Dave McKinnon

Memorial for Dave McKinnon | Wim Kimmerer | 4 February 2022


Alexander David McKinnon died peacefully in his home in Townsville, Australia on 24 November 2021. Surrounded by his wife Jocelyn, children Claire McKinnon Grant and Leigh McKinnon, he succumbed to complications from non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He was 67 years old and had retired from his long-time position at the Australian Institute of Marine Science to spend more time with his family, including his four young grandchildren.



Dave was born in 1954 in New Zealand and grew up in Christchurch. After attending the University of Otago he moved to Melbourne in 1976 to attend the University of Melbourne, where he soon met his future wife Jocelyn, the love of his life. This reshaped his plans for future travel and he began studies of the distribution and taxonomy of copepods in local waters.



We first met in 1982 when I arrived at the University of Melbourne from Hawaii for a three-year research fellowship in zooplankton ecology, knowing almost nothing about what research would be feasible. Dave had been hired by the Zoology department to be my research assistant, and it took about five minutes talking with him to realize this would work out fine. Dave was already a skilled taxonomist with several published papers to his name, a skill that proved useful as we joined forces to develop a research program on the zooplankton of local estuaries. Dave was also skilled at drawing the little copepod bits that I could barely see under the microscope.



From the moment we met, Dave and I worked together as a team of equals, a team that was more than the sum of its parts. We settled on a strategy to study the copepod faunas of two bays near Melbourne. Port Phillip Bay is broad and deep with a narrow channel to the sea, and high copepod diversity. Westernport is reticulate, shallow, and turbid, with a wide opening to sea and zooplankton dominated by a single species of copepod in the ubiquitous genus Acartia. This difference in diversity caught our interest, as it suggested opportunities to understand how estuarine and marine food webs are structured and regulated.



So we began a program of systematic sampling in both bays and mapped out a scheme to understand this difference in the copepod faunas. The Zoology Department treated us well: we had free access to cars, boats, and a bit of space, and our only mandate was to study zooplankton. We got a modest grant to support hiring Keely Ough, a highly skilled and hard-working zooplankton analyst. In the words of Dr. Ian Bayly, our little group went at it “hammer and tongs.”  This resulted in a series of publications in which we tried to identify the causes of the observed distributions, eventually concluding that the chief cause was size- and visibility selection by small fish in shallow waters. Along the way we developed and applied a method for measuring growth rate of zooplankton which is still being used, investigated the interactions between physical dynamics and copepod distributions, and showed that parasites could inflict substantial mortality to a copepod population.



Several students joined our group, notably Greg Jenkins and Mark “Phantom” Fancett, both of whom earned their PhDs. Greg is now back at Melbourne University, and reports that his years at Melbourne were some of the best of his life, and that Dave had been a great friend and supporter.


Dave was always a joy to work with—though it was necessary to appreciate his sardonic sense of humor. He was bright and very perceptive with a keen memory, often used to dredge up something I had said two years earlier, usually to zing me.  He would complain about additional experiments that I , his “poxy boss,” would suggest, but he never minded the hard work and was always interested in the best way to answer questions. 



Our field trips were rigorous and great fun. Dave and I would tow a boat to the field station at Rhyll on Phillip Island in Westernport. On the way we would stop for supplies including food, a case of beer, and a copious supply of Tim Tams. After setting up an incubation for the “artificial cohort” method we developed for measuring growth rates of copepods, we would enjoy a leisurely dinner and a few beers and some enjoyable and wide-ranging conversation. The next 2-3 days we sampled throughout the bay, did some additional sampling for experiments or time-series measurements, then retrieved and processed the growth-rate samples before cleaning up and heading home.



On one of our trips we were waiting to launch the boat while several guys got their boat in the water. They all had t-shirts on with a picture of a jumping fish and the words “Fin Fever.” We looked at each other and in unison blurted out “Pod Fever.” Dave then had some t-shirts made with that motto and a beautiful drawing of Acartia fancetti, which he would later describe as a new species.



Dave loved the hot summer days out on the water. One hot day in 1983 we did a long transect across a shallow part of Westernport. The wind picked up to about 30 knots, the seas picked up, and by the end of the trip we were both white with a coating of salt. What fun! But that was also the day when whole, charred gum leaves fell out of the sky from wildfires surrounding Melbourne.



Dave hated the chilly, wet Melbourne winters, and set his sights on a position in the tropics. In 1985, Dave moved with his family to tropical Townsville for a position at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, where he initially worked on coral reefs.  He returned to his love of plankton through a Master’s degree at Melbourne with John Benzie, studying the distinction among three size morphs of Acartia copepods that had somewhat complicated our work in Melbourne. This work resulted in a paper that may have been the first to use biochemical markers (isozymes) to show the existence of cryptic species in copepods.



He then went on for a PhD at the University of Queensland in 1997, followed by a long, productive career at AIMS. His studies took him to tropical waters near Australia, with topics ranging widely from pollution, aquaculture (copepods!), plankton community metabolism, and of course copepod ecology. He had many long-term collaborations, notably with Samantha Duggan and his PhD student Felipe Gusmão. Dave and I  kept in contact and had a few opportunities to get together over the years, always a delight.



Although Dave greatly enjoyed this work (especially the copepods!) a cancer scare in 2010 and his delight in his four young grandchildren led him to retire from AIMS in 2014 to spend more time with his family. He was proud of his children, and absolutely joyous with his grandchildren. Though he still had his scientific chops, Dave never regretted retiring.



I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area when our funding ended. Dave and I collaborated on one more paper, with Andrew Hirst and Russ Hopcroft, published in 2007. 



In one of our infrequent meetings since our time in Melbourne, I said to Dave that some people think nematodes, not copepods, were the most abundant animals on Earth. With a look of disgust, Dave sneered “Yeah, but they’re worms!” That sums up my great friend and colleague Dave McKinnon, a real copepodologist with a great sense of humor. I miss him. And I still have the t-shirt.


 From left, Russ Hopcroft, Wim Kimmerer, Andrew Hirst, and Dave McKinnon at the Estuary & Ocean Science Center, with San Francisco Bay in the background
From left, Russ Hopcroft, Wim Kimmerer, Andrew Hirst, and Dave McKinnon at the Estuary & Ocean Science Center, with San Francisco Bay in the background