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Ernst Mayr

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For notable contributions to systematics, biogeography, and the study of birds, and especially for great work on the evolution of animal populations.

In his “On the Origin of Species,” the great evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin left one mystery to be solved: How and why do species originate?

The credit for cracking this case goes to a German-born medical student who dropped out of the profession and headed to the South Pacific to pursue a lifelong passion for natural history – birds, to be specific.

During his observations, Mayr noticed the differences in populations of animals that were isolated geographically, leading him to believe that location plays a role in the development of species.

When two groups of a single species are separated from another, they slowly develop unique traits that make them unable to interbreed with each other.

Mayr called this “allopatric speciation” in his 1942 book, “Systematics and the Origin of Species.”

Later in life, Mayr developed the more controversial theory of peripatric speciation, arguing that tiny populations – isolated in unusual habits – undergo drastic genetic changes.