, Conservationist, Wilderness Hero”

James J. Murray Jr., Emeritus Professor of Biology, passed away on September 5, 2023. Jim was a cherished colleague who had outsized and lasting influences on the Department of Biology as well the natural environment of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Jim was born in Lexington, Virginia, in 1930, and was the son of the founder of the Virginia Society of Ornithology. He explored the Shenandoah mountains throughout his youth. After attending Davidson College, Jim was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and then served in the US Army. He taught for two years at Washington and Lee before returning to Oxford for his Ph.D. It was at Oxford where Jim met his spouse and lifelong partner, Bess Murray (they were lab partners). Jim joined the Biology Department at the University of Virginia in 1962.

Through his career, Jim Murray served as Department Chair, Director of Mountain Lake Biological Station, and long-time chair of the University’s Landscape and Arboretum Committee. Jim served as President of the Virginia Academy of Sciences and a board member of the Virginia Museum of Natural History. Above all, Jim was a naturalist and a conservationist with an abiding love for the natural world. Inspired by John Muir, Jim cherished “the idea of solitude, of getting away from civilization and being by oneself in the natural world”. He was a steward of species and populations and wilderness prevention for his entire life.

As a scientist, Jim Murray was an ecological geneticist, that is, someone who investigates the interplay between genetic variation and the forces in the natural world that affect the evolution of organisms. His Ph. D. and early research was on Cepaea nemoralis, a European land snail with conspicuous variation in shell coloration and banding patterns. In the pre-DNA days, the importance of this variation was that genetic variation could be studied in natural populations. Jim did extensive crosses to help work out the genetic basis of these patterns and marked hundreds of snails to confirm that natural selection through differential predation by birds rather than migration from other populations was causing changes in the color and banding patterns of the snails. Subsequently Jim studied populations of the same species of snail that had been introduced    to the US, including his hometown of Lexington, Virginia. Jim delighted in showing us how to find them and care for them as unassuming pets.

With a strong interest in the causes of speciation, Jim next studied snails in the genus Partula; it was a natural choice and a very promising study system. Partula, too, had elaborate banding patterns amenable to genetic studies, and several were native to the island of Moorea. Moorea is a breathtaking gem in French Polynesia, known for its stunning beauty, pristine lagoons and beaches, and lush, jagged mountains teeming with land snails for a rangy mountaineering Virginian to explore. The Partula system was perfect; at least 10 species had originated on the island from a single colonization event, and the species had different histories and ecologies that touched on many important aspects of evolutionary biology. Jim was one of the first to provide evidence that natural selection could promote speciation directly; in one location where two different species came into contact, one of the species had been selected to change its coiling direction to avoid inter-crossing with the other species. Jim and his students were also early adopters of the genetic methods of the 70s and 80s, where differences in protein movement across electric gradients were used to identify genes, and his lab were among the first to show that the nuclear genes and mitochondrial genes can migrate at different rates in nature.

The promise of the Partula system in evolution and ecology, however, was short-lived. A large African snail was introduced to Moorea as a gastronomic delicacy and potential industry. Populations exploded, damaged lettuce and other crops, so much so that residents would dump wheelbarrows full of the invasive delicacies into the sea. A carnivorous snail was then introduced as a biological control, and it too spread. But the carnivorous snail also fed on the native Partula. Jim Murray wrung his hands and watched and studied the rapid extinction of all the native Partula species, accurately predicting the timing of their extirpation in the late 1980s. Jim used to harbor one of the few remaining Partula colonies in his office and advised on their conservation (not entirely successful) at the London Zoo.  He taught students to feed them oat flakes and chalk while he was away to keep things going as long as he could. These experiences reinforced his passion to protect natural areas from human intervention. With the loss of Partula not only from the island but from the consciousness of biologists, Jim was not able to follow up on his early genetic work on speciation mechanisms. 

Jim Murray was a founding member and long-time president of the Virginia Wilderness Committee. Organized in 1969, the Virginia Wilderness Committee has been the principal voice of wilderness advocacy in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It has been the architect and supporter of seven Acts of Congress designating 24 Wilderness Areas totaling ~220,000 acres, plus an additional three National Scenic Areas.

The success of the committee came in fits and starts, depending on whether sympathetic legislators had been elected, but the committee was persistent and diplomatic. Jim helped manage the various stakeholders with aplomb, such as reaching out to mountain bikers and hunters who wanted access to some of the wilderness areas. Compromise prevailed and adversaries became advocates. In this way, the Virginia Wilderness Committee was instrumental in the assembly and passage of every important piece of wilderness legislation in the Commonwealth of Virginia. In 2007, the Pew Charitable Trust proclaimed Jim and Bess Murray “Wilderness Heroes” for their decades of work protecting the state of Virginia’s special wild places.

Jim Murray was also a principled and persistent advocate at a local level. For many years and with minimal support, Jim directed what was then a dilapidated Mountain Lake Biological Station. At one point when representatives from Facilities Management were touring the station, Jim pointed to raw sewage leaking out of a broken clay pipe from the 1920s. When someone suggested it was water, Jim proclaimed that he would happily stop complaining if they would just agree to drink it! Jim was the steward of the Biology Station and the entire field of evolutionary biology at the University of Virginia for many years, and the fact that they are now both thriving is a major part of his enduring legacy.

Jim Murray was also the leader in initiating the Southeastern Ecological Genetics Group in 1973, which has met annually ever since. This group was designed not only to promote interactions among scientists from regional universities interested in evolution in natural systems, but to also encourage and stimulate the participation of undergraduate and graduate students by providing an informal atmosphere and accommodation at field stations rather than formal and more expensive hotels. The Group’s recent celebration of its 50th anniversary was at Mountain Lake Biological Station and attended by over 90 scientists (including many undergraduates) from nearly 30 institutions representing the southeastern states and beyond. It was also an opportunity to honor Jim’s legacy in talks and reminiscences.    

Jim’s tact and determination were on full display if you walked with him across grounds when he chaired the Landscape and Arboretum Committee. In those days, student groups would staple announcements to the trees, which was damaging and unsightly. As he walked, Jim would carefully remove the paper and the staples and put them in his pocket. When he returned to his office, he would each time phone every one of those groups with a stern message. Eventually their practices changed.

Similarly, one of Jim’s impressive achievements was to persuade the Virginia Department of Transportation to include an underpass/tunnel when they widened the road to the Bentivar housing development, near his home. This was so the endangered tiger salamanders could migrate to their seasonal breeding areas without being squashed, en masse, by increased traffic. Jim had a knack of being able to use gentlemanly persuasion and persistence to get people to do things that some of us would have thought impossible.

There is a pattern; Jim Murray himself ascribed his legislative success to “patience and toughness”. He was principled and persistent. He and his wife Bess were unfailingly polite and reserved, the epitome of propriety. They would hold court at their home, the historic Bentivar farm, with whippets and Guinea hens wandering the grounds. His friends and colleagues will miss those days, his wisdom, and his principled effectiveness.

Though insufficient, with this memorial resolution, we pay tribute to the memory of this beloved and valued member of our community.

Doug Taylor, Chair
Department of Biology