In memoriam: Robert Wayne, 66, pioneer of conservation genetics, protecting canids and other species

Distinguished professor Robert Wayne, a renowned evolutionary and conservation geneticist whose research helped explain the history and evolution of domestic dogs, died on Dec. 26 of pancreatic cancer. He was 66.

Wayne was a faculty member in UCLA’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology for over 30 years. His research helped in the conservation and management of canid species around the globe. Wayne and his students also used genetic data to show that freeways are a barrier to bobcat and coyote migration, establishing the premise of dedicated tunnels that allow wildlife to cross and maintain healthy populations.

Wayne, the first to establish a conservation genetics lab at UCLA, helped build a foundation for modern molecular conservation genetics. In 1996 he co-authored “Molecular Genetic Approaches in Conservation,” based on an American Association for the Advancement of Science symposium. In 2016, Wayne received a grant from the UC President’s Office to establish a consortium of researchers from six UC campuses to develop new conservation genomics techniques to be shared with the scientific community. He published over 300 papers in scientific journals during his career.

Much of his work focused on the evolution and genetics of dogs and wolves, including the ancient dire wolf, the “golden jackals” of East Africa and South American canid populations. He is perhaps best known for research on the evolution of dogs, which showed that dogs were domesticated from gray wolves.

Hiss recent research focused on the genetic diversity of small populations such as the endangered vaquita porpoise. His lab also worked on new ways to analyze DNA from the environment to learn about organisms that are present but difficult to detect.

Wayne was a dedicated teacher and mentor to many students. “My first meeting with Bob was 14 years ago, but I remember it vividly because it changed the course of my life,” said Jacqueline Robinson, who earned a doctorate in 2017. “Bob inspired me. He gave me a chance, and he supported my scientific development as we worked on fascinating projects together over the years.”

“He had so much faith in his students’ abilities and made it possible for us to rise to the challenge,” said Annabel Beichman, who received a doctorate in 2020. “He was our forever mentor, looking out for us long after we graduated .”

During the last few years, Wayne offered a new course that took students out of the classroom and into the field at UC Natural Reserve System sites, where they would sample DNA from the environment and document their observations in online notebooks. In 2017, he received the HHMI professors award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute along with his collaborator, UC Santa Cruz professor Beth Shapiro, for this novel approach to teaching.

Outside of UCLA, Wayne was a naturalist and conservationist. He promoted the conservation of wolves and helped protect the habitat and species of the Santa Monica Mountains, where he lived with his wife and friend Blaire Van Valkenburgh, a UCLA distinguished professor and paleontologist.

“Bob made everyone around him think bigger and bolder, moving us outside of what we found comfortable,” Kirk Lohmueller, UCLA associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and of human genetics. “He made us believe in ourselves, our work, and our mission.”

“Bob was a dear friend and a touchstone for all of us,” said Thomas Smith, a distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA. “His legacy will live on through his many students, postdocs, and colleagues.”

In honor of Wayne’s contributions to conservation genetics, the American Genetic Association is establishing the Robert K. Wayne Conservation Scholarship and Research Fund to support graduate students whose research directly benefits a threatened species.

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