Who would have thought that scientists would make important discoveries in a makeshift laboratory housed in an old barn? In the summer of 1939, Harvard graduate student Donald Griffin was a research fellow at the Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve and Biological Research Station in the tiny town of Rensselaerville, N.Y. He was just beginning his research on bat echolocation for which he was later to become famous.
Griffin and another summer research fellow (Cornell student Ed Raney who was studying green frogs and bullfrogs) had converted the old barn, on the shores of Lincoln Pond, into a laboratory and outfitted it with a bench, some lab stools, a microscope, a hygrometer, scales, jars, and animal traps. Griffin was trying to figure out how bats fly around in the darkness without bumping into things. So he strung piano wire from the barn’s loft and counted the number of pings when the bats hit the wires. When he sealed the bats’ ears with wax or glued their mouths shut they hit the wires more often. He determined that bats avoid obstacles by emitting high-frequency sounds and listening to the echoes. Gagging the animals had prevented them from emitting their supersonic cries, and plugging their ears had kept them from hearing the echoes. In 1944, Griffin coined the term “echolocation” to describe the way bats navigate.
Donald R. Griffin, Ph.D. (August 3, 1915 – November 7, 2003) is considered the founder of the modern field involving the study of animal thinking and consciousness. He received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard. He was a professor at Cornell, then later at Harvard, where he was a professor of zoology. He finished his career at Rockefeller University. He was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve and Biological Research Station is a 2,000—acre nature preserve in the tiny hamlet of Rensselaerville, N.Y. The hamlet is nestled in the Helderberg Mountains and is 26 miles southwest of Albany. The Preserve was founded in 1931 by Jessie Van Antwerp Huyck and named for her husband whose family once owned the forests, lakes, and waterfalls that make the up the Preserve. The Preserve’s trails are open to the public and programs are offered throughout the year. In 1938, the Preserve added its scientific research station and scientists have been doing ecological research there ever since. For more information about the Preserve, visit http://www.huyckpreserve.org.