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May 26, 2003

Marine mammal researcher honored with symposium at Long Marine Lab

By Shawna Williams

Ronald Schusterman, adjunct professor of ocean sciences, saw his professional life pass before his eyes at a symposium held in his honor in April at UCSC's Long Marine Laboratory. Scientists he has trained and worked with over a 40-year career presented their current research at the symposium, organized by Colleen Reichmuth Kastak, a postdoctoral researcher in Schusterman's lab.

Ron Schusterman gets a kiss from Rocky the sea lion. Photo courtesy of Colleen Kastak

One of the world's leading experts on pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), Schusterman is retiring this year. He has been based at UCSC's Long Marine Lab since 1985.

The symposium, "Comparative Perspectives on Perception, Cognition, and Behavior: A Festschrift in Honor of Ronald J. Schusterman," brought together 18 of Schusterman's former students, mentors, and collaborators.

"It was a really unusual symposium because it brought people together from a lot of different fields. In addition to marine mammal research, it included everything from primate work to shark studies to human behavior research," said Kastak, who started working in Schusterman's lab as an undergraduate and earned her Ph.D. with him.

Many of Schusterman's former students took part in the symposium, such as Patrick Moore, who now studies echolocation in dolphins as head of biosonar research for the U.S. Navy marine mammal program. Schusterman's early mentor William A. Mason, now a professor emeritus of psychology at UC Davis, discussed his research on social behavior in nonhuman primates. Other speakers included Paul Nachtigall, director of the marine mammal research program at the University of Hawaii and president of the Society for Marine Mammalogy, and Burney Le Boeuf, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology and associate vice chancellor for research at UCSC.

Schusterman's research has focused on the sensory and cognitive abilities of seals and sea lions. Over the years, he has worked with California sea lions, harbor seals, and elephant seals at Long Marine Lab, conducting careful experiments to understand how they perceive the world around them and process information.
Schusterman has done extensive research on vision and hearing in pinnipeds. He showed, for example, that elephant seals can see remarkably well in the darkness of the ocean's depths. His hearing studies have helped focus attention on the potential impacts of manmade noise in the ocean environment.

"There's an awful lot of noise in the ocean, most of it human-generated," said Le Boeuf. "It's important to know whether we're affecting life in the ocean, and Schusterman's research helps to answer this question."

Schusterman's lab has also made surprising discoveries about the cognitive abilities of pinnipeds. For example, the researchers found that sea lions have a problem-solving ability (known as "equivalence") previously thought to require language. This ability enables the animals to solve complex problems in their natural environment, which Schusterman's lab was able to demonstrate by training sea lions to match pairs of related pictures.

Ten years after training two California sea lions to match pictures, Kastak and Schusterman retested one of them and found that she immediately remembered how to do it, even though she had not practiced at all in the intervening years. The researchers' findings, published last year, were the first demonstration of long-term conceptual memory in a nonprimate species.

Schusterman said he will continue to participate in and encourage the research program on pinniped cognition and sensory systems at Long Marine Lab after his retirement.

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