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Margaret B. Davis

A Regents Professor of Ecology and first woman at the University of Minnesota elected to the National Academy of Sciences, Davis studied fossil records of pollen to understand the environmental history of the Earth.

Margaret B. Davis earned her place in science by using paleoecology – the study of fossil records – to understand how historic environmental changes such as the last glacial period directed the movement of plant and animal communities to areas that offered more favorable conditions. She was professor of ecology, evolution and behavior in the College of Biological Sciences from 1976 until her retirement in 2002.

Davis’s work challenged the prevailing scientific idea that plant and animal communities tend to be stable, moving intact to new locations as the climate changes. By analyzing pollen from ancient plants, in particular trees, she reconstructed forests and other past communities and showed how they changed in response to variations in climate or other environmental influences. She found that associations between plants and animals are more fluid than once believed, and that ecosystems change continuously. By the 1980s, the scientific community had recognized the value of her methods in understanding how ecosystems respond to environmental change, and in assessing the role of humans in the process.

“These methods allow us a new approach to some long-standing environmental questions,” Davis said. “We can begin to distinguish between the impacts of humans and the natural process of change that has always occurred. For example, we can examine the response of ecosystems to past climate change and use our findings to predict responses to future climatic warming.”

Born in 1931, Davis received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from Radcliffe College and Harvard University respectively. She was a Fulbright scholar at the Danish Geological Survey from 1953 to 1954 and taught at the University of Michigan, the University of Washington and Yale University before joining the University of Minnesota’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior in 1976. Elected to the National Academy of Sciences since 1982, she was president of the American Quaternary Association from 1978 to 1980 and president of the Ecological Society of America from 1987 to 1988. Other honors include the Nevada Medal from the Desert Research Institute and recognition from National Women’s History Month for championing women’s rights in the academic profession.

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