John W. Marr, Observing Colorado Ecosystems

Dr. John W. Marr. Photo courtesy Colorado Native Plant Society and Ruby Marr.

John W. Marr 1914-1989
Through his teaching and research at the University of Colorado, Boulder, John Marr introduced many students to the ecology of the Front Range of Colorado. In 1951, he founded the Mountain Research Station (today known as INSTAAR), which has introduced hundreds more students—as well as researchers from around the planet—to Niwot Ridge, now a designated LTER, as well as to montane and alpine ecology. Many others were introduced to Rocky Mountain ecology through his monograph, Ecosystems of the East Slope of the Front Range of Colorado, published in 1961. Dr. Marr served as director of INSTAAR from 1951 to 1967.
Biography at University of Colorado, Boulder
In 1994, the John W. Marr Memorial Ecology Fund was established to assist PhD students with small grants for field research in plant ecology in the Rocky Mountains or the Arctic. The fund is administered through the University by a committee composed, in part, of former students. Each year, promising students at selected universities in the Rocky Mountain West are partially supported by this fund; to date more than 50 students have benefited from these small grants.
In honor of Dr. Marr, the Colorado Native Plant Society established the Marr Fund, which provides small grants to support research on the biology of Colorado native plants and plant communities.

John Marr’s Legacy

Marr was a student of W.S. Cooper, receiving his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota in 1942. Among the generations of Colorado ecologists and naturalists he trained are:

  • David Buckner, consulting plant ecologist, ESCO Associates
  • Jane Bunin, ecologist, Natural Science Associates
  • David Cooper, wetlands ecologist, Colorado State University; author of Brooks Range Passage
  • John Emerick, Colorado State University (emeritus); author of Rocky Mountain National Park Natural History Handbook; co-author of From Grassland to Glacier
  • James A. Erdman, USGS scientist, author of Environment of Mesa Verde, Colorado
  • Joyce Gellhorn, author of Song of the Alpine: The Rocky Mountain Tundra Through the Seasons and co-author of White-tailed Ptarmigan: Ghosts of the Alpine Tundra.
  • Cornelia Mutel, Univ. of Iowa; author of From Grassland to Glacier: The Natural History of Colorado and the Surrounding Region and several books on Iowa ecology
  • Charles Olmsted, Jr., Univ. of Northern Colorado (emeritus)
  • Oakleigh Thorne, II, founder of Thorne Ecological Institute
  • Beatrice Willard, co-author of Land Above the Trees: A Guide to American Alpine Tundra with Ann Zwinger; first woman to serve on Council on Environmental Quality

On the occasion of Dr. Marr’s retirement in 1982, students and colleagues celebrated a festschrift in his honor. At this time, they also rededicated and named the John W. Marr Alpine Laboratory at the Colorado Mountain Research Station. The Alpine Laboratory was built in 1962 with funding Dr. Marr obtained.

Memories of John Marr’s teaching style

“I took a course in field biology that used a simple textbook entitled Reading the Landscape that thrust me on a completely new tack. In those days [1958] “ecology” was hardly a household word; few people knew what it meant… Degrees in ecology were limited to only a few universities, the University of Colorado being one. … Dr. Marr’s [course in] “General Plant Ecology” …[would] be pivotal. Marr’s approach was experiential; we never cracked a book for it seemed a month that early fall of 1958, but spent time out near Marshall Mesa observing and trying to interpret what we saw.
I still can see Dr. Marr with pipe in hand stepping slowly up the bouldery terrain. Thinking, observing.” —As told by Jim Erdman in 50th Anniversary of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), p 36-37.

[Dr. Marr] never had ongoing projects in which graduate students seeking thesis topics were merely inserted. Students searched out topics that they were most interested in and pursued them with help from Marr. He did this because he was deeply convinced that choosing a research area and subject should be a highly personal decision that would encourage the students to return to the study area and research topic throughout their lifetime. —Resolution of Respect, Cooper et al., 1990.

Key Publications by John Marr

Ecology of the Forest-Tundra Ecotone on the East Coast of Hudson Bay Ecological Monographs, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Jan., 1948), pp. 117-144
Ecosystems of the east slope of the Front Range in Colorado. Series in Biology 21. 144 pp.
The Development and Movement of Tree Islands Near the Upper Limit of Tree Growth in the Southern Rocky Mountains Ecology, Vol. 58, No. 5 (Sep., 1977), pp. 1159-1164
Effects of human activities on alpine tundra ecosystems in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado (with Beatrice E. Willard, Ph.D., Vice-President, Thorne Ecological Foundation)
Recovery of alpine tundra under protection after damage by human activities in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado (with Beatrice E. Willard, Ph.D., Vice-President, Thorne Ecological Foundation)
Persisting vegetation in an alpine recreation area in the southern Rocky Mountains, Colorado (with Beatrice E. Willard, Ph.D., Vice-President, Thorne Ecological Foundation).
Environment and phenology in the forest-tundra ecotone, Front Range, Colorado (summary) (with R.E. Marr) Arctic and Alpine Research, 1973.
Ecological modification of alpine tundra by pipeline construction (with DL Buckner, DL Johnson) IN The Proceedings of a Workshop on …, 1974.
Data on Mountain Environments III: Front Range, Colorado, Four Climax Regions, 1959-1964 1968. University of Colorado Press.

Archived Papers

John W. Marr Papers, 1932-2001. Archives, University of Colorado at Boulder Libraries
Marr, John W. (John Winton). 19.5 linear feet (39 boxes, 1 oversize folio)

Learning by observing

“I am reminded of a story told by my mentor, Dr. John Marr, who founded the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado. His class observed the krummholz, the stunted, windblown, shrub-like trees above timberline. Drifts covered these small islands of trees located at the lower edge of the alpine tundra; only a few branches reached above the snow cover. Marr was explaining that severe winds laden with ice crystals pruned the windward sides of the tree islands, shaping them asymmetrically. As he spoke, a ptarmigan walked from one krummholz to another, methodically plucking buds. Astounded, Marr admitted he had never seen a ptarmigan eating spruce buds before, “wind-trimming” his krummholz. He conceded that factors other than wind might also contribute to ecosystem dynamics.”
As told by the late Joyce Gellhorn (quoted from 50th Anniversary of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), p 41-42.

Cooper, DJ, B Willard, D Buckner. 1990. Resolution of Respect: John Winton Marr, 1914-1989. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 71(2):116-118.
Halfpenny, James C., ed. 1982. Ecological Studies in the Colorado Alpine: A Festschrift for John W. Marr. INSTAAR Occasional Paper 37. University of Colorado Committee on University Scholarly Publications.
50th Anniversary The Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), 1951-2001.. University of Colorado at Boulder. 94 pp.
Page compiled by Sally L. White, who met Dr. Marr only briefly in 1969 but continues to refer to his monograph on Front Range ecosystems, in appreciation.