ISSN 1188-603X

No. 419 December 16, 2009 Victoria, B.C.
Dr. A. Ceska, P.O.Box 8546, Victoria, B.C. Canada V8W 3S2

GRAHAM C.D. GRIFFITHS, PhD (JUNE 22, 1937-MAY 3, 2009)

From: Patsy Cotterill & Deirdre Griffiths c/o


A quick glance inside his PhD thesis, published in 1972 as a bound red book, volume 8 of Seria Entomologica, will tell you a lot about Graham Griffiths. It is entitled "The phylogenetic classification of Diptera Cyclorrhapha"; also illuminating is its subtitle: "with special reference to the structure of the male postabdomen". First, it shows his intense academic interest in an obscure group of organisms, a rare characteristic indeed among men, and second his patient observation and meticulous attention to detail, all quintessential qualities of a taxonomist.

Graham Griffiths, an internationally known entomologist and Albertan botanist, was born on June 22, 1937 in Cardiff, Wales. According to his sister Angela he was an inquisitive, mischievous boy who early on showed a penchant for catching flies and other insects. He was also bright academically, learning classical Greek, while attending private schools in Wales and London. During compulsory military service in Cyprus (1956-1958) he carried out intelligence interrogation as an interpreter of present-day Greek. He won scholarships to Christ's College, Cambridge where he graduated with a B.A. (Hons.) in Classics in 1961, and an M.A. in 1964. Until 1967 he worked in administration in the U.K. Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and one can speculate that from this experience of bureaucracy he gained the confidence in confronting authority that would stand him in good stead in his later involvement in local politics and environmentalism.

In 1953, while still at school, Graham had met an amateur entomologist, Kenneth Spencer, at a meeting of the south London (now British) Entomological and Natural History Society. Spencer focused on the leaf mining flies in the family Agromyzidae. Graham's chief interest until then had been the flower flies, Syrphidae. While still at school (1954), he wrote about these flies in his first scientific article, which was accepted for publication by the journal Entomologist. Under Spencer's mentorship, however, he switched to studying the Agromyzidae. The two became friends - a friendship that was to last through the years - going on collecting trips together outside London and discussing the taxonomy of this family.

It was through Spencer, along with a recommendation from the world-wide expert on Diptera, Willi Hennig,, that Graham was accepted as a PhD candidate in entomology under Professor Brian Hocking, Chairman of the Department of Entomology at the University of Alberta. This may seem surprising, given his background in classics, but by then Graham already had a list of publications on the Agromyzidae and their Hymenopteran parasites under his belt. He arrived in Edmonton, Alberta in September 1967 and gained his PhD in 1971.

Graham went on to do two years of graduate work at the University of Alberta, supported by a Killam Special Postdoctoral Scholarship for interdisciplinary studies, which culminated in a publication of much broader philosophical scope, On the Foundations of Biological Systematics. Graham did not take up an academic position at the University of Alberta, but retained his connection to it as an Honorary Research Associate from 1974 until 1997. Alberta proved to be a happy hunting ground for him and he found a number of new species of Agromyzid leaf miners, particularly in the Rocky Mountains. (By the time of his death he had six insects named after him, i.e., with the specific epithet griffithsi.)

Graham continued to publish on the Agromyzidae for over four decades and to review many publications in his field, some of which were in German. In 1965 he translated from the German Hennig's Phylogenetic Systematics. Spencer wrote glowingly that, after Hennig died in 1976, Graham "has been generally accepted as the leading theoretician on the evolution of the Diptera." Spencer also lauded Graham because he reared, preserved and identified the parasites of these Agromyzids, allowing him to perceive their high degree of host specificity. Spencer, in his 1992 autobiography Flycatcher writes: "Graham quickly mastered the complex taxonomy of the parasitic Hymenoptera and between 1964 and 1968 published six excellent revisionary papers on the Alysiinae and Dacnusini, for the first time providing detailed host information." In 1977 Graham founded and edited the prestigious series of monographs, Flies of the Nearctic Region, which he continued to edit and contribute to until close to his death. In several issues he made major contributions to Anthomyiidae taxonomy, a very diverse family that includes root-boring larvae (commonly referred to as root maggots) as well as stem-borers and leaf miners. As a professional scientist Graham attended the usual international congresses and gave invited lectures, including three delivered in Russian, in Leningrad where he spent a month!

In 1970 he married Deirdre Webb, whom he had met in Elk Island National Park, where Deirdre was then Chief Naturalist. For a year, under contract, Deirdre, an accomplished artist, drew taxonomic illustrations of Graham's flies. Later they joined forces as a consulting team and throughout the 1980s and 1990s carried out biophysical surveys and mapping, particularly of protected Crown lands for the Alberta Government. Deirdre documented the fauna, geology and land forms (including photography), and also prepared report maps. Graham concentrated on the flora, vegetation types and soils. Because Graham needed to know the host plants of his leaf miners, he had been familiarizing himself with the Alberta flora ever since his arrival in the province, and he did this with the same focused attention to detail that he accorded his insect taxonomy.

The Griffiths' surveys included the Clifford E. Lee Nature Sanctuary, Beehive Candidate Ecological Reserve, Plateau Mountain Candidate Ecological Reserve and natural areas such Sylvan Lake, Bilby, Coyote Lake, Lesser Slave Lake, North Cooking Lake, Pinehurst Lake, Lister Lake, Crooked Lake, and others. Graham and Deirdre were among the very few naturalists to explore the Swan Hills region of Alberta, and in 1976 Graham edited a book on this area, Alberta's Forgotten Wilderness: the Swan Hills, which was published by the Alberta Wilderness Association and the National and Provincial Parks Association of Canada (now CPAWS) - Edmonton Chapter. This work was interspersed with a three-year contract (1982-1985) to study the life history and ecology of the agricultural pests, the canola root maggots, Delia spp. (Anthomyiidae).

Like many another field naturalists, Graham was acutely aware of the need to conserve habitat. He was involved politically, and was not afraid to express his concerns forcibly. From 1972-74 he was chairman of the Edmonton Chapter of the National and Provincial Parks Association of Canada, where he dealt with controversial issues such as protection of Alberta's mountain parks, mineral exploration in the Rockies, and sewage system design for the City of Edmonton. From 1980-82 he was chairman of the Environmental Protection Subcommittee of the Public Advisory Committee on the Environment, of which he was a member for a much longer period. He and Deirdre intervened on several occasions when the environment of their home county, Strathcona, was threatened, for example, by the injudicious use of pesticides, or the realignment of a road that would have destroyed part of a natural area. As Dr. Packer noted in his eulogy given at a memorial service for Graham in Athabasca on May 28, 2009, Graham was a person of "firm convictions," both with respect to his taxonomy and his environmental activism.


Graham's interest and expertise in the local flora grew to the point where plants dominated his interest in the field. In his later years he published on several rare plant species in regional publications such as Alberta Naturalist, Iris (magazine of the Alberta Native Plant Council) and BEN. Most notably, Graham was able to combine his knowledge of Russian, taxonomic expertise and familiarity with a northern flora to translate three volumes of a proposed six-volume set of the Flora of the Russian Arctic (Tolmachev, A. I. (ed.), 1965-1987, 10 volumes in Russian), at the request of Dr. John Packer, Professor of Botany at the University of Alberta, and the University of Alberta Press. Owing to a shortage of funds the remaining three volumes have not materialized, to the chagrin of both Graham and Dr. Packer. Nevertheless, Deirdre continues efforts to find a translator and editor to complete the series.

One of Graham's important contributions to Albertan botanists was to make a clear distinction between two wetland sedge species: Carex rostrata Stokes and C. utriculata Boott (Alberta Naturalist 1989, 19(3):105-108), which previously had been considered a single taxon, C. rostrata. During a survey at Coyote Lake Natural Area he observed what he called the "true" C. rostrata growing in a lakeshore fen with Carex lasiocarpa Ehrh. , Menyanthes trifoliata L. and Calla palustris L., and distinguished it from Carex utriculata and Carex aquatilis Wahlenb. growing in shallow water on a mineral substrate along with the provincially rare Carex lacustris Willd.. Graham had the sedge specialists from eastern Canada Peter Ball and Tony Reznicek confirm the identity of his specimens. Given that all Albertan herbarium specimens had been labeled "C. rostrata" it became important to determine how common the "true" C. rostrata was and for a time this taxon was on the Alberta Natural Heritage Information Centre (ANHIC)'s tracking list as "status unknown." However, within a couple of field seasons it was determined that C. rostrata, separable from C. utriculata by its narrower leaves and the presence of papillae on the leaf undersides which give them a glaucous look, was common enough in peaty wetlands to be taken off the list.

It was from Coyote Lake also that Graham made the first record of ducksmeal, Wolffia columbiana Karst. for Alberta (Alberta Naturalist 1988, 18(1):18-20). The occurrence of Wolffia arrhiza (L.) Horkel ex C.F.H. Wimmer in Alberta which he also tentatively reported was later discounted as the material was determined to be an aberrant form of W. columbiana (Flora of North America 2000, 22:152). Alerted to this genus, in 1988 Graham and Deirdre did an extensive survey of wetlands in Elk Island National Park and found an additional species, W. borealis (Engelm.) Landolt, as well as W. columbiana (Alberta Naturalist 1990, 20 (2):59-64). As at Coyote Lake, all occurrences south to at least Ministik Game Bird Sanctuary were in beaver ponds. Wolffia can grow to form a green carpet over the water by late summer and is rich food for pre-migratory waterfowl. Given that nearly 20 years have passed since this survey was undertaken, it may be time to do it again!

With his usual taxonomic zeal Graham researched the literature and contacted authorities on the Euphrasia genus after finding populations of a new Euphrasia in Elk Island Park and hearing of similar plants on the shore of Elizabeth Lake in Lacombe. He concluded that this species should be called Euphrasia arctica subsp. borealis (Townsend) Yeo following the European nomenclature, although in North American literature this taxon is considered to be synonymous with Euphrasia nemorosa (Pers.) Wallr. and also Euphrasia borealis (Townsend) Wettst. (BEN # 299, December 2002). This posed the question of whether the distinction between E. nemorosa and E. arctica subsp. borealis made in Europe should apply to North American populations. This was exactly the sort of taxonomic conundrum that Graham loved to confront. Belonging to a Eurasian taxon, these Central Alberta populations do not get tracked by ANHIC, but of course they were not beneath Graham's notice.

Similarly, Graham launched into taxonomic detective work, consulting authorities and checking the literature, after examining specimens of the Cardamine pratensis L. complex from various provenances in Alberta. He determined that plants seen in the Fort MacKay area and in Elk Island National Park were Cardamine pratensis var. angustifolia Hook. (also treated as C. nymanii Gandog.), while those from the Conklin (Fort McMurray) area were a species newly recorded for Alberta, Cardamine dentata J.A. Schultes (Iris 55, October 2007: 6-8). The latter has thinner leaflets that are always stalked, as well as a reluctance to flower, Albertan populations reproducing mainly vegetatively by shoots developing on leaflets. Northern botanists should be aware of this distinction between the two taxa, which are both rare.

Given Graham's penchant for taxonomically difficult groups, it is not surprising that he turned his attention to moonworts, the genus Botrychium, on which considerable work has recently been done. Elk Island Park proved to be a hotbed of these tiny, very variable, most unfern-like Ophioglossaceae ferns. Its dry, gravelly, bison-trod trails yielded no fewer than nine species when Graham, in the company of Patrick Williston from British Columbia, launched major forays on 10 and 11 June, 2001. Patrick Williston went on to investigate several other locations of moonworts in Alberta, writing a short monograph on them, and Graham has since recorded many other occurrences of Albertan species. Ever ready to assist other amateur botanists, Graham helped Tom Maccagno survey islands in Lac La Biche for moonworts, and provided a synopsis of at least eight taxa of moonwort found on Birch Island. Graham also assisted Tom with fieldwork in Garner Lake Fen, which Tom was later successful in having protected as a provincial Natural Area.

In 2000 Graham and Deirdre undertook what was initially to be a one-year biophysical survey of the Crooked Lake area, sponsored by the Crooked Creek Conservancy Society of Athabasca. This, and the Athabasca region generally (within the Central Mixedwood of the Boreal Forest), proved to be exciting for both of them. Deirdre decided this environment would provide almost unlimited potential for her as a naturalist and wildlife artist, and she moved to Athabasca in late 2000.

Graham moved up in 2001 having had his fill of the relentless development and increasing air pollution in Strathcona County, which left few natural areas unscathed. Established south of Athabasca, he immediately set about strengthening his relationship with colleagues at Athabasca University, where he identified plants and organized their herbarium. He took pleasure in intensively exploring Muskeg Creek Ravine close to his home and initiated "May Plants in Flower" Counts in the lower Muskeg Valley. Graham continued to be involved in the ongoing exploration and monitoring of the Crooked Lake and Crooked Creek areas.

More recently, from 2002 until 2008, Graham was a subconsultant to various environmental assessment firms contracted by pipeline and other development companies to conduct Environmental Impact Assessments which included reporting the occurrence of rare native plants in boreal and montane habitats.

Of course, Graham collected herbarium specimens during all these surveys, which he carefully mounted and deposited in university and government herbaria. It is easy to pick out his specimens in a herbarium folder: all are carefully labeled with the tiny, neat handwriting that entomologists use for their much smaller specimen labels! From the time of its inception in 1990, Graham was a keen submitter of survey records to the ANHIC database, and attended periodic meetings to revise the list of rare and "watched" vascular plants in Alberta.

In 2007 Graham was only able to go on local field trips for personal interest while he recovered from throat cancer surgery, which left him with eating and speaking difficulties. He returned to consulting in the summer of 2008 despite increasing discomfort. After slipping quietly into a coma, he died in the early morning of May 3, 2009 in Athabasca Hospital, with his wife Deirdre at his side.

He had dedicated his life to taxonomy and made a significant contribution to both entomological and botanical science. A condensed biography of Graham is published in the first edition (2002) of "2000 Outstanding Scientists of the 21st Century" (information supplied by the research and advisory board of the International Biographical Centre, Cambridge, England). He will be remembered with appreciation, respect and affection by his colleagues and friends.

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