Ron with Rocky, his favorite California sea lion.

Dr. Ronald J. Schusterman was the founder and long-time leader of the Cognition and Sensory Systems Laboratory in Santa Cruz, and our current research program is the result of Ron's acheivements and vision over the past 25+ years. Therefore, we are deeply saddened to announce that Ron passed away on February 11th 2010 after a lifelong battle with heart disease. Ron's shared passion for exploring animal behavior and cognition was fundamental to the growth of comparative psychology and marine mammalogy and his legacy continues today. Thanks largely to his nurturing and care, our project is still evolving and growing, offering unique opportunities for undergraduate students, graduate student researchers, and colleagues with similar interests in exploring the inner worlds of animals, especially those unique mammals that have amphibious lifestyles. Ron's influence has touched many people over the years and he continues to positively affect many lives. We wish to express our deep gratitude and respect for Ron for his passion and extensive efforts in many fields of scientific research. Without him, many of us would not be where we are today.

A brief announcement to the marine mammal research community, from Brandon Southall, Bob Gisiner, and Colleen Reichmuth

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 was posthumously published in the 2010 issue of that journal (click here for a copy of this special article).

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.

For more information please contact

Two wonderful 'in memorium' articles have been written about Ron and his career by his dear friends and colleagues, Dr. Paul Nachtigall and Dr. Charles Rice.

Chuck Rice was a graduate student with Ron at Florida State University under the mentorship of Dr. Winthrop Kellogg, and later worked closely with Ron at the Standord Research Institute (SRI). For the next four decades, Ron and Chuck remained lifelong friends. Chuck went on to become the editor of the Psychological Record, and he recently published a special memorial article about Ron in the journal: Psychological Record (2010) volume 60:183-184.

Led by Paul Nachtigall, several of Ron's former students (and close friends) published a memorial article for Ron in Marine Mammal Science, the journal of the Society for Marine Mammalogy, of which Ron was an honorary and founding member. Ron was extremely proud of all of his students, which he considered his part of his extended family. This article, written by Paul, along with Patrick Moore, Bob Gisiner and Colleen Reichmuth, highlights just a few of his many important contributions to the field. Marine Mammal Science (2010) volume 26(4): 997-1001.

Some other recent stories, articles, and announcements published about Ron Schusterman

UC Santa Cruz Press Release

Santa Cruz Sentinel Obituary

San Francisco Chronicle

San Jose Mercury News

New York Times Obituary


For those who have asked about making a contribution in Ron's honor, the family has suggested that donations be made in Ron's memory go to one of the following funds:

Palo Alto Medical Clinic Cardiac Research Fund
(select the "research" option, as this will primarily support cardiac research)

The Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Lab Student Research Fund
(complete this form and return by mail)

© 2009 Pinniped Cognition & Sensory Systems Laboratory. All rights reserved.