Following Sirenia’s Song: The Meritorious Journey of Research Zoologist Thomas J. O’Shea

What has culminated in this lifetime award began very early in his life,

"…as far back as I can remember. I started out like a lot of kids, catching frogs and snakes, being interested in sneaking up on mammals and watching them. As a teen I had vague interests in wildlife and careers where you’d spend a lot of time working outdoors. I was pretty lucky in that I got a volunteer position my first 2 years in college as a field assistant working on bighorn sheep in Yellowstone National Park with Al Woolf. So I got a real intense indoctrination in working on mammals from him. Then, when I was a junior in college [at Colorado State University], I took mammalogy from the late Professor Robert Lechleitner. After taking that class and having worked on the bighorn sheep project, I decided to become a mammalogist."

And so, throughout a 32-year Federal career and more than 130 scientific publications, Dr. O’Shea has made seminal contributions to mammalian ecology and conservation. In particular, he has made significant advances in the ecology of marine mammals—especially manatees and dugongs (Order Sirenia)—and, at the other end of the mammalian size spectrum, bats.

Marine Mammals and Manatees

As a leader of Federal manatee research, Dr. O’Shea was the first to study levels of contaminants in manatee tissues, later addressing relationships between ocean pollutants and environmental health in other marine mammals. Research with colleagues in Florida provided new and critical information on endangered manatees that led to a better understanding of their reproduction, early-age survival, mortality, population dynamics, demographics, behavior, and interactions with humans.

In 1979, when Dr. O’Shea was tapped to join the USGS Sirenia Project (then under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), endangered manatees were being found dead in increasing numbers. Little was known about details and causes of death, and there was only a limited understanding of manatee ecology and behavior to aid in interpreting the significance of this mortality.

Through their studies, Dr. O’Shea and his colleagues in Florida were the first to identify red tide (caused by deadly blooms of microscopic marine algae calledKarenia brevis) as a causative factor in these mortalities. His meticulous record-keeping and data archiving was at the root of this discovery. Robert K. (Bob) Bonde, who with his wife Cathy A. Beck worked on the Sirenia Project under Dr. O’Shea, tells the story:

"We spent many a day on the back of a salvage trailer doing necropsies on dead manatees. Red tide turned out to be a significant cause of death, but back in the early 1980s we made the case by association—it was circumstantial evidence then. Through his pioneering investigation, Tom had carefully documented that red tide is toxic to air-breathing mammals, but doubts persisted. Then about 10 years later, examination of Tom’s records showed veterinarians working with sick manatees what to look for, and sure enough, they detected high levels of the red tide neurotoxin in the tissues. This proved that Tom’s original hypothesis was correct, that they were in fact dealing with red tide as a cause of mass deaths in manatees."

Dr. O’Shea, who has authored or co-authored over 65 publications on marine mammals, was an invited contributor to Future Directions in Marine Mammal Research, a special report requested by Congress. He co-edited a Journal of Mammalogy special feature on large-scale ecosystem change and the conservation of marine mammals, in part looking at their role as sentinels of environmental change. He also was a co-editor of the book Toxicology of Marine Mammals and a contributor to the book Biology of Marine Mammals, a two-volume set that serves as a basic reference on all aspects of marine mammalogy, both for professionals in the field and as a text for advanced undergraduate and graduate-level university courses.

Twenty years after leading the Sirenia Project, he is still considered a world expert on manatees and dugongs (the Eastern Hemisphere version of manatees); Dr. O’Shea recently delivered the keynote address at the 2009 International Sirenian Conservation Conference in Atlanta, Ga. He gave a broad overview of knowledge gained over the past 15 years on the biology of these species, which occur in waters of over 75 countries on 5 continents. As he is so well able to do, he tied together an evaluation of recent advances in assessing the evolutionary history of the Order Sirenia and that history’s relevance to their future.

Dr. O’Shea’s collaborative work coupling individually focused life-history observations with state-of-the-art quantitative techniques for assessing manatee population status and trends remains vital to Federal, State, and international efforts to monitor and manage endangered marine mammals. Bob Bonde remembers,

"Tom helped us think about how we approach problems. Rather than coming from the right or the left, he taught us to approach a problem straight on so we can see both sides of an issue … and he trained us not to deviate from that. Not only that, he taught us also to try to understand the organism, literally get inside its head in order to figure out what makes it tick. Once we did that, it gave us intuition that helped us figure out why an animal was doing what it was doing. We better appreciated the circumstances of their everyday survival and the problems and threats that confront them."

Dr. Tom O'Shea
Dr. Tom O'Shea
[Dr.] Tom [O’Shea] is a remarkable man and an amazing scientist. He always stays focused and he was always prepared for the next question at hand, well before other scientists or managers even thought to ask them. Whichever project we were working on or new idea we came up with, in most cases, examination of Tom’s data illustrated that he had already anticipated that issue. We were so pleased to have him here, he is so intuitive about manatee biology and quality research. He definitely benefitted the Sirenia Project and helped mold the way we work by the way we think and approach those delicate issues confronting manatees. That is his legacy and his gift to us today.
—Robert K. Bonde
USGS Sirenia Project


In addition to his marine mammal expertise, Dr. O’Shea has made significant contributions to what we know about bat ecology. He has contributed to the understanding of habitat needs, reproduction, survival, mortality, hibernation, population dynamics, and demographics; participated in the development of new tools and techniques to inventory and monitor bat populations; and increased understanding of disease transmission in bats and the potential effects of such processes on humans.

Nearly half of the 45 U.S. bat species are of conservation concern to the Federal government. They are an ecologically important group of mammals, yet ongoing population declines are poorly understood. So Dr. O’Shea undertook an ambitious agenda to overcome this deficit by synthesizing existing information on the status of bat populations in the United States and territories, including monitoring recommendations. He is also working with USGS colleagues to complete a special volume that includes a synthesis of information on those species of bats considered to be of concern to Federal resource managers, including information on ecological requirements, conservation status, population dynamics and trends, distribution maps, and management practices and concerns. Fellow bat biologist Mike Bogan (USGS, ret.) has this to say about Dr. O’Shea’s considerable contributions:

"He takes his science very seriously and thinks carefully about what he is doing or wants to do. I think he’s about as meticulous as they come in terms of data collection. And Tom has this overwhelming sense of obligation to get his research published, so that people can benefit from and use his results. It’s not about him but about building the knowledge base and making what he learns available to others."

Bats are an important source of emerging infectious diseases, and Dr. O’Shea’s disease research conducted in collaboration with an interdisciplinary team led to the discovery that bats exposed to rabies can recover and develop immunity to future infection, as well as the discovery of the first coronaviruses in New World bats. The pioneering work on the dynamics of rabies transmission was conducted in collaboration with Colorado State University, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Science Foundation. Results of this collaboration include a new model for pathways, rates, and patterns of virus transmission in bats based on both bat population dynamics and the biology of the virus. This information will aid public health agencies with surveillance and control responsibilities in understanding the dynamics of rabies infections in bat populations that live in close proximity with humans in cities and towns.


Dr. O’Shea has also taken several turns at research management, first as leader of the Sirenia Project (1985–1992), later as the Assistant Director of what is now the USGS Fort Collins Science Center (FORT; 1992–1996), and then as Chief of the Southwestern Ecosystems Section at FORT (1996–2001). In his first job as a zoologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (now USGS) Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, he worked under the directorship of Dr. Lucille Stickel. She had spent her career as a wildlife biologist, became an expert, and then ran the center in a way that nurtured and augmented science productivity. This made a lasting impression on Dr. O’Shea, who considers aspects of her management style as a model. Bob Bonde recalls this in his boss:

"Tom has a science career that any one of us would be happy to have. He’s an incredible scientist—he has stood out as being a senior scientist from the very beginning. But he was also a great supervisor: he made you feel at home and part of a team, and at the same time kept you focused. What Tom brought to whatever job he had was his own science background and enthusiasm for science, and I think that rubs off on the people you’re supervising."

Personal and Professional Legacy

Throughout his career, the exemplary quality of his work has earned Dr. O’Shea the respect of his colleagues nationally and internationally. More importantly, it reflects his profound, lifelong dedication to building the knowledge base on mammal ecology and natural history. Through his significant contributions to Federal science, to basic biological knowledge of two taxonomic orders of mammals, and to the scientists he supervised and worked with, Dr. O’Shea’s recognition through the DOI Meritorious Service Award is well earned. As Cathy Beck of the Sirenia Project puts it,

"Tom never expected anyone to do anything he wouldn't do, but I can't recall anything he wouldn't do! I feel privileged to have worked with him, as I learned so much from him; he has a knack for open-minded observation. He led by example and had high expectations, and was always able to bring out the best in all of us. I can’t think of a more fitting person to receive this distinguished award."

1ASRC Management Services, under contract to the U.S. Geological Survey, Fort Collins Science Center.

2Contributors: P.D. Stevens, R.K. Bonde, M.A. Bogan, C.A. Beck, and T.J. O’Shea.

A mammologist of many hats...