Great Lakes wetlands bioassessment pioneer Thomas Burton dies

Thomas Burton

Thomas Burton

Thomas M. Burton, professor emeritus of zoology and fisheries & wildlife at Michigan State University (MSU) and a pioneer in the bioassessment of the Great Lakes wetlands, passed away on June 1. He was 72.

Burton was born on November 24, 1941. He attended the University of Louisiana-Monroe, where he received a B.S. and an M.S. in biology in 1963 and 1965, respectively, and a Ph.D. in aquatic ecology from Cornell University in 1973. He completed his post-doctoral work in biogeochemistry at Florida State University in 1974.

Burton was a faculty member with the Department of Zoology for more than 32 years, from 1975-2007. He began his career at MSU with a tenure track research position in the Institute of Water Research. He conducted research on the Water Quality Management Project, and became the lead researcher on a pilot watershed study funded by the International Joint Commission through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He also served as chairperson of the Department of Zoology and as director of the Biological Science Program from 1996-2000.

Burton’s research focused on community dynamics of streams, wetlands and lakes, and the monitoring and restoration of the Great Lakes coastal marshes, inland forested wetlands and streams. He published more than 130 papers on salamander and fish ecology, the use of natural systems for recycling wastewater, effects of stormwater runoff on lakes and streams, and plant and animal community dynamics in streams and wetlands.

He was awarded research funding from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Interior, the Michigan Departments of Environmental Quality and Natural Resources, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, The Nature Conservancy and Dow Chemical Company. Career awards included a Smithsonian Fellowship for research on the streams in Panama (1989-90), an Indo-American Fellowship for research on the streams in the Nilgiri Hills in Bangalore, India (1989-90) and a Fulbright Fellowship.

Burton’s advice was sought by federal and state agencies and by non-governmental organizations. He was selected as a spokesperson for the wetlands environmental indicators group and presented the Canadian-U.S. Report at the 2000 State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference. He also presented numerous keynote addresses at international conferences, including the Wetlands 2000 Conference in Quebec City, the Michigan-Shiga Large Lakes Conference in Japan in 2001, and scientific sessions on wetlands and streams in Ireland and New Zealand for the International Limnological Society.

He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Wetlands Society and the International Society for Tropical Ecology. Additionally, he served as chairperson of the Great Lakes Commission Wetland Consortium and co-chair of the science committee and was responsible for writing the science report on bioassessment indicators for Great Lakes wetlands.

Burton was an exceptional researcher and teacher, highly recognized by his peers in the aquatic sciences and deeply appreciated by his students. He enjoyed and cherished his career, his friends and students, his years at MSU, and the natural world that he studied, advocated for and immersed himself in.

He is survived by his wife, Delorus, and sons Richard and David.