The Early Years of a Biological Field Station

 Soon after the Huyck Preserve was founded in 1931, the Board of Directors began debating whether the property should have a greater purpose than just being used for hiking, swimming, and picnicking. Some wanted it to be purely recreational; others thought it should be a game preserve and forest management area; and a few suggested it become an educational project. But the idea that eventually caught on was to develop a biological research station without curtailing any of the recreational facilities.

A remarkable cast of characters—a veritable who’s who in biology—got involved in developing the station. One of the earliest was ecologist and ornithologist William Vogt (1902-1968) who worked for the National Association of Audubon Societies, was editor-in-chief of Bird-Lore magazine, and edited the classic Audubon Birds of America, by John James Audubon. In 1948, Vogt published the popular book Road to Survival (1948), which linked environmental and overpopulation problems and inspired generations of ecologists including Paul R. Ehrlich. (Ehrlich became well known for his warnings about the threat of overpopulation and his 1968 controversial book The Population Bomb; one of his many awards was the Crafoord Prize, biology’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize.)

jessie huyck

Vogt was a good friend of Preserve founder Jessie Huyck and, in 1936, he suggested that she and the board of directors contact William J. Hamilton, Jr., assistant professor of zoology at Cornell University (Ithaca, N.Y.) for advice. So, in 1937, Mrs. Huyck invited Hamilton to spend part of the summer in Rensselaerville to assess whether scientific research might be conducted there.

Hamilton thought the Preserve most definitely had scientific value and at the Preserve’s Annual Membership Meeting that summer, he recommended that a biological research station be established. “He was questioned for quite some time by members,” according to the minutes of the July 2, 1937, meeting. “Everything points to the fact that we will have taken one of the most important steps for the permanency and purposeful future of the Preserve.”

“I don’t recall a better friend than Mrs. E.N. Huyck,” Hamilton reflected, in 1981, at the Preserve’s 50th anniversary. (His presentation was also published in the journal Bios.) “I was invited to make the survey and I found dear friends among the members of the Huyck Preserve directors: Dick Eldridge, Dr. Lewis Eldridge, Dr. Thomas Ordway, and many others,” he said. “I’m sure there was some antagonism to the idea of starting a biological station. Some wanted money to go into recreation, the arts, or anything other than biological research.” (1)

But there were plenty of people who liked the idea of giving the Preserve a scientific purpose. Albany attorney and Board member Frank Keeshan, for example, thought a biological research station would help the Preserve endure indefinitely. A station “would reflect a great credit upon the founders and the community at large without materially interfering with the enjoyment and advantages the Preserve now affords,” Keeshan said in April 1938. “It would have a definite purpose for the benefit of mankind and be a worthy expression of the ideals of the late Edmund Niles Huyck.”

On September 24, 1938, the board voted to establish a research station for a three-year trial. They hoped that it would “give some definite purpose to the Preserve, might provide some common meeting ground between the year-round community and the summer group, [and] have a tendency to stop further commercialization of Rensselaerville,” according to the meeting minutes. They also hoped a research station “would bring to the village an intellectual type of person, and provide some opportunities for employment for the [community].”

Bill Hamilton spent a summer assessing the scientific potential of the Huyck Preserve and recommended the establishment of a biological research station.

Bill Hamilton spent a summer assessing the scientific potential of the Huyck Preserve and recommended the establishment of a biological research station.

Hamilton was charged with assembling a Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) that would hammer out a plan for the research station as well as choose the scientists who would work at the Preserve. He brought together some of the leading biologists of the day to provide advice.

For the SAC “I enlisted G. Kingsley Noble [1894-1940], one of the fine behaviorists of his day, and Ernst Mayr [1904-2005] both of whom were at the American Museum [of Natural History in New York City] at that time, and some others,” said Hamilton at his 1981 presentation.

Eminent scientist G. Kingsley Noble, one of the original members of the Preserve's Scientific Advisory Committee, helped to shape the future of the Preserve.

Eminent scientist G. Kingsley Noble, one of the original members of the Preserve’s Scientific Advisory Committee, helped to shape the future of the Preserve.

Noble was an eminent herpetologist (an expert in amphibians and reptiles); a pioneer in linking animal behavior to physiology, endocrinology, and neurology; and curator of herpetology at the American Museum. He had created quite a stir in 1926 when he debunked the work of an Austrian scientist, Paul Kammerer, who induced nuptial pads (small, dark protrusions on the male forelimbs of some toad species that are used for clasping during mating) in midwife toads and then claimed that he had proof that those acquired pads were inherited by the male offspring. Noble revealed that the so-called inherited pads were really injected Indian ink spots. Sadly, Noble died young, at age 47, from a streptococcus infection of the throat. (By the way, there’s more to the Kammerer story—years later, evidence emerged that his work may have been tampered with by a Nazi sympathizer.) (2,3)

Ernst Mayr, a Harvard evolutionary biologist often referred to as the "Darwin of the 21st Century, was another important scientist who advised the Preserve in its early years.

Ernst Mayr, a Harvard evolutionary biologist often referred to as the “Darwin of the 21st Century, was another important scientist who advised the Preserve in its early years.

Mayr was the Harvard evolutionary biologist often referred to as “the Darwin of the 20th century” and is best known for clarifying how a new species forms and adapts to changes in its environment. He later won several awards including, in 1999, the Crafoord Prize for his “fundamental contributions to the conceptual development of evolutionary biology.” (4)

The SAC chose an equally impressive scientist to serve as the Preserve’s first resident naturalist: Dutch ethologist and ornithologist Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907–1988). But even though he accepted the job, he never actually worked at the Preserve. He had returned to Europe for what was supposed to be a brief trip and landed in a German hostage camp for two years during World War II. Luckily, he resumed his career after his release and, in 1973, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz “for their discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behavior patterns.” (5)

The person who ended up being the Preserve’s first resident naturalist, in 1939, was Eugene Odum (1913–2002), from the University of Illinois. He was relatively unknown at the time, but he was to become one of the giants in ecology and founder of ecosystems ecology (the study of the fluxes and flows of material and energy through natural systems).

Odum initially studied chickadees at the Preserve before “undertaking the vegetation study that allowed him to shift his professional attention from individual organisms to plant-animal systems,” wrote Betty Jean Craige in the biography Eugene Odum: Ecosystem Ecologist and Environmentalist (2001). “More important than his chickadee work for Odum’s future as an ecologist [was] the inventory of the Preserve’s plants and the habitat map he prepared during that year. The purpose of the project, Odum wrote in his annual report, was to establish a basis for succession studies of the land in the future.” (6)

Eugene Odum, who was considered the father of ecosystems ecology, was the Preserve's first resident naturalist in 1939.

Eugene Odum, who is considered the father of ecosystems ecology, was the Preserve’s first resident naturalist in 1939.

His work resulted in the publication of a classic series of papers on botanical succession. In 1987, he and his brother Howard T. Odum won the Crafoord Prize “for their pioneering contributions within the field of ecosystem ecology.” (7)

“In 1939, ecology was considered to be a very minor, not a very important branch of biology,” recalled Odum during a visit to the Huyck Preserve in 2001. “And now, of course, ecology, has emerged out of biology into a separate discipline.”

In addition to choosing the Preserve’s resident naturalists, the SAC selected the summer research fellows. The first ones chosen to work with Odum were Edward C. Raney (1909-1984), who had completed a Ph.D. at Cornell, and Donald Griffin (1915-2003), who was finishing a Ph.D. at Harvard.

Raney, who later became a professor of Conservation at Cornell and a leading ichthyologist (a zoologist who studies fish), did his classic work on the food chain in lakes at the Huyck Preserve. He also invented a new method for tagging frogs so he could mark, release, and recapture them as he investigated their life histories. He returned to Rensselaerville for several summers and later expanded his research to include salamanders and birds. His studies on striped bass will remain as authoritative references for generations of ichthyologists and fish biologists to come. He was also an expert on aquatic environmental problems and served on numerous environmental advisory committees. His students are among the leaders in ichthyology today. (8)

Griffin became famous for discovering bat echolocation based on his early work at the Preserve. His crude laboratory was in an old barn that was renovated years later into what is now the Eldridge Research Center. Odum described how “Griffin had strung piano wires in the barn’s loft to try to understand how bats navigated in darkness,” according to Craige. By “comparing the number of ‘pings’ the bats made when hitting the wires with their senses intact with the number of ‘pings’ they made when their ears were sealed with wax or their mouths glued shut, Griffin learned that bats navigate and avoid obstacles by emitting high-frequency sounds and listening to echoes.”

Donald Griffin discovered bat echolocation at the Huyck Preserve in the 1930s.

Donald Griffin discovered bat echolocation at the Huyck Preserve in the 1930s.

“I greatly enjoyed [and] profited from the stimulation of a summer here in Rensselaerville,” said Griffin at the Preserve’s Science Symposium in 2001. He and his colleagues worked “out the details of this marvelous system by which bats get around in the dark, and not only avoid collisions, which was all we were interested in in the 1940s, but later on it turned out they catch insects by bouncing echoes off these tiny little things.”

Griffin marveled that “the biological world is full of all kinds of wonderful creatures doing things that we don’t begin to understand. There’s a lot of luck and intuition,” he continued. “Maybe my summer enjoying this wonderful place . . . had some kind of subtle effect that led to working out more details of bat echolocation.”

A number of other noteworthy scientists got their start at the Preserve, too. In 1942, at the end of the three-year trial period, the board voted to make the research station permanent. Since then, the Preserve has provided protected research sites, as well as modest stipends and housing to scientists who are exploring the natural world.

Some of the other early scientists who worked at the Preserve included Sherman C. Bishop (1887-1951) who became one of the foremost authorities on salamanders in the United States and author of the definitive Handbook of Salamanders; French-Canadian plant ecologist Pierre Dansereau (1911–2011), an internationally recognized scientist in the fields of forest dynamics, plant ecology, and environmental science (dealing with human impact, mostly in urban environments) and author of Biogeography: An Ecological Perspective, which helped to cement his place as one of the fathers of modern ecology; and ornithologist Francis Harper (1886–1972) who conducted one of the earliest studies on the problem of disappearing species—the landmark survey Extinct and Vanishing Mammals of the Old World—and is also known for his lifelong efforts to protect Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp.

Gene Likens, the first to establish the link between the burning of fossil fuels and acid rain, did some of his early work at the Preserve.

Gene Likens, the first to establish the link between the burning of fossil fuels and acid rain, did some of his early work at the Preserve.

In the 1960s, ecologist Gene Likens—the first to establish links between the burning of fossil fuels and acid rain—did research at the Preserve. In 1983, he founded the Cary Institute of Ecosystems Studies (Millbrook, N.Y.), and in 2001, he received the 2001 National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest science honor, for his contributions to ecology (9). At the Preserve, Likens studied zooplankton (10) and the limnology of Lincoln Pond.

In the 1970s, medical entomologist Louis Magnarelli studied mosquitoes at the Preserve. He went on to develop the first blood tests for Lyme Disease, has worked with other insect-borne diseases, and was appointed Connecticut’s State Entomologist and director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (11). Cornell biologist Tom Eisner (1929–2011), a world-renowned authority on animal behavior, chemical ecology, and evolution, also conducted research at the Preserve in the 1970s. He made remarkable discoveries about animal behavior and insect mimicry. At the Preserve, he was observing colonies of wooly alder aphids (Pociphilus tesselatus) that were being shepherded by ants—the ants drank their honeydew and stood guard over them in return. The ants chased away wasps and other insects that tried to feed on the aphids. Such ant shepherding behavior wasn’t unusual, but Eisner noticed that some of the aphids weren’t aphids at all. They were green lacewing larvae (Chrysopa slossonae), who disguised themselves by dressing with bits of wool they had plucked off the aphids. These “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” as Eisner called them, then attacked and killed the aphids, and sucked them dry, without being noticed by the guardian ants. (12, 13)

Other Preserve scientists include University of Binghamton professor Stimson Wilcox who, in the 1980s, studied how water striders manage to walk on water. He was later featured on the PBS program Scientific American Frontiers for his work with jumping spiders. Jumping spiders invade the webs of other spiders and pretend to be helpless, struggling prey. When the resident spider comes close, the jumping spider kills and eats her. What’s interesting is that the jumping spider seems to be more cognitively advanced than other invertebrates—she’s a sophisticated mimic, a flexible learner, and cleverly finds different ways to deceive her prey. (14)

And the list goes on with graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and senior scientists coming to the Preserve each year to explore the nuances of nature. Whether they are studying slave-making ants, earthworms, salamanders, fish, birds, mammals, or the decomposer food web, the Preserve’s scientists are helping to unlock the mysteries of nature piece by piece.

Biological field stations “provide a setting for teaching and research, for short and long-term ecological and behavioral study,” Eisner wrote in a 1982 Bioscience article. “They are often a last enclave of nature preserved in a region of nature ‘humanized.’”

“I was always fearful that this wasn’t going to be a going concern, that it wouldn’t last, that it wouldn’t be endowed,” Hamilton confessed in 1981 as he recalled the early years of the field station. “I pleaded with Mrs. Huyck to make certain that when we were gone there would be [funding] for the purpose of maintaining the biological station. She turned to me and said, ‘I’ve already done that,’ but I didn’t know that at the time.”

Stay tuned for future posts on researchers who got their start at the Preserve.


1. Hamilton, William J. and Elliott, Nancy. “Recollections of the Establishment of a Biological Field Station,” Bios, 53:28-34, 1982.

2. Noble, G.K. “Kammerer’s Alytes,” Nature 118, 209-211, 1926.

3. Blog on Noble:

4. Cromie, W., “Ernst Mayr Wins Crafoord Prize, Captures ‘triple crown’ of biology awards,” Harvard University Gazette, February 25, 1999;

5. “The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1973”. 16 Apr 2013

6. Craige, Betty Jean, Eugene Odum: Ecosystem Ecologist and Environmentalist (Athens : University of Georgia Press, c2001)

7. “The Crafoord Prizewinners 1987 Eugene P. Odum and Howard T. Odum, Ecologists are receiving 355 000 USD from the Crafoord Fund of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to research on dynamics of nature, The Crafoord Prize, 1987;;

8. Blog on Raney:

9. O’Grady, Richard, “Editorial: AIBS President Gene Likens Awarded National Medal of Science,” American Institute of Biological Sciences, 2002;

10. Makarewicz, J.C. and G.E. Likens. “Niche analysis of a zooplankton community,” Science 190:1000-1003, 1975.

11. Hamilton, Robert A., “A Life of Looking at Little Things,” New York Times, September 9, 2001;

12. Eisner, T., Hicks, K., Eisner, M. Robson, D., “Wolf-in-Sheep’s-Clothing” Strategy of a Predaceous Insect Larva,” Science 199: 790-794, 1978.

13. Eisner, T. 1982. “For love of nature: exploration and discovery at biological field stations,” BioScience 32:321-326, 1982.

14. Wilcox, S and Jackson, R., “Spider-Eating Spiders: Despite the small size of their brain, jumping spiders in the genus Portia outwit other spiders with hunting techniques that include trial and error,” American Scientist, 86:350, 1998;

About L. Stephenson Carter

L. Stephenson Carter is a science writer/editor and was also on the board of directors of the E.N. Huyck Preserve in Rensselaerville, NY.
This entry was posted in Huyck Preserve, researchers. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Early Years of a Biological Field Station

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