It has been a wild ride. I just completed a year in the field. Now I am back in California (my home state) eager to put my inspirations in motion toward a graduate degree in disease ecology.
If you are unfamiliar, animal disease ecology is an interdisciplinary study of the biology of pathogens (such as viruses or bacteria), animal behavior and ecology. This study is important because it is used to investigate and monitor animal, plant and human health at a population level. Have you heard about the Saiga Antelope die off in Kazakhstan or the Sea Lion die off on the US west coast? These are extraordinary examples of how disease, weather produced by climate change, toxins or bacteria/viruses, can begin to be mitigated by disease ecology research.
My time with the MSU Hyena Project could not have come at a better time I my life. I got to explore questions concerning disease and how behavior, lifestyle and changes in the environment play into the spread of disease. During my time in the Mara I witnessed the disappearance of hoards of cubs dying at once, many young sub-adults dying during the drought, and simply many hyenas disappearing without any idea of what happened to them. Hyenas are really well equipped at fighting disease. We have not found any evidence to support that hyenas in the Mara are suffering from any disease in particular. We are only able to conduct necropsies on a fraction of dead hyenas. What would be found if a disease ecologist looked at this stuff?
Our lab has also published hundreds of papers on disease. I learned about how hyenas do not show any symptoms of Anthrax, Rabies, Canine Distemper, and Feline Immune Deficiency Virus, even though our hyenas have antibodies for the disease (and therefore have had the disease in their system). This experience was the fuel that drove my determination to explore even more questions concerning population health.
So now, I am looking at what diseases concerning hyenas are worth studying. In what ways could I combine behavior analysis and disease research? What research route is fundable? Who is doing large mammal disease research? Perhaps, I am not quite yet done with hyenas afterall.