Robert (Bob) McDowall 1939 – 2011

Well-known New Zealand fisheries scientist, Bob McDowall died recently after a short illness. Bob was regarded as the father of freshwater fish and fisheries in New Zealand, but also had a huge influence on unravelling the taxonomy and distribution of Australia’s temperate freshwater fish. Although he had retired from the National Institute of Water and Atmosphere (NIWA), he still worked most days at NIWA’s Christchurch laboratory until shortly before his death in February.

Dr Robert (Bob) McDowall

Ainslie McDowall © Ainslie McDowall

Bob’s academic career started at Victoria University of Wellington (1958-62) and he studied for a Ph. D. at Harvard University, USA (1965-68). His thesis on the taxonomy of whitebait and related genera was regarded as one of the best submitted at that time. Upon return to New Zealand he commenced work on whitebait migrations. He also worked on describing all New Zealand’s freshwater fish and published his first book in 1978. This was the forerunner of another 13 books he would complete over the next 33 years.

He moved from Wellington to Christchurch in 1979 to run the expanding laboratory at Kyle Street (the present NIWA campus) and eventually had control of 60 freshwater science staff throughout NZ. These were his “bureaucratic wilderness” years as he had little time for research. A turning point for Bob was in 1985 when he was invited to be a keynote speaker at the first international conference on diadromy, the movements of fish between fresh and saltwater environments (Boston, March 1986). Another book followed but so did a period of productive research on the biogeography and dispersal of fish which continued until the present. In the limited New Zealand freshwater fish fauna, Bob realised he had the opportunity to explore biogeographical patterns and processes in a way that would have been more difficult with a larger fauna. He rapidly asserted himself as a staunch defender of oceanic dispersal as the dominant process for the distribution and colonisation of Southern Hemisphere freshwater fishes.

Bob was an enormously productive scientist, publishing over 240 papers, 14 books and ~ 300 popular articles and reports. Among the books he wrote (or authored) were 2 on Australian fishes (McDowall 1980, 1996). In addition, he wrote 10 papers on Australian freshwater fishes, that included revisions of the galaxiids (McDowall and Frankenberg. 1981) and relationships of the Australian freshwater fish fauna (McDowall 1981). He worked at institutes in Australia, South Africa, South America, USA and the Falkland Islands, and received many accolades and awards throughout his distinguished career including being made a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, and being awarded a James Cook Fellowship. He gained election to the New Zealand Conservation Authority for two years until ill-health forced his retirement last year. He served as co-editor on a number of scientific journals and refereed many papers, 50 in the last year alone.

Bob had a passion for discovering and disseminating knowledge and popularising science. For him, it was a privilege exploring biology and understanding relationships. He recognised that he was the right person in the right place at the right time. While he leaves a huge gap in fisheries science, his written legacy is enormous; he also influenced many younger scientists who will be grateful they knew this remarkable man.

  1. McDowall, R.M. (ed.). 1980. Freshwater fishes of south-eastern Australia (New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania). Reed, Sydney. 208 pp.
  2. McDowall, R.M. (ed.). 1996. Freshwater fishes of south-eastern Australia. Reed, Sydney. 247 pp.
  3. McDowall, R.M. & R.S. Frankenberg. 1981. The Galaxiid fishes of Australia (Pisces: Galaxiidae). Rec. Aust. Mus. 33: 443-605.
  4. McDowall, R.M. 1981. The relationships of Australian freshwater fishes. pp. 1253-1273. In: R.A. Keast (ed.) Ecological Biogeography of Australia. Mono. Biol. 41: 1253-1273.

Don Jellyman
NIWA Christchurch
New Zealand

This article is used with the permission of Don Jellyman.  It was first published in the Australian Society for Fish Biology newsletter.

Bob had a long association with the Australian Museum.  He named the following taxa.

New species
Galaxias cobitinis
Galaxias depressiceps
Galaxias eldoni
Galaxias gollumoides
Galaxias macronasus
Galaxias pullus
Galaxias usitatus
Galaxiella munda
(Australian Museum has paratypes - AMS I.19522-001)
Gobiomorphus cotidianus
Paragalaxias eleotroides
(Australian Museum has paratypes - AMS I.19152-001)
Paragalaxias julianus
(Australian Museum has paratypes - AMS I.20276-001, I.20277-001, I.20278-001)
Paragalaxias mesotes
(Australian Museum has paratypes - AMS I.19151-001)
Retropinna abbreviata

New genus
Galaxiella

The following two papers, for which Bob is senior author, were published in the Records of the Australian Museum:

  1. McDowall, R.M. 1997. Affinities, generic classification and biogeography of the Australian and New Zealand mudfishes (Salmoniformes: Galaxiidae). Records of the Australian Museum. 49(2): 121–137.
  2. McDowall, R.M. & R.S. Frankenberg. 1981. The galaxiid fishes of Australia (Pisces: Galaxiidae). Records of the Australian Museum. 33(10): 443–605.


Mark McGrouther , Collection Manager, Ichthyology
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