Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Sentinel for African Ecosystems and an Opportunity to Help

An up and coming website called Petridish is giving us the opportunity to raise funds for research, not from big granting agencies, but from ordinary people like you. Below is a general synopsis of the project, but for more information and ways to donate go to

Monitoring an entire ecosystem is an incredibly daunting task. There are many species of sympatric herbivores and carnivores, important ecological processes taking place, and interactions between all three that maintain and sustain ecosystem functioning. If disturbed, the ecosystem (and species within it) may become threatened, endangered, and risk extinction.

Although sentinel and indicator species have been monitored to prevent damage to ecosystems and specific species, they have historically been used on a presence/absence basis.  In other words, if the indicator species (i.e. spotted owl) is present in an ecosystem, then the ecosystem is deemed to be in “good” condition, or recovering from previous disturbances.

Unfortunately, by thinking of an indicator species only from a presence/absence basis, we may be ignoring subtle cues emitted by good sentinels to help prevent damage to ecosystems and other sensitive species. By using a species that is known to emit subtle cues, we may be able to curb disturbances before it becomes too late. And this is where the spotted hyenas come in!

Previous research in our lab has shown spotted hyenas to emit early warning signals about how they themselves are negatively influenced by human encroachment on their habitat. Changes in space use behavior, often one of the first ways that organisms adjust to changing environments, pre-date demographic changes in hyenas by 3 years.  Changes in stress physiology, another signal that a population could be in trouble, pre-date demographic changes in hyenas by 5 years. What we want to understand with this new research program is if these same metrics can be used to predict population changes in more sensitive species in African ecosystems, like lions, cheetahs, and threatened herbivores.

To evaluate the hyena’s capability to act as an indicator species, we will use GPS collar technology to look at how hyenas utilize space, monitor stress physiology through non-invasive collection of feces, and then relate these measures to the spatial patterns and population trends of other carnivores and herbivores that live in our hyenas’ territories. This may sound easy, but it will require deploying new collars to many of our study animals, and months of driving around our territories to effectively monitor multiple animals on the landscape. However, the payoff will be extraordinary if we are able to use changes in our hyenas to aid in the conservation of biodiversity!

To learn more about this exciting research, and to help support and donate to its completion, please see more at is a great site that allows readers and hyena enthusiasts (like yourself!) to get involved with research taking place around the globe. Please go to the website and learn more about using spotted hyenas as a sentinel for African ecosystems, and think about donating. Every little bit helps! 

1 comment:

dee said...

Thanks for posting Dave. I already made a pledge but as soon as I win the lottery I'll make another! Not to nag, but when can we see a map with the colored triangles??

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science