An explorer of the animal world

Dr. Robert Wrigley has spent his adult life seeking knowledge about animals and their habitats.

“A black nose suddenly appeared out of a snowbank, followed by a huge white head. Arousing from a temporary winter den, the large male Polar Bear decided to desert the coast and strike out onto the ice in search of seals.

“For three weeks this king of the Arctic had been forced to bed, since Baffin Bay was frozen fast, leaving few open leads in the ice where he could hunt. Stiff limbs were stretched, and a yawn blew out a puff of white haze in the – 40 degree C air. A particularly bright wave of northern lights distracted him for a few seconds, then his big floppy feet and long legs began to carry him eastward onto the bay ice.”

From Mammals in North America, by Robert Wrigley

  • • •

Robert Wrigley in the field.

In the gently revealing preface to his masterful 1986 mammal book, Dr. Robert Wrigley talks about the type of animal book he had searched for as a youngster who loved the outdoors and the animal life to be discovered there. He had never found such a book in his youth: a special source of information that entered the daily lives of animals large and small, and gave facts about “the wonderful creatures that most people don’t even know exist in their country.” He hoped his own book would meet the specifications he had so long ago set out.

It’s said that the child is father of the man, and Robert talks with quiet pleasure about his good fortune in having spent his childhood in Buenos Aires, Argentina and later in St. Lambert, Quebec, “surrounded by woods, meadows and swamps. That’s where I first developed a love of nature and sought adventures in wild places to find out what was hidden there.”

His interests, he adds, included the insides of animals, not just the outside – and led, in one climactic moment at McGill University, to his choosing to pursue studies in ecology and mammals over a career as a surgeon.

The excitement he feels in soaking up knowledge about nature – and sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm with the public – is evident in his short sketch of the polar bear at the front of his ground-breaking study of mammals and their habitats. That enthusiasm is evident throughout a career of remarkable achievement. For 30 years – more than half his career – he held senior positions at three major public institutions in Manitoba that are focussed on animal life – museum director at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature (1980 to 1986); the first director of the Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Center (1989 to 1995), and zoo curator at the Assiniboine Park Zoo (1996 to 2012).

Robert’s imprint on those institutions will be felt for a long time to come, and perhaps nowhere more so than at the Manitoba Museum, where he arrived just months after its 1970 official opening by Queen Elizabeth. Mammals was his specialty in his MSc studies at McGill University, and later his PhD research at the University of Illinois in Urbana. His first position, as curator of birds and mammals at the Manitoba Museum, delivered a remarkable opportunity to help build the exhibit galleries and research collections.

“It was a wonderful time,” he recalls. “The new staff members were young and enthusiastic, resulting in great camaraderie; plus there was generous funding for field work. The museum’s natural history department went with us on expeditions, and we all shared information about geology, plants, birds, mammals and other wildlife. It was a great time to pick up new ecological knowledge about Manitoba.

“The Museum built its exhibit galleries around each of the major natural zones in Manitoba – from the prairies up to the tundra and Hudson Bay.”

Questioned, Robert talks about his legacy at the Museum when he left after 16 years. “I think it consists mainly of the exhibits, publications and research collections,” he says. “I also enjoyed dealing with the public and school groups.” Robert’s personal biography lists close to 100 articles and 18 books on diverse natural history subjects, including the cougar and polar bear, along with his major contributions as zoological editor of The Encyclopedia of Manitoba.

In 1994 he received the Canadian Gold Medal award for a book, Canadian Mammals, and years later, an award he particularly cherishes – the Norman Criddle Award for “outstanding work among amateur entomologists in Canada,” – named after a distinguished Manitoba entomologist, the son of a celebrated pioneer family in the Brandon area.

Robert also curated 12 natural history exhibits at the Manitoba Museum, 22 at the Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Center, and 30 live-animal exhibits and murals at the Assiniboine Park Zoo.

That’s a substantial output for one lifetime, yet for Robert there was more. Two decades ago Robert’s interests in animals took a sharp turn, as he turned with his ever-present zeal to a markedly different field of research – entomology (study of insects), an interest sparked when a collector from East Selkirk came to him to propose that Oak Hammock put on an exhibit of colourful butterflies and beetles. Robert agreed, and the exhibition turned out to be very popular.

Robert visited the collector’s home to see his local and exotic insect specimens. “I was just amazed at how beautiful they were.” Robert took up beetle research and collecting in his spare time.

“It’s a passion I enjoy pursuing every day. It gets me out into the field throughout Manitoba and North America in summer, and in winter I prepare, identify and label the specimens. I donate about 1,600 specimens annually to two museums in Winnipeg and the national collection in Ottawa. My personal collection now totals about 10,000 species of beetles from all over the world.

“These specimens will be available to researchers for many centuries, long after some of the species have become extinct. It’s rewarding to know I am leaving something behind for future scientists and amateurs to study.”

In short, Robert has left large animals behind. Does he miss them? “Yes I miss travelling to new habitats with my colleagues and discovering new information about mammals in Manitoba. I could look at a habitat and usually tell what species were found there. But most mammals are secretive; we had to set kill-traps to find them, and make them into research specimens; I don’t miss that part of the work.”

Robert’s eagerness to inform people about wildlife has not waned over the years. He has warm and humorous memories about some of the 2,200 media interviews he conducted over his 42-year career. The public and media delight in unusual animal stories and pictures.

Robert sits today on the Manitoba Board of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and the government’s Advisory Committee on Endangered Species and Ecosystems. He has been and remains a towering figure in his field, in this province and beyond.

Here are testimonials about his work and contribution from two local wildlife experts.

From Dr. James Duncan, director, wildlife and fisheries branch, Manitoba conservation and water stewardship:

“Among Dr. Robert Wrigley’s many contributions to science and conservation was the earliest and most thorough estimate of the diversity of wild species in Manitoba, also known as ‘biodiversity’. This estimate, and the associated details, were pivotal in the preparation of many subsequent research efforts and public, scientific and educational presentations that I have given as a biologist and as the branch director.

“Dr. Wrigley’s contributions to conservation in Manitoba has spanned his diverse careers and will continue to inspire us for decades to come.”

From Dr. Terry Galloway, acting curator, J.B. Wallis/R.E. Roughley           Museum of Entomology, University of Manitoba:

“Robert developed a keen interest in insects quite late in his career, but he has worked steadily to make up for lost time. He has donated thousands of specimens of beautifully prepared insects to the J.B. Wallis/R.E. Roughley, Museum of Entomology in the faculty of agricultural and food sciences at the University of Manitoba.”

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