john jack randall fish ichthyologist marine taxonomist obituary
john jack randall fish ichthyologist marine taxonomist obituary

Ichthyologist Jack Randall Dies

The taxonomist described more than 800 species of fish.

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Kerry Grens

Kerry served as The Scientist’s news director until 2021. Before joining The Scientist in 2013, she was a stringer for Reuters Health, the senior health and science reporter at...

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John “Jack” Randall, a marine taxonomist who described hundreds of species of fish, died April 26 at age 95, The Washington Post reports.

According to a 2016 profile in Hakai Magazine, Randall had described more marine species than anyone else in history. “[Jack is] an absolute living legend,” Gerry Allen, a former graduate student of Randall who is now a research associate at the Western Australian Museum and a consultant for Conservation International, told Hakai. “There’s just no one that even approaches his productivity.”  

Randall was born in Los Angeles in 1924. After serving in the military during World War II, he earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a PhD in ichthyology from the University of Hawai‘i. The vast majority of his career—42 years—was spent at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop museum in Hawaii.

According to a 2018 article by the University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant College Program, fish taxonomy was a mess when Randall’s career started, with some species having duplicate records from scientists working independently. “Randall helped bring order to fish taxonomy, methodically cataloguing newly identified species, with an uncanny ability to notice when several different-looking fish were actually the same species at different life stages,” the article states.

Randall observed animals in their natural habitat, initially using rudimentary—and sometimes dangerous—diving equipment. According to Hakai, he once filled a tank with pure oxygen (with no untoward effects because he didn’t dive deep that time) and coated long johns with latex to keep warm. He ultimately became a knowledgeable and safe diver, and was “one of the first scientists to use scuba gear, allowing him to access fish that no one else had ever seen,” the profile states.

Randall’s career took him to places such as Easter Island and the Îles Marquesas to catalog fish where few had been documented before, according to Hakai. The Post notes that Randall described 830 species by the time he died. 

Randall authored 900 scientific papers and numerous books, according to the Post, and won the International Coral Reef Society’s Darwin Medal in 2016. A memorial to Randall includes numerous testimonials from fish biologists and enthusiasts describing his profound contributions to the field, both as a scientist and as an inclusive mentor.

He is survived by his wife Helen Au, two children, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.