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Distinguished author

Mary Agnes Chase (1869-1963), sitting at desk with specimens.jpg

Mary Agnes Chase
1869–1963. Standard IPNI form: Chase

Mary Agnes Chase, née Merrill, was an American botanist who worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Smithsonian Institution. She is considered one of the world's outstanding agrostologists and is known for her work on the study of grasses, and also for her work as a suffragist. Chase was born in Iroquois County, Illinois and held no formal education beyond grammar school. That aside, she made significant contributions to the field of botany, authored over 70 scientific publications, and was conferred with an honorary doctorate in science from the University of Illinois. She specialized in the study of grasses and conducted extensive field work in North- as well as and South America. Her Smithsonian Field Books collection from 1897 to 1959 is archived in the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In 1901, Chase became a botanical assistant at the Field Museum of Natural History under Charles Frederick Millspaugh, where her work was featured in two museum publications: Plantae Utowanae (1900) and Plantae Yucatanae (1904). Two years later, Chase joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a botanical illustrator and eventually became a scientific assistant in systematic agrostology (1907), assistant botanist (1923), and associate botanist (1925), all under Albert Spear Hitchcock. Chase worked with Hitchcock for almost twenty years, collaborating closely and also publishing, for instance The North American Species of Panicum (1910).

Following Hitchcock's death in 1936, Chase succeeded him to become senior botanist in charge of systematic agrostology and custodian of the Section of Grasses, Division of Plants at the United States National Museum (USNM). Chase retired from the USDA in 1939, but continued her work as custodian of the USNM grass herbarium until her death in 1963. She was an Honorary Fellow of the Smithsonian Institution (1959) and Fellow of the Linnean Society of London (1961). Agnesia is named in her honour (a monotypic genus of herbaceous South American bamboo in the grass family).

Chase experienced discrimination based on her gender in the scientific field, for example, being excluded from expeditions to Panama in 1911 and 1912 because the expedition's benefactors feared the presence of women researchers would distract men. During World War I, Chase marched with Alice Paul and was jailed several times for her activities. In 1918, she was arrested at the Silent Sentinels rally picketing the White House; she refused bail and was held for 10 days, where she instigated a hunger-strike and was force-fed. The USDA accused her of "conduct unbecoming a government employee," but Hitchcock helped her keep her job. Chase was also an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

See also: Distinguished authors of previous months.

Species of the month

European Bee-eater

Merops apiaster

Merops apiaster

Some facts on this bird:

Length: 25-29 cm.

Wingspan: 36-40 cm.

Weight: 55 grams.

Diet: Insects, especially bees, wasps and hornets.

Life-span: Up to 6 years.

Range: Breeds in Europe and also in parts of Africa and southern-central Asia. Migrates to spend winter in sub-Saharan Africa. May also overwinter in India.

Habitat: Open landscapes with sheltered valleys that have grassy, marshy terrain with few trees.

Conservation status: Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List.

First described: By the Sweedish naturatist Linnaeus in 1758.


Eating bees sounds like a painful indulgence, but for Merops apiaster bees are a delicacy. These birds, called "bee-eaters" can devour up to 250 bees daily. Before eating its meal, a European Bee-eater removes the sting by repeatedly hitting the insect on a hard surface. These colorful birds are gregarious, nesting colonially in sandy banks, preferably near river shores at the beginning of May. Each pair excavates a nesting burrow, usually in a vertical earth or sand bank. A nesting tunnel typically measures about a meter long and terminates in a nest chamber. The female lays four to seven eggs, which are incubated for approximately 20 days by both parents. The chicks fledge at about four weeks of age. Some Merops apiaster have "helpers-at-the-nest"; that is, the nesting pair has additional adults helping with feeding the brood. These "helpers" are usually the pair's relatives which failed in their own breeding attempt earlier in the year. The Merops or "bee-eater" genus contains 23 species and belongs the the Meropidae family, which are characterized by richly colored plumage, slender bodies, and usually elongated central tail feathers.

See also: Species of previous months

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