Brian John Marples BA MA MSc FRSNZ FAZ


Brian Marples

1907 – 1997

B. J. Marples was, for one third of his long life, Professor of Zoology at the University of Otago. In that position, he was renowned for an ability to convey enthusiasm about zoology, and he had an enduring influence on students and peers in the natural sciences in New Zealand (Grimmond 1998, Westerskov 1999; also Otago Daily Times, Saturday 15 November 1997). Marples’ publications show great breadth; they consider topics including anatomy, taxonomy, behaviour and ecology, and cover groups such as freshwater invertebrates, elasmobranch fish, birds, spiders, and fossil vertebrates. The approach emphasises careful observation and documentation, with use of little equipment other than a microscope, and the articles range from small notes to substantial monographs and a book; most have a foundation of evolution as an underlying implicit explanation for biological pattern. Marples’ own comments about his career (Marples 1990, and entry in Lambert 1991) seem unassuming and understated, yet some of his articles are enduring contributions that are still being cited in the foremost international literature more than 50 years after publication.

Brian Marples was born on 31 March 1907, in Hessle, Yorkshire, son of George Marples and Ann (Harrison) Marples. His father was Principal of Liverpool City School of Art and a keen ornithologist. These attributes were reflected in a book by George and Ann Marples, "Sea Terns and Sea Swallows" (1934); perhaps unsurprisingly, ornithology and drawing were also to become significant in Brian’s life (Westerskov 1999). He was educated at Kingsmead School, Hoylake, Cheshire, and at St Bees School, Cumberland. The first paper, on starling roosts and flight lines near Oxford, appeared in 1925, probably about the time Brian finished school.

Marples attended Exeter College, Oxford, whence he graduated BA in 1929, and MA in 1933. At Oxford, apparently he was influenced by two foremost zoologists, E. F. Goodrich (Linacre Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, and author of the seminal "Structure and development of vertebrates," 1930) and G. R. (later Sir Gavin) de Beer (author of "The development of the vertebrate skull," 1937). After graduating, Marples taught at the University of Manchester, first as Demonstrator in Comparative Physiology (1929 – 1930) and then as Assistant Lecturer in Zoology (1930 – 1936). He graduated MSc from Manchester in 1931 and in that year married Mary (Molly) Joyce Ransford. Research at this time continued with ornithology (1930, on changing proportions of birds’ wings during growth), but also had a physiological and anatomical approach, resulting in papers on rookeries and on the nasal (or supraorbital) gland in birds (1932a, b) and the blood vascular system in elasmobranchs (1936a, b). From Manchester, Marples went briefly to the University of Bristol (Assistant Lecturer in Zoology, 1936) before travelling to New Zealand to take up the Chair of Zoology at the University of Otago early in 1937. Marples said of the move to Otago: "I arrived in New Zealand … aged 29. It was an incredible experience, especially for a biologist, to arrive at the other side of the world in a country where both the geology and the ecosystem were unfamiliar, except, surprisingly enough, for some very familiar garden birds" (Marples 1990).

Marples came to Otago just before the Second World War, and left as the "new biology" (much influenced by genetics and physiology) was developing, in turn part of the American growth of science in the early 1960s. Over this time his department grew significantly; there were 2 other staff in 1937, but 8 (a reader, 3 lecturers and 4 assistant lecturers) as well as Marples in 1966. It may be difficult for a recent graduate in New Zealand to appreciate the isolation that local scientists and academics encountered daily before the rise of rapid travel and electronic communications. This isolation fostered, indeed required, resourcefulness but, for enthusiastic and keen observers like Marples, this was little impediment to progress. Marples’ (1990) own brief comments reveal the importance of direct personal observation in science, particularly in ornithology where most of his initial effort went (Gurr 1980, 1990a, b, Marples 1990, Westerskov 1999). Early in his Otago years, Marples worked with albatross researcher L. E. Richdale, who for a while was an honorary lecturer in the Zoology Department. In 1939, he helped found the Ornithological Society of New Zealand, and he acted as Secretary-Treasurer, editor, and later President. In 1980, he became an Honorary Life Member of the Society (Gurr 1980). Amongst notable ornithological activities, Marples established a netting and banding scheme for silvereyes (Zosterops lateralis) (Marples and Fleming 1939 – 1940, Marples 1944), and carried out an extensive study of the Little Owl (Athene noctua) (Marples 1942). These were amongst the first New Zealand contributions to take what could be termed a modern approach to bird biology. Resourcefulness in these studies included making bird bands out of aluminium film canisters, making an appeal through the newspaper for specimens of Little Owl, and developing an apparatus for the automatic recording of nesting habits (Marples & Gurr 1943). Observations on starlings in Dunedin (Marples 1990) built on earlier work in Britain (Marples 1925, 1934). A list of New Zealand birds (Marples 1946) was the forerunner to more-detailed later checklists which have appeared as substantial books. Marples’ personal contributions to ornithology, the innovation in producing equipment for use in research, and the important early role of the University of Otago in bird studies, were mentioned by contributors to Gill and Heather (1990; see especially Gurr 1990a, 1990b). However, the activity in ornithology did not lead to special emphasis on birds in undergraduate teaching (Gurr 1990b).

A second major contribution was in arachnology, which involved mostly descriptive anatomy and taxonomy but included observations on behaviour and other aspects of biology. In terms of number of papers produced, this was Marples’ primary field of study; even so, Marples seems remembered less for arachnology than for other subjects. The earliest contribution was produced with Molly as first author (1937), and other joint papers, on New Zealand spiders, appeared later (1971, 1972). Work on trapdoor spiders documents the history, over more than 5 years, of individual marked burrows in several places around Otago (1972). Most of Brian’s articles were faunal and taxonomic; he described new species from New Zealand (1944a, 1956b), and the South Pacific including Samoa, the Cook Islands, Niue, Tonga and Fiji (1951a, b, 1955a-c, 1957, 1959b, 1960b, 1964). These papers mention stints of several months of collecting in the South Pacific. The taxonomic papers contained comments on zoogeography, a topic addressed in other works (1959a). Not only did Marples use anatomy as the basis for taxonomy, he related it to behaviour in careful accounts of web construction, and the anatomy of spinnerets and the digestive tract (1949a, 1967, 1969, 1983). It was probably Marples’ enduring interest in spiders that led to the 1963 appointment of Ray Forster (Director, Otago Museum) as Honorary Lecturer in Arachnology in the Department of Zoology. However, despite common interests and close proximity, Forster’s many publications don’t indicate any significant collaboration with Marples.

Trapdoor spiders are common in the limestone country of North Otago, and perhaps it was this together with reports of fossil vertebrates that prompted Marples to take field trips to the Duntroon area, middle Waitaki Valley. From the early 1940s onwards, Marples recovered bones of penguins and cetaceans (whales, dolphins) from Oligocene limestone and greensand in the Waitaki Valley, mostly near Duntroon but also in Hakataramea Valley. Work was usually carried out with groups of students, and included parties around the bar at the Duntroon Hotel. Some North Otago locals, and some of Marples’ former students and colleagues, have conveyed vivid impressions of the pub activities – now more than 40 years ago. Marples summarised his work on fossils as part of a short overview of vertebrate paleontology in New Zealand (1949d), concurrently describing the natural endocranial casts of Cetacea from Milburn (1949c). An earlier short contribution on fragments of a flighted seabird (1946b) established a new genus and species on remains that might better have remained unnamed. However, Marples’ (1952b) monograph on New Zealand Oligocene penguins is one of the major contributions in local vertebrate palentology. It offers a careful account of anatomy and function, supplemented by radiographs by A. C. Begg and foraminiferal age determinations by H. J. Finlay. Marples’ taxonomy – including new genera and species – has been revised in part, but the descriptive work is enduring; it formed the foundation for studies by the leading vertebrate paleontologist and paleospheniscologist, G. G. Simpson (1971). Marples (1953) also reviewed new fossil penguins from Seymour Island, Antarctica, again a topic later addressed by Simpson. Later notable contributions include reviews of penguin history (a wide-ranging article in 1959, and summary of 1974), and a detailed account by Marples (1960a) of a geologically young new species, Palaeospheniscus novaezealandiae, from the Pliocene of North Canterbury. In honour of Marples’ contributions to paleospheniscology, Simpson (1972) proposed the new genus Marplesornis for Palaeospheniscus novaezealandiae, while Brodkorb (1963) proposed the fossil penguin species Palaeeudyptes marplesi for Eocene material earlier described from near Dunedin (as P. antarcticus, by Marples 1952). Marples and Fleming (1963) documented a fragmentary specimen from Kawhia, the first fossil penguin reported from the North Island. Strangely, given his eclectic and inquiring interests and the proximity to penguins at Otago Peninsula, Marples did not publish on the living birds.

Beyond penguins, work at Duntroon led to a short account of three new species of archaic baleen whale (1956a), species which he placed in the genus Mauicetus, established by his predecessor Sir William Benham. (Benham retired in Dunedin, and presumably met Marples, but there is no particular suggestion that Benham influenced Marples’ research direction.) A small sketch of a reconstructed skull (Marples 1956a: fig. 1c) revealed a baleen whale more primitive and apparently older than any previously described worldwide; that illustration has been reprinted often in other articles including noted text-books. Through this work, in the esoteric field of paleocetology, Marples very much put New Zealand on the map. Marples’ field techniques were necessarily simple, so that the critical skull of Mauicetus lophocephalus was recovered incomplete and in poor shape. Further, after Marples retired, the holotype skull was thrown away, probably during maintenance work at the Department of Zoology – one of the avoidable disasters of New Zealand paleontology. Marples’ interests in fossil Cetacea led to one other notable contribution, from zoology student, M. R. Dickson (1964), who described and named the archaic Oligocene dolphin Prosqualodon marplesi (now Notocetus marplesi, family Squalodelphinidae).

Yet another interest was freshwater biology, documented in a book for undergraduates (1962a). Therein, Marples offered some philosophy of his approach to biology: "The most important and fruitful viewpoint in biology is that of ecology … a systematic study of animals and plants … is essential so that the composition of the community may be understood." He exhorted students to become familiar with classification early on, because of its importance as a basic tool in biology. For many years, this small book was the primary source of information on New Zealand fresh waters, and indeed was a "catalyst" (Chapman 1975) for later limnological study. Beyond the book, only a few short articles (Marples 1961, Chapman et al. 1975) hint at interests in limnology. Other waters apparently were not chartered; as far as written records show, Marples had no particular research interest in marine biology, and there is no evidence of any significant interaction with staff at Portobello Marine Laboratory.

Most of Marples’ former students are nearing the ends of their careers, all his colleages have retired, and the Marples Museum in the Department of Zoology at Otago has been closed and made over to offices. Marples outlived most of his peers and is largely unknown to modern students. Yet, Marples had a huge influence on more than a generation of students and scientists. People approached during the writing of this biography universally offered positive recollections. They mentioned an empathy and encouraging approach for students, a wide-ranging knowledge of and enthusiasm for zoology, an ability to lecture – in a rather languid style – largely without notes and with effective use of blackboard sketches, and warm hospitality at home. Marples commanded respect and yet was readily accessible to students. Within the University, though, Marples apparently had little interest in committees; he attended the necessary meetings outside his department but mostly did not contribute much. Outside the University, beyond the Ornithological Society (above), there is little evidence of formal involvement with other groups. He chaired the section on Zoological Sciences at the 1951 Science Congress (Christchurch), was elected FRSNZ in 1953, and was a Fellow of the Asian Zoologists.

Marples’ family was also deeply involved in biology – perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Brian identified zoology as one of his recreations (in Lambert 1991). Molly Marples was a significant academic in her own right, became an associate professor in Microbiology, and published papers with her husband. Both sons (Richard Ransford and Timothy George) also became biologists, contributing to fields including arachnology and animal ecology.

Marples enjoyed his work and did it well using effective established techniques; one can understand that he might not have been moved to embrace new trends merely for the sake of form. However, in the mid 1960s, there was increasing pressure within the University of Otago to include more cellular and physiological studies in biology, leading to a somewhat critical review of biological teaching. Brian and Molly Marples left Otago shortly afterwards, in 1967, and retired to Woodstock, near Oxford. In his 30 years of retirement, Marples maintained an interest in zoology, especially ornithology (Westerskov 1999), and also studied archaeology. He kept in contact with Otago colleagues, made several visits to Dunedin, and warmly welcomed New Zealand visitors to Oxford.

The changes that led to Marples’ somewhat early retirement were understandable: worldwide, there were increasing and quite justified moves to make biology more objective and "numerate," with emphasis on understanding basic cellular and subcellular processes. Ecology was expanding as a discipline. Concurrently, comparative anatomy – especially involving skeletal systems with their complexities and morass of terminology – was unfairly and unjustifiably disparaged. But, the de-emphasis of comparative anatomy was understandable because the subject seemed to be at a standstill. For any anatomical feature, how could one clearly separate functional components from those that revealed phylogenetic history? This dilemma might be read into some of Marples’ publications. In recent decades, however, clear procedures have arisen for discriminating features in terms of functional or phylogenetic signals. Further, anatomical (and other) features may be understood in terms of their evolutionary novelty or antiquity, and used in computer-aided clustering techniques to elucidate phylogeny. Patterns of comparative anatomy now make more sense in terms of phylogenetic history and functional change over time. Indeed, even molecular biologists are now wrestling with issues of "deep time," to interpret evolutionary events in terms of geological processes. Marples’ publications will continue to be fundamental sources of knowledge for such advances.

The help is gratefully acknowledged of the many people who provided comments, reminiscences and insights, especially J. D. Campbell, Warwick Don, and Kaj Westerskov.


Brodkorb, P. 1963: Catalogue of fossil birds, part 1. (Archaeopterygiformes through Ardeiformes). Bulletin of the Florida State Museum, biological science 7: 179 – 293.

Chapman, M. A. 1975: Foreword. Pages 5 – 6 In: Jolly, V. H. and Brown, J. M. A. (editors), New Zealand lakes. Auckland University Press, Auckland. 388 p.

Chapman, M. A., Green, J. D., Jolly, V. H., and Marples, B. J. 1975. Zooplankton. Pages 209 – 230 In: Jolly, V. H. and Brown, J. M. A. (editors), New Zealand lakes. Auckland University Press, Auckland. 388 p.

Dickson, M. R. 1964: The skull and other remains of Prosqualodon marplesi, a new species of fossil whale. New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics 7: 626 – 635.

Grimmond, N. 1998: Inspirational zoology teacher dies in UK. University of Otago newsletter March 1998: 5.

Gurr, L. 1980: Honorary life membership (B. J. Marples). Notornis 27: 386 – 387.

Gurr, L. 1990a: Ornithology in New Zealand universities. Pages 112 – 116 In: Gill, B. J. and Heather, B. D. A flying start: commemorating fifty years of the Ornithological Society of New Zealand, 1940 – 1990. Random Century and Ornithological Society of New Zealand, Auckland. 217 p.

Gurr, L. 1990b: Reminiscences. Pages 53 – 56 in Gill, B. J. and Heather, B. D., A flying start: commemorating fifty years of the Ornithological Society of New Zealand, 1940-1990. Random Century and Ornithological Society of New Zealand, Auckland. 217 p.

Lambert, M. 1991: Who’s who in New Zealand. 12th edition. Reed, Auckland. 731 p.

Marples, B. J. 1925: Starling roosts and flight lines near Oxford. British birds 25: 314 – 318.

Marples, B. J. 1930: The proportions of birds’ wings and their changes during development. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1930: 997 – 1008.

Marples, B. J. 1932a: The rookeries of Wirral Peninsula. Journal of Animal Ecology 1: 3 – 11.

Marples, B. J. 1932b: The structure and development of the nasal glands of birds. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 102: 829 – 844.

Marples, B. J. 1934: The winter starling roosts of Great Britain, 1932 – 1933. Journal of Animal Ecology 3: 187-203.

Marples, B. J. 1936a: The blood vascular system of the elasmobranch fish (Linné). Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 58 (3): 817 – 840.

Marples, B. J. 1936b: The subcutaneous venous system of the common dogfish, Scyliorhynchus [Scyllium] caniculus (L.). Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1936: 317 – 329.

Marples, B. J. 1941-1942: Notes on cuckoos. Bulletin of the Ornithological Society of New Zealand RB (2): 73 – 74.

Marples, B. J. 1942: A study of the little owl, Athene noctua, in New Zealand. Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand 72: 237 – 252.

Marples, B. J. 1944a: A new species of harvestman of the genus Megalopsalis. Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand 73 (4): 313 – 314.

Marples, B. J. 1944b: Notes on the songs of certain birds in Dunedin. New Zealand Bird Notes 1 (6): 62-64.

Marples, B. J. 1944c: Report on trapping and ringing work on the White-eye Zosterops lateralis throughout the Dominion. New Zealand Bird Notes 1 (5): 41 – 48.

Marples, B. J. 1945: Zosterops lateralis at Dunedin, New Zealand. Emu 44 (8): 277 – 287.

Marples, B. J. 1946a: List of the birds of New Zealand. New Zealand Bird Notes 1 (supplement): i – vii.

Marples, B. J. 1946b: Notes on some neognathus bird bones from the Early Tertiary of New Zealand. Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand 76: 132 – 134.

Marples, B. J. 1949a: An unusual type of web constructed by a Samoan spider of the family Argiopidae. Transactions of the Royal Society New Zealand 77 (5): 232-233 [Report of the 6th Science Congress, May 20 – 23, 1947].

Marples, B. J. 1949b: Excursion to Kapiti Island. New Zealand Bird Notes 3 (6): 140.

Marples, B. J. 1949c: Two endocranial casts of cetaceans from the Oligocene of New Zealand. American Journal of Science 247: 462 – 471.

Marples, B. J. 1949d: Vertebrate palaeontology in New Zealand. Tuatara 2: 103 – 108.

Marples, B. J. 1951a: Mygalomorph spider in Samoa. Nature 168: 300-301.

Marples, B. J. 1951b: Pacific symphytognathid spiders. Pacific science 5: 47-51.

Marples, B. J. 1952a: Fossil penguins. P. 71 In: Black, M. A. (editor), Report of the Seventh Science Congress. Royal Society of New Zealand, Wellington. 256 p.

Marples, B. J. 1952b: Early Tertiary penguins of New Zealand. New Zealand Geological Survey Paleontology Bulletin 20: 66 p.

Marples, B. J. 1953: Fossil penguins from the mid-Tertiary of Seymour Island. Falkland Island Dependency Survey Science report 5: 1 – 15.

Marples, B. J. 1954: Banded Dotterel and other waders wintering near Dunedin. Notornis 5 (8): 249 – 250.

Marples, B. J. 1955a: A new type of web spun by spiders of the genus Ulesanis with the description of two new species. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 125: 751 – 760.

Marples, B. J. 1955b: Spiders from some Pacific Islands. Pacific science 9 (1): 69 – 76.

Marples, B. J. 1955c: Spiders from Western Samoa. Journal of the Linnean Society, zoology 42: 453 – 504.

Marples, B. J. 1956a: Cetotheres (Cetacea) from the Oligocene of New Zealand. Proceedings of the Zoological Society, London 126: 565 – 580.

Marples, B. J. 1956b: Spiders from the Three Kings Islands. Records of the Auckland Institute and Museum 4 (6): 329 – 342.

Marples, B. J. 1957: Spiders from some Pacific Islands. II. Pacific Science 11 (4): 386 – 395.

Marples, B. J. 1959a: Distribution of spiders in the South Pacific. Proceedings of the 15th International Congress Zoology, London 51: 990 – 992.

Marples, B. J. 1959b: Spiders from some Pacific Islands. Part III. The Kingdom of Tonga. Pacific science 13 (4): 362 – 367.

Marples, B. J. 1960a: A fossil penguin from the Late Tertiary of North Canterbury. Records of the Canterbury Museum 7: 185 – 195.

Marples, B. J. 1960b: Spiders from some Pacific Islands. Part IV. The Cook Islands and Niue. Pacific Science 14 (4): 382 – 388.

Marples, B. J. 1961: Some temporary ponds near Sutton, Otago. Proceedings of the New Zealand Ecological Society 7: 22.

Marples, B. J. 1962a: An introduction to freshwater life in New Zealand. Whitcombe and Tombs, Christchurch. 159 p.

Marples, B. J. 1962b: Notes on the spiders of the family Uloboridae. Annals of Zoology 4: 1 – 11.

Marples, B. J. 1962c: Observations on the history of penguins. Pages 408 – 416 In: Leeper, G. W. (editor), The evolution of living organisms. Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Marples, B. J. 1962d: The Matachiinae, a group of cribellate spiders. Journal of the Linnean Society of London (Zoology) 44: 701 – 720.

Marples, B. J. 1964: Spiders from some Pacific Islands. Part V. Pacific Science 18 (4): 399 – 410.

Marples, B. J. 1967: The spinnerets and epiandrous glands of spiders. Journal of the Linnean Society of London 46: 209 – 222.

Marples, B. J. 1968: The hypochilomorph spiders. Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London 179: 11 – 31.

Marples, B. J. 1969: Observations on decorated webs. Bulletin of the British Arachnological Society 1: 13 – 18.

Marples, B. J. 1974: Fossil penguins. New Zealand nature heritage 1: 142 – 144.

Marples, B. J. 1983: Observations on the structure of the fore-gut of spiders. Bulletin of the British Arachnological Society 6 (1): 46 – 52.

Marples, B. J. 1990: [Reminiscences]. In: Gill, B. J. and Heather, B. D. A flying start: commemorating fifty years of the Ornithological Society of New Zealand, 1940 – 1990. Random Century and Ornithological Society of New Zealand, Auckland. 217 p.

Marples, B. J. and Fleming, C. A. 1939-1940: Banding of White-eyes (Zosterops lateralis). Annual report of the Ornithological Society of New Zealand RB 22 – 24

Marples, B. J. and Fleming, C. A. 1963: A fossil penguin bone from Kawhia, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics 6: 189 – 192.

Marples, B. J. and Gurr, L. 1943: A mechanism for recording automatically the nesting habits of birds. Emu 43: 67 – 71.

Marples, B. J. and Gurr, L. 1953: The chukor in New Zealand. Emu 53: 283 – 290.

Marples, B. J. and Marples, M. J. 1971: Notes on the behaviour of spiders in the genus Zygiella. Bulletin of the British Arachnological Society 2: 16 – 17.

Marples, B. J. and Marples, M. J. 1972: Observations on Cantuaria toddi and other trapdoor spiders (Araneae: Mygalomorpha) in Central Otago, New Zealand. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 2 (2): 179 – 185.

Marples, M. J. and Marples, B. J. 1937: Notes on the spiders Hyptiodes paradoxus and. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 107A: 213 – 221.

Marples, M. J. and Marples, B. J. 1967: Evolution in the future. Science record 17: 26 – 30.

Simpson, G. G. 1971: A review of the pre-Pliocene penguins of New Zealand. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 144: 321 – 378.

Simpson, G. G. 1972: Pliocene penguins from North Canterbury, New Zealand. Records of the Canterbury Museum 9: 159 – 182.

Westerskov, K. 1999: Professor Brian John Marples, 1907 – 1997. Notornis 46: 503 – 506.

Ewan Fordyce