Tag Archives: hyenas

On the elephant’s trail

There’s a sea breeze blowing, only it’s not the sea – the wind is rolling over the fields of sugar cane in front of the field station.  A few hundred meters up, the road meets a single-lane highway and beside it is the electric fence. On the other side amble hopeful giants.  They’re elephants, eyeing the little fruit stand across the way and biding their time until some passer-by passes over the goods.  The evenings are cool, even chilly.  Now and then you hear the burst of what sounds like a firecracker – elephant ‘shots’ meant to drive fence-breakers away, but unsuccessful so far as each evening these days someone has been going through.  Word is that at least one of them is a one-tusked male trans-located into the park a short while ago.  So far we have not managed to catch the culprits in action, although our housekeeper spotted one strolling past the gate of our field station early one morning.  That describes a typical evening for me last summer.  I’ve been studying the Asian elephants of Uda Walawe National Park in Sri Lanka for the past six years.  Currently, I’m trying to raise money to find ways to help elephants and people live alongside one another.  How did I get here?  It’s a long way from Berkeley.

Berkeley hyenas alive and well for now

I apologize for leading many readers to believe that the Berkeley hyena colony is already shut down and that all of the animals have been euthanized. This is not the case. There are 20 spotted hyenas living in the colony, and they have funding through the end of January 2012. The fight for funding for has been a long and fierce one, and although researchers there are running out of time, they have not run out of hope. They are currently exploring different funding options, including NSF grants and private donations.

In the event that the colony is not funded, they hope to place the animals in zoos or sanctuaries. They already have an amazing track record of donating animals to zoos–41 have been relocated throughout the history of the project. Despite this past success, there may not be enough time to place all of the hyenas before the colony shuts down. If researchers discover that their requests for funds have been denied in December, they will scramble to place the hyenas before money runs out and the animals have to be euthanized.

The Berkeley hyenas: an abbreviated memoir

I have not had the opportunity to know the Berkeley hyenas as individuals, but as a member of the scientific community, I am saddened by the loss of the Berkeley colony for both personal and scientific reasons. I’m a graduate student in Dr. Kay Holekamp’s lab at Michigan State University, which studies a wild population of hyenas in the Masai Mara in Kenya. Despite not having had the opportunity to see the Berkeley colony (I blame my sister, a graduate student in chemistry at Berkeley, for not being willing to use our vacation time together in San Francisco to chase down hyenas), members of my lab have enjoyed a strong collaboration over the years with Dr. Stephen Glickman and his cohort of hyena researchers at Berkeley.  Needless to say, we were distressed to learn that the colony had run out of funding, resulting in the euthanization of many of these amazing animals and the loss of an irreplaceable scientific resource.

One can’t help but be fascinated by spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta), which are some of the most flagrant “rule-breakers” of the class Mammalia. These are social carnivores that share a surprising amount of behavioral characteristics with old world primates, despite having diverged from them over 80 billion years ago. Like old world monkeys, they live in large groups (the largest of any carnivore), which are characterized by strict social hierarchies. Primates and hyenas also share some surprisingly advanced cognitive abilities, such as recognizing third party relationships. That means an individual doesn’t just know who tends to pick on him. He also knows who tends to pick on that poor other schmuck over there. By comparing the cognitive skills of hyenas and primates, we can better understand the forces behind the evolution of intelligence.