Celebrating three decades of teaching

Portrait of a suited Professor Donald McFarlane on campus.
December 1, 2021

Donald McFarlane is about as close as one gets to a real-life Indiana Jones. He’s caved his way across the South China Sea, detonated explosives in the Claremont quarry, and raised “vampires” in the Keck Science Center. After 30 years, the soft-spoken Englishman is living proof that the life of an academic scientist can be filled with adrenalin-churning adventure.

McFarlane is the Kenneth S. Pitzer Professor of Biology and Environmental Science, and this year marks his 30th anniversary in the W.M. Keck Science Department, where he’s convener of the environmental analysis group.

“I’m currently the oldest surviving biologist in the department. It kind of sneaks up on you,” says McFarlane, but his senior status is belied by the spark in his eye.

Born in Portsmouth, in the south of England, the child of an insurance investigator and a nurse, McFarlane knew he wanted to be a zoologist since age 9. “I was just always interested in mammals, in general,” he says, “and I’ve been interested in caves since my early teens.”

When he’d exhausted the grottos of Portsmouth, McFarlane had access to Mendip Hills in nearby Somerset, burial place of Cheddar Man, Britain’s oldest complete human skeleton. The famous limestone caves of Cheddar Gorge, used for maturing cheese since prehistoric times, are also home to colonies of horseshoe bats.

McFarlane studied zoology at the University of Liverpool, where he met his wife, Catherine, who was studying to be a nurse. He’d completed a master’s degree in zoology at Queen’s University of Belfast when she was recruited to work in the United States during a nursing shortage. McFarlane applied to the biology PhD program at USC, attracted by the bats—far more abundant and diverse in America than in Great Britain. Working under renowned chiropterologists at the L.A. County Natural History Museum, McFarlane wrote his dissertation on Antillean bat behavior.

He had expected to return to England after his PhD, “but it just never quite worked out,” he says. A one-year sabbatical replacement job at Keck Science led to an assistant professor appointment, tenure and, in 2019, an endowed chair.

The McFarlanes settled down in Torrance, Calif., to be near Catherine’s work—she recently retired from Kaiser Permanente in Harbor City. They raised two children, Stuart and Lorna, now both in their 30s. Two years ago, they bought a cabin in Mt. Baldy that serves as both mountain getaway and Claremont-adjacent pièd-á-terre when McFarlane decides to skip the I-10 to I-605 trek home.

But alongside 30 years of suburban normalcy, McFarlane has led a double life of exotic adventure.

He has traveled the world digging up bones and chasing bats across the West Indies and the Spice Islands. Recent research grants have taken him from Boiling Lake in the island nation of Dominica to the Gomantong Caves of Malaysia.

Indeed, as a leading authority on the ecology of tropical caves, McFarlane authored the “guano” entry in the Encyclopedia of Caves and Karst Science.

He has co-authored more than 100 journal articles and built an impressive track record securing grants—particularly through the National Geographic Society—for research that often involves undergraduate collaborators.

Vampire Science

To Donald McFarlane, all bats are interesting.

They’re the only flying mammals. And they’re second only to rodents in terms of diversity: about a quarter of all mammalian species are bats.

Every October, though, everyone’s interested in one particular kind of bat. McFarlane obligingly gives the low-down on vampires:

While it’s true vampire bats suck blood, they prefer their host be a horse or a cow.

“But, yes, they may go for your blood if they can’t get anything else,” McFarlane says.

Should that happen, a vampire will not attach itself to your neck, as dramatized in horror movies.

Rather, the nocturnal visitor will likely target your feet.

“If you’re sleeping with a big toe exposed, one might land near you and scramble over for a sip,” McFarlane says.

Don’t worry. There’s no pain involved and no fangs.

“Think of the way a kitten laps milk from a saucer,” McFarlane says.

The vampire takes a shallow scoop of flesh between tiny scissor-like front teeth, grazing until blood oozes. An anticoagulant in the saliva keeps the flow coming, which the bat gently licks for up to 15 minutes if left undisturbed. Move your foot and the shy vampire will flutter away.

“They’re actually pretty harmless,” McFarlane says, “except that they inadvertently spread rabies and a couple of cow diseases.” But definitely not Covid-19. The suspected species associated with the pandemic are not vampire bats.

“For about five years,” he says, “I had a colony of vampire bats here in the basement of Keck Science. Every year we had Claremont students doing their senior theses on vampire behavior.” (See sidebar)

One of the first biologists to conduct fieldwork with students in Costa Rica, in 2003 McFarlane spearheaded the launch of Claremont’s Firestone Center for Restoration Ecology, a 150-acre reserve owned by Pitzer College on the southwest coast of Costa Rica. As director of research there, each summer he leads an eight-week ecological fieldwork experience that’s popular with CMC students.

McFarlane is also an expert in bio-geomorphology and bio-microclimate studies of caves. He heads up the Union Internationale de Spéléologie’s cave archaeology and paleontology division and the National Speleological Society’s research advisory committee.

“I’m also a member of the International Society of Explosives 
Engineers
,” he adds, nonchalantly.

Over the years, McFarlane has detonated many an experimental charge in the Claremont-owned quarry on the west side of campus, sometimes in conjunction with forensic chemistry classes. Students would collect debris samples and take them back to the lab for forensic analysis.

There’s a common thread connecting McFarlane’s research interests into bats, caves, and things that go boom.

“Britain’s caves are largely glaciated—that is, filled with glacial debris,” he explains. “Excavating previously unexplored caves commonly involves the use of explosive charges to break up rocks.”

McFarlane had already qualified for explosives and firearms licenses as an undergraduate, but it was during graduate school that he became an explosives expert, thanks to his day job as a Belfast police officer.

“That was the height of the terrorist emergency in Northern Ireland,” he explains. “Bombs were going off a lot, and I was sent to what you’d call an IED course. I had an interest in a very different use of explosives, so I’ve continued to study it.”

Lately, McFarlane’s speleological investigations have branched out to encompass acting and filmmaking.

Last year he made a short documentary paying homage to William Buckland (1784-1856). “He was really the father of scientific cave paleontology and my personal hero,” says McFarlane, of the British theologian-geologist. The film project—in which McFarlane dons Georgian attire to portray Buckland in reenactments of his landmark discoveries—was funded by the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies at CMC.

The early 1800s, McFarlane explains, were the Golden Age of cave paleontology in England. Caves that were physically open—like Cheddar Gorge—had been explored centuries before. But with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, the laying of railroad tracks often involved breaking into sealed caves. New fossils of clearly extinct mammals unearthed in the process led to heated scientific debate about the antiquity of humans.

McFarlane’s speleological investigations continue, though the Claremont quarry explosions were suspended with the pandemic. That research has moved to the California desert. McFarlane is currently finishing a journal article comparing the use of different explosive charges in cave-rescue situations, a subject he knows well having volunteered on rescue teams in Arizona.

On the chiropteran research front, he’s currently writing a grant proposal to return to Borneo’s Gomantong Caves, where enormous deposits of ancient bat guano may yield important paleoclimate data. In related research, he plans to compare nutrient flow data from the surrounding rain forest with nutrients stored in ancient deposits of bat bones.

If Indiana Jones were real, he might envy McFarlane’s adventure-packed scholarly life.

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