Having spent my first month in the Mara, I’ve decided it is time for me to jump into the blogosphere. I just finished my first year as a PhD student in the lab and for my dissertation, I’m hoping to investigate how differences in maternal behavior and physiology that others in our lab have linked to human disturbance are impacting the developmental process of hyena cubs. To do this, I’ll be comparing hyena development in clans exposed to different levels of disturbance, focusing on behavioral, physiological, and cognitive aspects of development.
I am thrilled to be spending this summer getting familiar with the hyenas I have been thinking, reading, talking, and writing about for the past year. Last semester, I spent a great deal of time reading through hyena notes back in Michigan. As we watch the hyenas in field, we record their behaviors into a digital voice recorder. Back at camp, we transcribe these notes into word documents that get sent back to MSU where they can be entered into our database and analyzed. These notes are written in a language all their own. Learning to decipher the rich behavior documented in the strings of acronyms that make up our notes is like learning to crack a code.
Last semester, grad students Sarah Jones, David Green and I trained undergraduate research assistants to “extract” certain behavioral data from this secret language and enter them into our database. This of course required that I learn to crack the code myself.
Both Sarah and David had already been out in the field. As they had already seen hyenas in action and transcribed their every move, it wasn’t so confusing to them to read pages and pages of notes like, “MOS t1 lk (food) MP, eb hb bo. ADON join MOS t3 bsh brt (food) MP, eb cc squeals.” In reading this, Sarah and David could imagine an interaction in which Morpheus (MOS) got annoyed with MoonPie (MP) as they were arguing over some scrap of meat. MoonPie got the message and did a bunch of submissive stuff, pulling her ears back (eb), head-bobbing (hb), and backing off from the situation (bo). But clearly this wasn’t enough because Morpheus then got seriously pissed and bit and shook her (bsh). Adonis (ADON), standing nearby, thought this was a just reprimand…or maybe just wanted to use the opportunity to reassert her own rank… and joined in with Morpheus. This time, MoonPie squealed and crawled submissively on the ground (cc).
Reading our hyena notes before actually seeing a live hyena made for some funny situations. Sarah had to demonstrate a “defensive parry” for me, David had to act like a male hyena anxiously “approach-avoiding” a female he is interesting in, and everyone in the lab had to try out their impression of a hyena whoop for me. Over time, I began to be able to imagine what the hyenas might be acting like as I was reading the notes. Some of the individuals even began to feel familiar. It some sessions, I could feel their personalities jumping off the page as I read the code like a soap opera.
But every once and a while, it would come out that I had a little misunderstanding about one of many components of the hyena code. I have become known in the lab for one of these realizations. One day as I was reading some hyena notes, imagining what the scene must look like, and checking over the work one of our undergraduates had done. I announced to everyone working in the lab, “I love it when everyone oos!” They looked at me a little confused. “Um, what do you mean?” Sarah asked. “You know, it often happens at the end of a session. Everyone oooooos and then the session ends,” I answered. I had been imagining that an “oo” was one of the hyenas’ charismatic vocalizations. It made sense. I often read “everyone oos” and then the researchers left the area. This must be a vocalization the hyenas do when they are about to leave or move on. I was excited to get to Africa and finally hear what one of these “oos” sounds like! Everyone in the lab starting cracking up at me. It turns out “oos” actually stands for “out of sight.” As Dave informed me, “All the observers leave because there are no hyenas around! That’s why the session ends!”
As I predicted, some of the hyena behaviors are just as I was imagining… and some are very different. Although learning the hyena code before ever seeing a hyena is the opposite of what most members of our lab do, it was useful for me to see what the learning process must be like for all the undergraduates who help us extract behavioral data without having the opportunity to see a hyena in the flesh. Needless to say, it is great to be out here seeing what the hyena code actually looks like when acted out live by the cast of characters.