Remembering Philip Anthony Medica, Desert Tortoise Researcher and USGS Scientist Emeritus

Release Date:

Philip (Phil) Anthony Medica, USGS Scientist Emeritus, passed away on May 3. He is remembered as a dear friend and colleague and as a scientist who made substantial contributions to desert tortoise research and conservation.

Man holds a yellowish snake, outside in a grassy area, looking down at the snake

Phil Medica holds a snake at Fort Irwin, CA in 2005. His passion for herpetology was lifelong, from keeping snakes in buckets as a teenager to studying them in the field as a researcher.

(Public domain.)

Phil was born on December 22, 1941, in New York, NY. Phil graduated from Newtown High School in the Elmhurst neighborhood of Queens, New York in 1959. Despite the school’s city location, agriculture was part of the curriculum, and Phil spent a summer as an apprentice on a dairy farm, where his early herpetological affinities were tolerated (snakes in buckets). Back in the city, Phil forged lifelong friendships with a cadre of junior herpetologists at the American Museum of Natural History, and he made friends with people across the country as they traded herpetological specimens and stories. He would often leave the city by bus or hitch-hike to search the rocky bluffs across the river, or the Pine Barrens of New Jersey to hunt their quarry, showing an appreciation of nature that he pursued throughout his life.  

Phil travelled from New York to New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico in 1959 to pursue his Bachelor of Science in Game Management and his Master of Science in Herpetology in 1966. While in New Mexico, Phil participated in wildlife studies as an undergraduate research assistant. He also made many lifelong friends, and most importantly, met his wife Gloria. While completing his masters’ degree studying whiptail lizards, Phil participated in scientific expeditions to Mexico and lizard collecting trips at the Nevada Test Site (NTS) near Mercury, Nevada.

Man sits in an office, phone to his ear and looking at the camera

Phil Medica, a tireless advocate for desert tortoise research and conservation.

(Public domain.)

In 1967, Phil started his professional career at the NTS. He started out his work at NTS as a graduate teaching assistant with the Zoology Department at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, then continued his work there as a Staff Research Associate with the University of California Los Angeles, Laboratory of Nuclear Medicine & Radiation Biology until 1981, and finally as a Senior Ecologist for Reynolds Electrical & Engineering Co. until 1992. Phil couldn’t discuss many of his assignments at the NTS, as he was working on behalf of the security and safety of this country. While much of that work involved a degree of tedium, other parts of his assignments were stuff of science fiction action movies. “A trip to NTS with Phil was a walk through Cold War history,” said colleague and friend Todd Esque.

Man holds a small device up to a tortoise at the back of a vehicle. A woman holds the tortoise and manages a machine.

Phil Medica and a colleague give a desert tortoise an ultrasound in the early 2000s.

(Public domain.)

When the desert tortoise was protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, Phil was hired by the Bureau of Land Management in Las Vegas, Nevada to develop their desert tortoise research program, and later by the National Biological Survey to conduct desert tortoise research. As field station leader from 1993 to 1997, Phil organized, managed, and mentored up to 30 young college interns at a time as well as many graduate students, young scholars, and conservationists. When the National Biological Survey was absorbed into the USGS, Phil continued on with the agency as a Wildlife Biologist and Field Station Leader from 1997 to 2000, where he was a leader in the field of desert tortoise conservation. In the early days of the Western Ecological Research Center, then the California Science Center, Phil was a key player in crafting science guidance for the future. In 2000, Phil was hired as the first Desert Tortoise Recovery Coordinator at the US Fish and Wildlife Service until 2004 when he returned to the USGS as a Wildlife Biologist and Senior Advisor to the Ft. Irwin Desert Tortoise Translocation Project until 2011. Phil retired in 2013, but he remained active as a Scientist Emeritus with the USGS.

Man in a desert scrub area, with mountains in the background

Phil Medica, at home in the field during field surveys at Ft. Irwin in 2005.

(Public domain.)

Phil Medica was profoundly committed to science and desert conservation, and even during the last week of his life he was collaborating on research that was near and dear to his heart. He made substantial contributions to science and conservation, authoring more than 80 scientific articles, as well as writing editorials on behalf of desert conservation in the local newspaper. He very much enjoyed the camaraderie in membership of many professional societies.

Phil’s knowledge of the natural word was wide, extending far beyond tortoises. “He was a walking encyclopedia of natural history,” said Kathy Longshore. 

Outside of his work, Phil was an aficionado of rare books. Multiple WERC scientists fondly recall traveling around California with Phil, stopping at small, out of the way, used bookstores. “To this day, when I pop into a used bookstore I discover, I think of that fun day with Phil,” said Barb Kus.

Phil Medica worked tirelessly for science and for WERC, but colleagues remember his warmth and good nature above all.

“Mostly, I will remember Phil's warm smile and wonderful personality,” wrote Center Director Keith Miles.

Like his friendships, when Phil signed up to participate in anything – he signed up for life. Phil’s living legacies are his family and the scores of men and women whose scientific and conservation careers he launched as a mentor and friend.

Two people exit a helicopter in the desert, walking towards the camera

Phil Medica exits a helicopter, into the desert.

(Credit: Ken Nussear, USGS Western Ecological Research Center. Public domain.)

Thanks to Todd Esque for his contributions to this tribute.