Spotted hyenas – with their strange reproductive anatomy, female-dominated hierarchies and unearthly voices – may seem vastly different from humans and our close evolutionary relatives. Yet hyenas have complex social lives, and their cognitive sophistication mirrors that of apes and other primates. Distinct from us in form, yet similar in behavior, hyenas offer a perfect opportunity to investigate the social factors that shape the evolution of animal minds.
I study hyena vocal communication because it’s the best window we have into their thinking. A lot of interactions between clan members – and even between rival clans, or between hyenas and lions – happen across large distances. They start out as vocal interactions rather than physical ones. A hyena napping at the den will hear another hyena whooping up to five kilometers away, and will make an assessment of what that whoop “means.” Some whoops she’ll ignore completely, while others will make her jump up and lope at top speed towards the sound, where she may find clan members fighting with lions over a kill, or facing off against a rival clan along a territorial border. How does she decide which whoops are alarms and which are just announcements by a roaming clan-member? The whoops all sound more or less the same to human ears, but the hyenas interpret different whoops differently. My research is about trying to find out how hyenas use whoops to compete and cooperate, and what information is encoded in those calls.
My research aims to uncover new information about the complexity and utility of hyenas’ calls. Mine are some of the first field experiments ever conducted on spotted hyenas; I use a methodology called “playback experimentation” – presenting wild animals with recorded vocalizations in their natural context, and then measuring their responses. With funding from petridish.org, I also hope to test the hypothesis that hyenas may choose acoustically favorable spots in their territories to broadcast some whoops – essentially using features of the terrain as sounding boards to carry information about their identity and location to other clan members.
Like coyotes and wolves in the United States, hyenas have been maligned and misunderstood for a long time in Africa, and I worry that their unfairly negative reputation will make it harder to protect them from the pressures that endanger all wildlife on earth. Spotted hyenas are a crucial part of many African ecosystems, yet the notion that they are cowardly scavengers and nuisance animals persists. Contrary to popular belief, spotted hyenas kill the majority of their food themselves. And while it is true that most carnivores will happily scavenge meat killed by other animals, hyenas are probably the best at it. Their bone-crushing jaws and iron-clad digestive systems allow them to process even large bones and rotting meat. So they fill multiple vital roles, they compete with lions for top-predator status, apply predation pressure to herbivores, and also alter the flow of both nutrients and disease as they consume older carcasses. I believe that, by increasing our understanding of hyenas’ behavior and highlighting their intelligence, I am also contributing to their preservation.
The best way – and sometimes the only way – to understand animals’ behavior and their role in their natural environment is to study them in that environment, which in this case means traveling to a research camp in the middle of Kenya’s Maasai Mara Game Reserve. There, hyenas live and hunt in large territories full of lions, elephants, hippos and other large and potentially dangerous animals. So we conduct all of our research by car, which can mean driving hundreds of kms a week over rough terrain. Transportation, fuel and vehicle costs for this kind of research are formidable. Additionally, I plan to conduct a series of acoustic measurements to test the utility of different areas within my study clans’ territories as broadcast points for whoops. This will require finely-tuned recording equipment, as well as equipment for storing large, high-fidelity sound files. Transportation, equipment and camp-maintenance costs for the work will be between $4,000 and $8,000.
Comparatively little is known about the structure and function of hyenas’ vocalizations, and so this research promises to expand our knowledge in a number of areas. Our experiments will be the first of their kind to investigate the possibility that different forms of whoops serve different purposes. We will also be building a database of recordings to support a new model of the acoustic structure of hyena whoops. Finally, we will ask whether hyenas choose acoustically optimal locations to perform certain whoops; if so it would be one of the first demonstrations of such behavior in terrestrial mammals.
My name is Andy Gersick; I’m a doctoral candidate in ethology (animal behavior) at the University of Pennsylvania, a Graduate Fellow of the National Science Foundation, and a member of the Michigan State University Mara Hyena Project. I’ve spent the better part of the past two years living and working in the Maasai Mara. I hope that my research will make a difference in two worlds: in the realm of academic research, I think that work on hyena communication and cognition can tell us a great deal about how different species have responded to the evolutionary pressures imposed by complicated social structures; and in terms of wildlife conservation, I hope that I can help shed light on a fascinating and important species.
Dear everyone again:
After a brief period of technical difficulties, petridish funds were successfully transferred to my research account today. So it seems like a good day to write, and briefly thank all of you, again - and as wholeheartedly as web-posting will allow (though without emoticons) - for contributing to my campaign. This summer I'll be analyzing hyena-video data, writing papers, and planning the trip that your contributions have made possible. Thank you.
I'll also be updating here once I've got news, either about major research developments or about the rewards that many of you have coming. Some of those rewards are items I'll be bringing back from the Maasai Market in the Mara; once they're purchased and I've gotten them back to the States I'll be in touch by email to get mailing addresses and such.
Best to all of you.
Thank you all so much for visiting, reading about the research, watching the video, and sharing and/or donating to my project. I'm a little stunned that we made and even exceeded our funding goal.
There are a few back-end processes I have to get through with Petridish administrators to complete the donation process; as soon as that's done and everything's finalized, donors will be hearing from me about the current state of my work and about your rewards.
Until then, thanks again, all of you.