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Remembering Robert K. Wayne

Eminent geneticist Robert Wayne (1956-2022) followed the data wherever it led.

Key points

  • In memory of a friend and an outstanding scientist and educator.
  • Bob Wayne passes away, leaving a gaping hole but a legacy of important work in evolutionary biology.
  • Wayne's lab drew scores of international students and scholars and nurtured them.

Robert K. Wayne passed away on December 26, 2022 of pancreatic cancer. Bob’s lab in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California-Los Angeles nurtured young scholars and researchers and provided assistance to those already established but seeking to expand their mastery of evolutionary genomics. Bob devoted much of his career to bringing the tools of genomic analysis to the protection of endangered species and to sorting the often tangled genetic histories of various species, especially carnivores. For example, his work on Florida panthers (Puma concolor coryi) contributed significantly to the panther recovery plan put in place by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This bold plan was intended to counter the effects of generations of inbreeding in this relict population of big cats, which was struggling to survive in the swamps of South Florida. Born in controversy, the plan proved a major success.

The panther work not only helped establish the importance of hybridization in conservation, but also expanded our understanding of the formation of species. Bob and his lab also worked with the inbred wolves of Isle Royale in Lake Superior and other imperiled populations.

Bob is perhaps best known to the public for his work on the evolution of dogs, beginning with his 1997 Science paper with Carles Vilá and others, which showed that the grey wolf was the progenitor of dogs. That finding alone changed the debate over dog origins because it disproved an inherently racist belief, current at least since Darwin, that northern dogs were related to wolves and southern dogs to jackals.

I interviewed Bob many times over the years and always found him open and supportive. His legacy can be counted among the scores of graduate students and post-docs to whom he opened his lab over the years. In his memory, the American Genetic Association has established a scholarship fund to support graduate student and post-doc research in conservation genetics. I will miss him and am sure he will be missed mightily by those who knew him best.

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