Famed UM Biologist Earns Montana’s Highest Professor Rank

An expert on the evolution of animal weaponry, UM researcher Doug Emlen recently was named a Regents Professor, the highest faculty rank in the Montana University System.

MISSOULA – Dr. Douglas Emlen, a University of Montana biology professor whose work on the development and evolution of animal weaponry has garnered international acclaim, was named a Regents Professor of Evolutionary Biology on Friday, Nov. 20.

Regents Professor is the highest faculty rank bestowed by the Montana University System. Emlen’s new honor was approved by the state Board of Regents. He is the 13th UM faculty member to earn the professor rank since it was established in 1991.

“You know, I once had a class of biology students give me a standing ovation at the end of a semester, and that might be my most amazing award,” Emlen said. “But this is definitely right up there.”

The son of a scientist, Emlen earned his doctorate from Princeton University in 1994 and was a postdoctoral researcher at Duke University before joining the UM faculty in 1994.

Emlen’s research has focused on why certain animal species get into evolutionary arms races that result in massive weaponry, like the (relatively) huge horns of many beetles, the antlers of elk, the claws of fiddler crabs or the teeth of saber-toothed tigers.

With one of his first study species, dung beetles, Emlen learned that weaponry like bigger horns usually provide the most access to females, as big-horned males guard tunnels to their mates. Bigger horns usually win beetle battles. However, evolving massive horns eats up resources, and some smaller, faster males of the same species will forgo this cost altogether to reach females via side tunnels and pass on their genes. So bigger is usually better, but evolution makes exceptions.

 In 2016, Emlen became the first researcher from any Montana institution to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the greatest honors available to American scholars. He earned a Presidential Early Career Award in 2002, the E.O. Wilson Naturalist Award in 2013 and UM’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 2014. He was named the Montana Professor of the Year in 2015 from the Carnegie Foundation and Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

Emlen also is an accomplished author. His 2015 book “Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle” earned the Phi Beta Kappa science book of the year in 2015. The textbook he coauthored, “Evolution: Making Sense of Life,” is used by more than 250 universities and colleges and is in its third edition. He also wrote a book for middle school readers, “Beetle Battles: One Scientist’s Journey of Adventure and Discovery,” which was released in 2019.

Three years ago, NOVA and Britain’s BBC partnered to create a documentary about Emlen’s work titled “Nature’s Wildest Weapons: Horns, Tusks and Antlers.” It includes a memorable scene where the horse Emlen is riding near Flathead Lake is bluff-charged by an elk. His research also has been in featured in outlets such as The New York Times, National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” and “Science Friday,” “SciShow” on YouTube and “MeatEater.”

Emlen even has lectured for the U.S. military, which is interested in how naturally occurring arms races in the natural world can shed light on the escalation of human weapon systems, like Minuteman nuclear missiles.

The professor has been published in major scientific journals. Twenty of his articles have been cited over 100 times, and his top eight have been cited more than 300 times, signaling a body of work that is broadly respected and has far-reaching influence around the globe.

Nomination materials included several glowing letters from former students who praised Emlen’s abilities as an instructor and mentor.

“I can honestly say that Doug is the most supportive and loyal mentor I know, and I attribute much of the success in my scientific career to his guidance,” wrote Erin McCullough, who was mentored by Emlen at UM from 2008 to 2014 and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Syracuse University. “His enthusiasm for biology is contagious; his ability to see the big picture is inspiring.”

“Truly, the Regents Professor rank was created to recognize someone as accomplished as Doug Emlen,” UM President Seth Bodnar said. “His dedication to scientific discovery, his students, this University and the state of Montana sets an example for us all. The UM family could not be more pleased that he has achieved this deserving honor.”

A video about Emlen’s Regents Professor nomination is online.


Contact: Doug Emlen, UM Division of Biological Sciences professor, 406-243-2535, doug.emlen@mso.umt.edu.