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Storrs Olson preparing a specimen of Whistling Heron in Uruguay, 2002. Credit: Photo by Christina Gebhard, courtesy of Dr. Storrs Olson.
Storrs Olson preparing a specimen of Whistling Heron in Uruguay, 2002. Credit: Photo by Christina Gebhard, courtesy of Dr. Storrs Olson.

Storrs Olson, today Curator Emeritus in the Division of Birds, enjoyed a childhood fascination with fishes. The son of an oceanographer and the grandson of a well-known conservationist, he grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, and began collecting at an early age. At the age of twelve, however, he participated in a Christmas bird count and found his life-long passion.

He received his B.A. and M.A. from Florida State University. Early fieldwork in Panama brought him to the attention of Alexander Wetmore, who was then working on his monumental opus, The Birds of Panama. Olson later in his career was to assist in completing the final two volumes of Wetmore’s work, the last of which contains a gazetteer and a detailed bibliography of Panamanian ornithology.

Storrs Olson, ornithologist and resident manager of the Chesapeake Bay Center for Environmental Studies, today the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, studies a bird skull in the headquarters building in 1969. Credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Storrs Olson, ornithologist and resident manager of the Chesapeake Bay Center for Environmental Studies, today the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, studies a bird skull in the headquarters building in 1969. Credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives.

After a summer job at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) inventorying the skeleton collection in the Division of Fishes, Olson worked at the newly established Chesapeake Bay Center for Environmental Studies, a field station for the Museum located at Edgewater, Maryland, where the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center is today. He began further graduate studies at Johns Hopkins, and in 1970-71 undertook fieldwork on the remote islands of Ascension and Saint Helena. There he made major discoveries of fossil birds, such as the Giant Hoopoe and the Saint Helena Crake. He wrote his dissertation on the evolution of the rails (Rallidae, a large family of small to medium-sized ground-living birds) of the South Atlantic islands.

He became a curator in the Division of Birds in 1975. A year later he began his collaboration with fellow ornithologist, Helen James, conducting major field research on fossil birds in Hawai’i. They found and described the remains of forty extinct species of Hawaiian birds that were new to science. As his Washington Biologists Field Club biography states, “Their joint exposition of the diversity of the pre-human avifauna of the archipelago has been one of the milestones of systematic ornithology in the past century.” (Listen to the podcast at right to hear more about Olson and James' work.) In 1979, a previously unknown fossil group of giant, flightless penguin-like birds discovered and described by Olson and Yoshikazu Hasegawa, a colleague from Tokyo’s National Science Museum, was featured on the cover of Science magazine.

Storrs Olson after a rugged morning on Isla Juncal in the Rio de la Plata, Uruguay, on July 3, 2003, with a disused nest of a Solitary Cacique.  Credit: Photo by Christina Gebhard, courtesy of Dr. Storrs Olson.
Storrs Olson after a rugged morning on Isla Juncal in the Rio de la Plata, Uruguay, on July 3, 2003, with a disused nest of a Solitary Cacique. Credit: Photo by Christina Gebhard, courtesy of Dr. Storrs Olson.

In 1999 he penned an open letter to National Geographic, condemning an article about a new “missing link” in the dinosaur-to-bird transition and the problem generally of publishing new identifications in non-peer-reviewed journals. A subsequent investigation revealed that the fossil specimen in question, “Archaeoraptor,” which had been illegally exported from China, was actually a composite one. The controversy also drew attention to the illegal trade of fossils in China.

Over the course of his career, Olson has conducted field research in countries all over the world. A prolific investigator, he has published more than 400 papers, beginning with his first publication at age seventeen. Olson has also had a number of prehistoric bird species named after him, including Nycticorax olsoni, Himantopus olsoni, Puffinus olsoni, Primobuco olsoni, Gallirallus storrsolsoni, and Quercypodargus olsoni, as well as a living species of crab Cataleptodius olsoni and a genus and species of marine fish Storria olsoni.

LINKS

See the list of Storrs Olson’s publications.

In 2006, Olson donated his extensive library on bryophytes (mosses, liverworts, and hornworts), which he has maintained an interest in since his college days, to the University of Connecticut. The Storrs L. Olson Bryological Library opened in 2008.

Search the Smithsonian collections for specimens and artifacts connected to Storrs Olson.

Images

Storrs Olson descending a fumarole, or a vent in the earth’s surface, on Ascension Island in order to collect bones of an extinct flightless rail. Credit: Photo by Douglas Rogers, courtesy of Dr. Storrs Olson. Alexander Wetmore, sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, with Storrs L. Olson, Associate Curator, examining fossil bird bones from the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina, at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in 1976. Credit: Photo by Victor Krantz, image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Storrs Olson on his first Smithsonian research trip to Ascension Island, in 1971. Credit: Photo by Douglas Rogers, courtesy of Dr. Storrs Olson. Storrs Olson in Eleuthera, Bahamas, on September 26, 2006, in front of a gigantic boulder that was displaced and turned upside by a tremendous storm during the last interglacial period, ca. 120,000 years ago.  Credit: Photo by Paul Hearty, courtesy of Dr. Storrs Olson.
Storrs Olson collecting fossils in Bermuda, ca. 1981. The horizontal cave provided some of the best evidence ever recovered of a sea-level 21 meters above present about 400,000 years ago. Credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. Storrs Olson. Storrs Olson in a fossil collecting site, a lava tube in up-country Maui, Hawaii, as part of filming for a TV program, in 1988. Credit: Photo by Infinite Voyage, courtesy of Dr. Storrs Olson.
Storrs Olson in 1951, at age seven, with an early collection. Credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. Storrs Olson. Storrs Olson in Florida at the height of his interest in ichthyology, c. 1954. Credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. Storrs Olson.
Storrs Olson with the impression of a frond of a Bermuda palmetto that was buried in a massive storm deposit ca. 120,000 years ago. Credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. Storrs Olson. Storrs Olson, the recipient of the Smithsonian’s 2007 Distinguished Research award, together with Cristian Samper, the director of the Museum, prior to delivering his lecture, 2008. Credit: Photo by Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution.

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