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A Tribute to Don Owings (1943-2011)

On April 9 our good friend and colleague passed away after a 24-year battle with metastatic prostate cancer. Don died peacefully in his home surrounded by family. We were fortunate ourselves to have been able to visit with Don within a week of his passing.

A Tribute to Don Owings (1943-2011)

Don Owings

ABS members will remember that in 2010 Don received the prestigious Exemplar award; he was too ill at that time to travel to the meeting, but he was most touched and appreciative. This award was so descriptive of the personal and academic life of Don in many respects. Don spent virtually his entire professional career at UC Davis, so, in a sense, all of us that interacted with Don – students and faculty – became an extended family.

 The Exemplar Award clearly characterizes his mentorship of graduate students, several of whom have participated, and won, in the Allee student competition. Students loved working with Don, and he led them to explore their particular strengths in their various research projects. In a campus tribute to Don presented to him, in recognition of the award, students expressed overwhelming gratitude for Don’s caring guidance. Here are examples from many tributes written to Don:


It was so wonderful working with you - I really could not have asked for a better advisor. I learned so much from you and am grateful for how you broadened my understanding of animal behavior and let me be part of a truly fascinating research system and great research team.”


“You have had an immeasurable effect on my career.”

“You let your students explore directions that we find interesting. You also drive yourself no less hard than you drive us. And it is this aspect of your mentoring that I’d like to focus upon.”

“From being examined by you to examining with you, I have always learned from you. I especially admire the kindness, respect, and compassion you have shown toward graduate students. You have been a great role model and I try to emulate your attitude.”

“But what I admire most about you is that you have so consistently been a force for good—the good of your students, the good of the research, and the good of the field.”

“It was your approach to science that drew me in--I was fascinated with the cumulative body of work you had amassed in circa 1989 when I joined your lab.”

The Exemplar Award, and comments from his students, acknowledge the very wide-spread impact of Don’s research in the field of animal behavior. He has focused on ground squirrels his entire career, and his work, largely in collaboration with students he was mentoring, has established a body of knowledge about the squirrels, and concepts dealing with communication, that have had a broad impact. Recognized as a Fellow of ABS, Don’s research focused on understanding how ground squirrels cope with their snake predators, yielding the most extensive research on predator-prey interactions of any animal species studied. In particular, Don’s interest in how ground squirrels confront their snake predators, an interactive process that unfolds in minutes in contrast with the immediate flight engendered by avian and mammalian predators, led to the formulation of the Assessment/Management perspective. This influential perspective in animal communication is well described in his 1998 book with Gene Morton and posits that information is not sent (or given) by one animal to another, but is extracted or assessed by the perceiver as a Gibsonian “affordance” that affects its choice of action. In today’s academic climate of expecting faculty to consistently acquire large extramural grants, from NIH and the like, Don’s work sets an excellent example of selecting a research topic, and a species that can be studied with ingenuity and hard work, and with a low-cost budget, to mentor students with a life-long influence and have a lasting impact on a scientific discipline.

Don Owings on Safari

For his colleagues and friends at Davis, one cannot remember Don without reflecting on his ongoing sense of adventure in seeing the world, a sense that commanded his participation to the very end of his life. Any colleague will recount their own adventure travel with Don, too many to mention here. Some of the more demanding trips – all laced with a nod to research – were a hiking trip down the Grand Canyon with overnights at the bottom, a trip tothe Great Coral Reef and Alice Springs in Australia, re-doing part of the Lewis and Clark Northwest Passage by canoe, and most memorable, the trip to Zambiawhich included Don’s favorite activity, long morningwalks; some of these walks included on-foot approaches to lions, elephants, and buffalo. This trip, with Dick Coss, Ben and Lynette Hart, the last major trip of Don’s life, was exemplary of his spirit and courage for exploring the world, animal behavior, and new ideas. We were not at all sure if he could stave off the energy-draining effects of treatment for cancer long enough join in this, the dream trip of his later years. But the day before our scheduled departure his doctors signed off; and the African adventure was for Don, and his friends, as successful as it could possibly have been.


-Ben Hart and Dick Coss