Over 50 years in the field of evolutionary genetics and a leader in conservation genetics, we honour Professor Richard (Dick) Frankham, winner of the 2019 Whitley Special Commendation Certificate.
It is an unusual, but not altogether unheard of phenomenon, that you become more famous once you retire. For Professor Richard (Dick) Frankham, this holds true; many of his most significant papers have been published in the last decade, well after his retirement in 2002. Not one to ever rest on his laurels, Dick has had a distinguished career for over five decades as an evolutionary geneticist and is considered one of the founders of conservation genetics. And so, quite rightfully, in October last year Dick was awarded the 2019 Whitley Special Commendation by the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales.
As far as career snapshots go, Professor Frankham’s is very impressive. After being awarded his PhD from the University of Sydney in 1968, Dick travelled the world furthering his academic career, starting in quantitative genetics and animal breeding. After a postdoctoral position for several years at the University of Chicago, he took up a lectureship at Macquarie University in 1973 and was promoted to Professor in 1997. In 2003, he became a Research Associate at the Australian Museum and in 2017 was awarded the M.J.D. White Medal from the Genetics Society of AustralAsia. He has published nearly 200 influential research papers and has been cited over 30,000 times.
But it was in the 1980s that Dick focused his research on the underdeveloped field of conservation genetics. Although a young discipline, it had the potential to save the planet’s biodiversity and offered Dick a chance to make significant contributions to science and conservation. From the 1990s, Dick started to revolutionise the field through visionary empirical investigations (e.g. using lab populations of the vinegar fly to test key theoretical assumptions in population and conservation genetics) and through conducting pivotal meta-analyses and reviews on a wide variety of topics (e.g. effective population size, island populations, inbreeding, outbreeding, species concepts and genetic rescue).
But at this point, you may ask: what is conservation genetics? Simply put, conservation genetics “is the use of genetics to aid in the conservation of populations or species”, (Frankham, Ballou and Briscoe, 2002, p. xv) encompassing genetic management of populations, resolving taxonomic uncertainties and the use of molecular genetic analyses. Spurred on by the global biodiversity crisis, Dick gathered an international team and wrote the first ever textbook on conservation genetics in 2002 (now with over 12,000 copies sold). The next challenge came in the early 2010s, when the issue of how to manage fragmented animal and plant populations arose. Similarly, Dick led an international team and published, what he calls ‘the most important thing he’s ever done’, his 2017 book. This research tackles evolutionary issues faced by small isolated populations, and offers practical management options in line with best-science.
As an internationally renowned expert and researcher, Dick has used this platform (which has been ever increasing in influence) to showcase Australia’s unique fauna, wildlife management challenges and solutions to an international audience. These include a series of books, which have brought evolutionary theory to the fore in applied conservation management and has transformed, and continues to transform, the way captive and wild populations are managed around the world. The books are littered with incredible examples of Australia’s biodiversity, from koalas to corroboree frogs.
His significant contributions to the field of conservation genetics and practical management of wildlife populations in Australia, and internationally, have made him a giant in his field. Professor Richard Frankham is well-deserving of this award and he continues to inspire future scientists and leaders in conservation genetics.
Meagan Warwick, AMRI and External Partnerships Coordinator, Australian Museum Research Institute
Mark Eldridge, Principal Research Scientist, Terrestrial Vertebrates, Australian Museum Research Institute
References and further reading:
Briscoe, D.A., Malpica, J.M., Robertson, A., Smith, G.J., Frankham, R., Banks, R.G. and Barker, J.S.F. (1992) Rapid Loss of Genetic Variation in Large Captive Populations of Drosophila Flies: Implications for the Genetic Management of Captive Populations. Conservation Biology, 6:416-425.
Frankham, R., Ballou, J.D. and Briscoe, D.A. (2002) Introduction to Conservation Genetics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Frankham, R., Ballou, J.D. and Briscoe, D.A (2004) A Primer of Conservation Genetics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Frankham, R., Ballou, J.D. and Briscoe, D.A. (2010) Introduction to Conservation Genetics. Second eds. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Frankham, R., Ballou, J.D., Ralls, K., Eldridge, M.D.B., Dudash, M.R., Fenster, C.B., Lacy, R.C. and Sunnucks, P. (2017) Genetic Management of Fragmented Animal and Plant Populations. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Frankham, R., Ballou, J.D., Ralls, K., Eldridge, M.D.B., Dudash, M.R., Fenster, C.B., Lacy, R.C. and Sunnucks, P. (2019) A Practical Guide for the Genetic Management of Fragmented Animal and Plant Populations. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.