December 11, 2003 by

Donald R. Griffin

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Categories: Scientists

Donald Redfield Griffin, the zoologist who discovered how bats navigate in the dark, died on Nov. 7. Cause of death was not released. He was 88.
Griffin received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from Harvard University, and became a full-time college professor. He worked at Cornell University and Harvard for many years before joining the Rockefeller University faculty in 1965. He was granted tenure at Rockefeller, and remained a professor of animal behavior until his retirement in 1986.
His breakthrough in bat communications came in 1938, when he was still an undergrad at Harvard. Griffin earned the nickname “Batman,” after he and his lab partner, Robert Galambos, placed a special microphone in a dark room to prove that bats could “see” in the dark by emitting ultrasonic sounds and then navigating through the air using the echoes as an internal guidance system. In his 1958 book, “Listening in the Dark: The Acoustic Orientation of Bats and Men,” Griffin described this “sixth sense” as echolocation.
A pioneer in the practice of studying animals in their natural environments, Griffin also advocated cognitive ethology, or the belief that animals possess consciousness. In his 1976 book, “The Question of Animal Awareness: Evolutionary Continuity of Mental Experience,” he suggested that animals, like humans, could be capable of thinking and awareness, a theory considered taboo in scientific circles of the time.

One Response to Donald R. Griffin

  1. Gayle Speck

    I was extremely fortunate to work with Don at Harvard for the past eight years. What a terrific human being! Below are excerpts from a letter I wrote to him just before his untimely death. Yes, untimely at 88! He was full of ideas, energy and plans to the end (check out our article together – New evidence of animal consciousness – in the Jan issue of Animal Cognition as one example of the many things he was involved in during his last year).
    Dear Don,
    Meeting you eight years ago has enriched my life enormously. I first read the Question of Animal Awareness in a History of Science class in 1995, and we met soon after. Since then, you have been a mentor, a teacher, an associate and a friend. As you do with everyone who contacts you out of admiration for your work, you greeted me with courtesy and enthusiasm, evaluated how we could be of use to each other and proceeded to guide me in that direction. Your wisdom has enabled me to do things I never foresaw.
    To me you are the epitome of the person who is passionate about learning the truth, keeping an open mind, and good-humoredly urging others to do the same. You have approached each day and each task with hopeful enthusiasm. Your days have been long and full, energetic and creative. Your successes have been memorable. They will live on, and you can be proud of a life well spent!
    It has been an inspiration and a joy to know you…

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