Barry M. OConnor, Ph.D., professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and curator of insects in the Museum of Zoology in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, retired from active faculty status on December 31, 2018. The University of Michigan Regents salute this distinguished scholar by naming OConnor professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology and curator emeritus in the Museum of Zoology.

OConnor attended Iowa State University where he earned a Bachelor of Science in 1971. After military service, he then attended Cornell University where he earned his Doctorate in 1981. OConnor joined the University of Michigan faculty as an assistant professor and assistant curator in the Museum of Zoology in 1980, was promoted through the ranks to professor and curator in 2001. He served as associate chair of biology, associate chair of ecology and evolutionary biology, and on many administrative committees regarding departmental governance, graduate affairs, promotions and merit, diversity, and student evaluation. He served on doctoral committees of 19 students and developed fruitful collaborations with seven postdoctoral fellows. His active scientific career involved participation in eight professional societies, in which he received numerous awards and honors, including the presidency of the Acarological Society of America.

Barry OConnor collecting insects/mites in Costa Rica (~1990). Image: Robert Naczi.

OConnor is a world authority on mites – thousands of species of tiny arachnids including important parasites of animals and plants. His research on evolution and interactions of these parasites and their hosts has been published in more than 180 peer-reviewed research articles on mites that he collected, studied and described from all over the world. The scientific and societal benefits of his research led to 10 research grants from the National Science Foundation, the U. S. Department of Agriculture and others. His ability to make his subjects and his discoveries interesting led not only to successful courses and special lectures at U-M, but to presentations and short courses at many other universities in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Scotland, The Netherlands, Austria, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. He has been a popular and informative speaker at departmental retreats and special occasions at the U-M, where his teaching covered general biology, evolution and animal diversity, parasitology, acarology and co-evolution. He received the LSA Excellence in Education Award in 1995 and the LSA Excellence in Concentration Advising Award in 2006. This introduction is from the U-M Regent’s Retirement Memoir on OConnor’s career.

OConnor plans to continue his work in mite systematics and ecology. “I have many projects that have been in the works for a while and don't see an end!” he said. “I will also continue to collaborate with others who need expertise in mite systematics. I have recently agreed to collaborate with people in Iceland, the Northern Mariana Islands and the Galapagos Islands who have been working with insects or birds and have discovered what turn out to be (not surprisingly) new mites. The insular birds are all endangered species, so there is a conservation aspect to this work as well. The ornithologists were initially concerned that the mites might be harmful to the birds, but because feather mites are actually potentially beneficial, I've convinced them that these new species are also endangered and should be saved!”

Barry OConnor in Tanzania (1995). Image: William Stanley

Often in collaboration with colleagues and students, he has described the following numbers of new mite taxa so far: Subfamilies – 3; Tribes – 1; Genera – 34; Species – 255.

Over the years, a number of mites have been named in honor of OConnor:

Family: Oconnoriidae Gaud, Atyeo & Klompen, 1989

Genera: Oconnoria Gaud, Atyeo & Klompen, 1989 [type species: Oconnoria inexpectata Gaud, Atyeo & Klompen, 1989 - a quill mite of Philippine owls] – ask him about the story that goes with this one!

Species: Steneotarsonemus oconnori Delfinado, 1976 - grass mite

Coccipolipus oconnori Husband, 1989 - ladybug beetle parasite

Bregetovia oconnori Mironov, Dabert & Atyeo, 1993 - sandpiper feather mite

Myotrombicula oconnori Brown, 1997 - bat chigger

Paradactylidium oconnori Goldarazena, Ochoa & Jordana, 1999 - beetle parasite

Adenoepicrius oconnori Moraza, 2005 - soil mite

Pterotrogus oconnori Mironov, 2006 - pileated woodpecker feather mite

Pandalura oconnori Mironov, 2011 - oilbird feather mite

Klinckowstroemia oconnori, Villegas-Guzman, Reyes-Castillo & Perez, 2011 - passalid beetle mite

Listrophoroides oconnori Bochkov, 2011 - Laotian limestone-rat fur mite

All of these mites except Oconnoria inexpectata, Bregetovia oconnori and Listrophoroides oconnori were collected by OConnor.

Favorite aspects of his career included traveling to interesting places. He’s done field work on all continents except Antarctica. Also, the “discovery of new animals that nobody had ever seen before!” He can continue his discoveries without leaving Ann Arbor by working on material already collected and by studying the insect and bird collections in the U-M Museum of Zoology. “Mites often stay on their hosts even after they are prepared as specimens,” he explained.

As for what he will miss – teaching. “I enjoyed teaching introductory biology for many years, and although most students took the course as a requirement, a lot of them got turned onto the broader aspects of biology (i.e., beyond medical school aspirations). Upper division students in my Parasitology course were mostly headed to med school and were there for the credit, but I recall quite a few who were genuinely interested in the subject. Although most of my research students went on into the medical field, a number stayed with entomology and are employed in various aspects of the field.”

OConnor taught in the Acarology Summer Program at Ohio State for some 30 years, the longest tenure of any of their instructors, and had fruitful collaborations with many of the former students from all over the world. The following is just a sampling:

“My two doctoral students now run the most active (dare I say only) programs in systematic Acarology in the U.S.: Hans Klompen at Ohio State and Ashley Dowling at the University of Arkansas. Ohio State cut funding for the Acarology Summer Program last year, so it is moving to Arkansas under Dowling's direction. My postdoc, Ronald Ochoa, is senior scientist at the USDA Systematic Entomology Laboratory and is curator of the Smithsonian's National mite collection housed in Beltsville, Md. My postdoc, Kimiko Okabe, has been successful at cracking a very thick glass ceiling in the Japanese scientific establishment. She organized the 14th International Congress of Acarology in Kyoto, Japan in 2014, and although her position has now shifted more into conservation biology, we continue to collaborate on mite projects.”

OConnor always knew he wanted to study insects. He was recruited by a famous ecologist at Cornell University for their doctoral program. He took a course in Acarology his first term because he didn't know anything about mites. Students had to make a collection, and since he was interested in the arthropod communities living in vertebrate nests, he collected material from a squirrel nest and tried to identify the most abundant mite there. “It wouldn't go through the key, so the teaching assistant told me it was probably something new!”

Barry OConnor collecting deep soil mites in Colorado (2008) Image: Jeff Wilke.

In trying to figure out what it was, he discovered that both the genus and the family it was in were polyphyletic (a set of organisms that have been grouped together but do not share an immediate common ancestor). In the meantime, things weren't working out in the ecology lab, so he asked the Acarology instructor, George Eickwort (whose major research area was bees), if he would take on a mite student. OConnor wrote his approximately 600-page dissertation doing the first phylogenetic analysis of family groups in the large group of mites known as Astigmata.

“It has been a very satisfying career, in large part due to the acceptance by the faculty and staff of someone researching things they couldn't see. Thanks to that support, the UMMZ now has one of the premier mite collections in the world. When I arrived, there were about 300 mite specimens in the collection. I have added around 200,000 more and accepted the gifts of several mite collections from retired colleagues, so that now the collection numbers over 400,000 slides and 70,000 alcohol lots. I've also had the privilege of working with some fabulous support staff and administrators.”

Wishing OConnor all the best in his semi-retirement. As he signs off on his emails, “so many mites, so little time!”

Compiled by Gail Kuhnlein