The C. Hart Merriam Award is given to eminent scholars in recognition of outstanding research in mammalogy over a period of at least 10 years. C. Hart Merriam was the first chief of the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy of the United States Department of Agriculture (the precursor of the national Fish and Wildlife Service), and a founding member of the American Ornithologists' Union, the National Geographic Society, and the American Society of Mammalogists. Among other contributions to mammalogy and science, he developed the concept of "life zones" to classify biomes found in North America.
The 2012 recipient of the Merriam award is Dr. James Estes from the University of California, Santa Cruz and USGS. Dr. Estes is a pioneer in the study of marine communities, especially with respect to their trophic structure and dynamics. His insights have strongly influenced our theories of community functioning, predator-prey relationships, the role of apex predators, and the evolution of food webs. He is the leading expert in the biology of sea otters and impacts of apex predators on ecosystems. In particular, his research on trophic cascades – the powerful suite of direct and indirect effects that propagate through a food web from the influence of top predators – has been a driving force over the past 30 years in the development of the field of community ecology. His work on sea otters and kelp forest systems provides the most comprehensive evidence ever compiled for the importance of top predators in healthy ecosystems. He has been the leading scientific voice in promoting the recovery of the southern sea otter from near extinction. Dr. Estes has also conducted highly influential research in other fields including animal behavior, population biology and evolutionary biology.