Last year, members of the Holekamp lab, as part of BEACON (an inter-disciplinary program working to study ‘evolution in action’ http://beacon-center.org/welcome/), got together to build a new educational outreach plan at the MSU Science Festival, which continued onto to the US Science and Engineering Festival in Washington D.C.. We are now bringing those lessons to area schools, and just last night we were part of Science Night at Marble Elementary School in East Lansing (Hadley’s Alma Mater!).
We began with the skulls!
With these skulls, we taught the kids about the evolutionary relationships between hyenas and other carnivores. Most paid avid attention as we showed them how you can deduce what and how carnivores feed from skull morphology.
We asked the kids three questions to start:
1. Using the pictures of the animals and the skulls, can you tell me who is who, and who is related to whom?
2. Which are the hyenas?
3. Which of the other carnivores is most closely related to the hyenas?
Can you figure it out? How well did you do compared to the kids?
About 75% of the kids could match the skulls to the correct animal. Almost all the kids could identify the three-bone crushing hyenas (spotted, brown, striped) but very few could pick out the aardwolf as their relative. We were pleased to see that the kids were quite good at determining that hyenas are feliforms (i.e. ‘cat-like animal) not caniforms (i.e. ‘dog-like animals’). Few however could pick the meerkat out as the closest relative. However, when given the skull most could quickly see the relationship. They noticed the homologous jaw structures and dentition shared by these two species, because it was almost like looking at a miniature hyena skull!
We also talked to them about how spotted hyenas evolved from scavengers but are now top predators, though two of their sister species (the brown hyena and the striped hyena) are still known to scavenge for a majority of their diet. We showed them how all three of these species share similar teeth structure, a high sagittal crest and wide zygomatic arches – adaptations that allow for powerful jaw muscles to exert pressure on bone-crushing teeth.
We also drew their attention to the aardwolves, the last extant (living) member of Hyaenidae, showing their completely different skull morphology. The large arches and crest are missing and once you open the mouth, you’ll notice relatively few small teeth. When asked what they thought aardwolves ate with those tiny teeth, and the kids got pretty darn close with their answers of ‘bugs’ and ‘plants’. In fact, this species specialize in eating termites!
From this conversation of skulls, we then talked to the kids about why spotted hyenas are so different, bringing in more of our research. And when you talk about our research in Kenya, you can’t avoid….spot patterns!
And thus, we had them try their hand at matching spots to identify hyenas.
What do you think? Can you figure out who the three hyenas in the color photos are?
The kids matched photos for nine different hyenas; some struggled, a few Kay should consider hiring to be the next RAs in the field, but all of them stayed incredibly focused on the task. We were quite impressed; most of the adults tried their hand at one and were ready to walk away!
Our team had a blast talking with the kids and the parents and look forward to more collaborative outreach programs in the future. Stay tuned!
~Hadley and Kevin (McCormick)
P.S. The skulls and spot matching game were in constant competition with Jessica (a Holekamp research assistant) and her reptiles – you can’t beat live animals!