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Death Valley Expedition, map

Principal Collectors:

Frederick Vernon Coville

Frederick Vernon Coville

Botanist on the Death Valley Expedition (1891)

Frederick Vernon Coville was the main botanist of the Death Valley Expedition. He was assisted by Frederick Funston from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The U.S. National Herbarium published Coville's report "Botany of the Death Valley Expedition" in 1893. In the 1966 publication Plant Ecology of Death Valley, California, Charles Hunt writes that Coville's report "is one of the classics in scientific literature-one that contributed greatly to the foundation for the field of study that later came to be known as plant ecology."

Botanist for the International Boundary Commission (1891-1896)

Throughout the expedition of the International Boundary Commission, Edgar A. Mearns, the naturalist of the party, regularly sent plant specimens to Botanist Frederick Vernon Coville. Coville examined and classified the approximately 10,000 specimens, and was also engaged in writing a comprehensive report of Mearns' botanical findings. However, the final report, which would have been about 400 pages long and involved information drawn from the specimens and Mearns' field notes, was never published due to a lack of funding.

Botanist on the Harriman Expedition (1899)

Frederick Vernon Coville's experiences on the Death Valley Expedition and his friendship with Clinton Hart Merriam-the director of the Harriman expedition-afforded him the position as botanist on the Alaskan exploration. De Alton Saunders also served as botanist on the trip. Along the journey, Coville hiked, camped, and talked with fellow scientists. He was responsible for writing about the botany during the trip, and co-authored volume five of the expedition report on the botany with Saunders.

Other Accomplishments:

-Graduated from Cornell University (1887)
-Assistant Botanist on the Arkansas Geological Survey, under the Department of Agriculture (1888)
-Botanist and Curator of the U.S. National Herbarium
-In charge of botanical investigation and experimentation in the Bureau of Plant Industry under the Department of Agriculture (1901) -Chairman of Research Committee of the National Geographic Society (1920 - 1937)

[Photo courtesy of the Coville family]

Frederick Vernon Coville
Frederick Funston

Frederick Funston

[Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Center of Military History]

Frederick Funston
Clinton Hart Merriam

Clinton Hart Merriam

Naturalist on the Death Valley Expedition (1891)

Clinton Hart Merriam's concept of life zones-stating that ranges in temperature resulted in the distributions of plants and animals-is well known and still taught today. Merriam developed this theory through his research in the 1880's and 1890's, including his research during the Death Valley Expedition. While traveling on the expedition, Merriam collected plants, took detailed notes on plant distributions, and photographed plants. After the expedition, Merriam wrote a report on the desert trees and shrubs and a report on the desert cacti and yuccas. The reports were included in the 1893 publication "The Death Valley Expedition: A Biological Survey of Parts of California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah."

Other Accomplishments:

-Involved with the Hayden Survey (1872-1876)
-Graduated from Sheffield Scientific School at Yale (1877)
-Earned his M.D. from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York (1879)
-Wrote numerous publications on ornithology and mammals
-First chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) (1885-1910)
-Helped found the American Ornitologists' Union and the National Geographic Society
-Organized and directed the Harriman Expedition to Alaska
-Research associate at the Smithsonian Institution (1910-1939)

[Photo courtesy of Popular Science Monthly]

Clinton Hart Merriam

Death Valley Expedition


The Death Valley Expedition was the first biological survey to commence from an 1890 act of Congress. The act appropriated funds to send expeditions to discover the geographic distributions of plants and animals in the United States.

Botanist Frederick Vernon Coville—the first curator of the U.S. National Herbarium—accompanied the expedition. He collected plants and, in accordance to the wishes of Congress, noted areas where different species flourished or faded. He organized his findings into a report entitled, “Botany of the Death Valley Expedition” where he defines the term “zonal plant” as a “species or variety which is of value in determining floral zones.” As the expedition progressed, “it was found to be the best method of procedure in a new area to establish the zones by means of a comparatively small number of the best zonal plants, and afterwards to arrange the other less important [plants] in their proper places,” Coville explains.

Mohave Desert, California, showing yucca trees. Photo from : Merriam, C.H. The Death Valley Expedition: A Biological Survey of Parts of California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1893.
Mohave Desert, California, showing yucca trees.
Naturalist Clinton Hart Merriam explicates on plant distributions in a separate expedition report entitled, “The Death Valley Expedition: A Biological Survey of Parts of California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah” in which he wrote a “Report on Desert Trees and Shrubs” and a “Report on Desert Cactuses and Yuccas.” Merriam says that, “Most of the desert shrubs are social plants and are distributed in well-marked belts or zones, the vertical limits of which are fixed by the temperature during the period of growth and reproduction.” He explains that the zones ascended from the Lower Sonoran Desert to the desert ranges—including the Funeral and Charleston Mountains.

Merriam divides the Lower Sonoran Zone into three main belts. The lowest elevation contained a belt defined by the creosote bush Larrea tridentata, and Merriam judged this belt to be the best for growing citrus fruits, olives, and grapes. With increasing elevation, the Larrea belt ended and a belt defined by the distinctive spiny hopsage, Grayia spinosa, began. Lastly, came a belt of the true sage brush, Artemisia tridentata, which Merriam notes “spreads northward over the Great Basin like a monstrous sheet.”

In addition to documenting plant distributions, Merriam says that, “nearly all the species were photographed by me in the field, and in most instances parts of the individual plant photographed were brought back for positive identification.” Merriam collected many cacti from the genus Opuntia, which was abundant in the southwestern deserts. Opuntia echinocarpa was collected throughout the Mohave Desert and Merriam describes this species as having “inconspicuous green flowers.” He also states that two species of birds—LeConte’s thrasher and a cactus wren—almost always built their nests in this one species of cactus. Merriam found Opuntia basilaris in many locations throughout the Sonoran Desert and describes that it featured, “purple-red flowers that grow in great numbers on the upper edges of the pads, as many as eight open blossoms and several buds having been seen on a single pad at one time.”

Merriam notes that the rediscovery of Arctomecon californicum was “one of the most interesting incidents in the botanical line connected with the present expedition.” This yellow-flowered poppy was first discovered by John C. Frémont, but Merriam found the plant in the same location and on nearly the same day, only 47 years later. He also discovered a similar poppy, Arctomecon merriami, in the same location. The botanists of the Death Valley Expedition made significant contributions to the knowledge of plant distributions, and Coville dedicated the white-flowered poppy “to Dr. C. Hart Merriam as a token of his influence in the progress of geographic botany.”

Coville, F.V. Botany of the Death Valley Expedition. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1893.

Humphrey, H.B. Makers of North American Botany. New York: The Ronald Press Co, 1961.

Merriam, C.H. The Death Valley Expedition: A Biological Survey of Parts of California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. Washington, D.C.: Government PrintingOffice, 1893.

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