[MARMAM] In Memoriam: Dr. Ronald J. Schusterman

Brandon Southall Brandon.Southall at sea-inc.net
Fri Feb 19 14:21:19 PST 2010


On behalf of his closest colleagues, we are saddened to inform you that 
the marine mammal community has lost one of the true pioneers in our 
field with the passing of Ronald J. Schusterman on February 11th 2010. 
Many of you either knew Ron personally, especially if you liked to dance 
and have a good time at conferences, or through his outstanding 
contributions to many areas of marine mammal science, most notably 
sensory systems and cognition. Ours is a young and rapidly growing field 
of study, but Ron was part of a small, and, sadly, declining number of 
“pre-Act” marine mammal researchers who laid the foundations for our 
Society’s current appreciation of marine mammals, the passage of the 
Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, and the foundation of what was to 
become the Society for Marine Mammalogy, of which he was a founding member.

Ron was a native of New York City, specifically the Bronx, and proudly 
cherished his Big Apple heritage throughout his life; anyone who knew 
him quickly detected the unquenchable brash exuberance of a true New 
Yorker. After serving in the U.S. Army, Ron attended Brooklyn College, 
where his interest in psychology was kindled by Professor Mort Feinberg. 
After graduating from Brooklyn College, Ron, on the recommendation of 
Feinberg, began graduate studies with Winthrop Kellogg at Florida State 
University, where Ron received his Ph.D. in 1961. It may surprise some 
folks who knew Ron as a marine mammal scientist, and know of Winthrop 
Kellogg from his work on dolphin biosonar, that Ron went to work with 
Kellogg to study primates. Ron maintained a lifelong interest in 
primatology, especially gibbons and chimps, and was remarkably 
conversant with the literature on primate behavior, cognition and 
development. Like Bill Mason, his friend and famed primatologist who 
studied howler monkeys, Ron could produce startlingly realistic calls of 
gibbons, howler monkeys and other primates. His skills produced dramatic 
effects, both on his students and the resident primates, during field 
trips to the local zoo and to the UC Davis Primate Center.

Ron did not transition into marine mammal studies until recruited to the 
Stanford Research Institute by Tom Poulter and Kellogg. Poulter was a 
well-known scientist and adventurer, having rescued Admiral Byrd during 
Byrd’s famous Antarctic overwintering expedition in 1934. Poulter was 
trained as a physicist and served as Byrd’s meteorologist, but he had 
become convinced that seals and sea lions possessed echolocation 
capabilities like those that had only recently been discovered in 
dolphins. Poulter hired Ron to help him prove that seals had sonar. He 
had not reckoned with Ron’s meticulous thoroughness as a researcher, nor 
Ron’s profound capacity for rigorous critical thinking. Ron, through a 
series of incisive and ingenious experiments, was unable to find a 
specialized sonar sense in seals or sea lions, though he did discover 
very intelligent animals with remarkable visual, auditory and cognitive 
capabilities that were sufficient to account for the behavior of these 
remarkable marine predators, even without active echolocation. In spite 
of considerable certainty by Poulter that biosonar must be there 
somewhere, Ron stood by his work, which led to some storied battles at 
what Ken Norris referred to as the “Poultergeist” meetings at Stanford 
Research Institute – annual gatherings of the small marine mammal 
scientific community in the late 1960s and early 70s that eventually led 
to the current biennial conferences. The search for specialized sonar 
capabilities in seals and sea lions continues, as it should – in science 
negative findings are never taken as proven – but it is a testament to 
Ron’s unequaled scientific skills that no one else has been able to find 
what Ron could not find 45 years ago.

Ron continued to focus on both sensory biology and cognitive 
capabilities of marine mammals, first at Stanford Research Institute, 
then at California State University at Hayward (now Cal State East Bay), 
where Ron held joint appointments in the Psychology and Biology 
Departments and co-taught one of the first Marine Mammal Biology courses 
with Sam McGinnis, beginning around 1972. In 1985 Ron moved his research 
program to Long Marine Laboratory at the University of California, Santa 
Cruz where it continues as a strong, vital center of pinniped sensory 
and cognitive research under the very capable direction of his former 
student and beloved colleague, Colleen Reichmuth.

Ron’s nearly 50-year career in marine mammal science was overwhelmingly 
productive, with pioneering work in many different areas of sensory 
perception and learning. Ron is also extremely well known in the field 
of Comparative Psychology for his experimental work on language learning 
and the foundations of complex cognition in animals, as well as for 
studies of mother-offspring bonding during early development and into 
adulthood, and studies of reward expectancies and contingencies in 
children, non-human primates, and marine mammals. Many in the community 
may know that he used his extensive knowledge of conditioning and 
learning theory to develop some of the first, most creative, and most 
enduring approaches to training marine mammals in captivity. He was a 
founding member of the Society for Marine Mammalogy, and an Honorary 
Fellow of the Animal Behavior Society, the Acoustical Society of 
America, the American Psychological Association, and the American 
Association for the Advancement of Science, and just a few months ago, 
he was inducted into the California Academy of Sciences. Ron had just 
completed a historical perspectives article for Aquatic Mammals that 
will be posthumously published in the next issue of that journal.

Perhaps even more important than the hundreds of papers, books, 
articles, lectures, and honors was the effect on the field he had 
through the students he mentored and colleagues he helped, too numerous 
to mention individually. Ron leaves a profound legacy in the form of a 
very close-knit family of colleagues, spanning multiple generations and 
disciplines. He influenced many of the most productive scientists in our 
community. We share in common the enduring imprint of an exceptional 
scientist and a compassionate optimist who was also a passionate lover 
of music, art, and baseball, dancing and dining with good friends, and 
of course, a zealous observer of the behavior of all creatures. Ron will 
surely be deeply missed by many, but his contributions will continue to 
enrich our science and our lives.

Ron is survived by his wife Francie, his daughters Marisa, Nikki, and 
Lesli, his beloved grandchildren, Danielle, Max, Nacho, Alyssa, and his 
grandchildren by marriage, Isabella, Shawn, and Talia. A small funeral 
service was held in Santa Cruz, California on Monday the 15th of 
February, 2010 and a celebratory memorial is planned for Sunday the 28th 
of February in La Selva Beach, California - all are welcome! 
Additionally, several memorial funds are being established in his honor. 
For more information please contact: info at pinnipedlab.org 
<mailto:info at pinnipedlab.org>.

Brandon Southall
Colleen Reichmuth
Bob Gisiner

Brandon L. Southall, Ph.D.
President, Senior Scientist, SEA, Inc.
Research Associate, University of California, Santa Cruz
911 Center Street, Suite B, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA
831.427.9529 (office); 831.427.9542 (fax)
Brandon.Southall at sea-inc.net; www.sea-inc.net 

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