Hello to all you hyena-loving humans! I am glad you are here reading this blog, and I hope that you are learning a lot about my new favorite animal and the amazing place it inhabits.
My name is Robyn Strong and I am the newest research assistant for the MSU Mara Hyena Project. I arrived in Kenya on 3 November and have been living at Serena camp since 9 November, and I have had a great first month! But before I start on my experiences so far, I should probably tell you a bit about who I am and how I got here.
I graduated from Humboldt State University in May with a Bachelor of Science in Zoology. Of course, I went through five years of college and four different majors before getting to that wondrous day. I had a bit of trouble deciding what I wanted to do; I cycled through Anthropology, Philosophy, Religious Studies, and International Studies before finally realizing that I could have a legitimate career staring at animals all day. I declared my Zoology major officially, and three years later, I spend my days staring at animals doing arguably the greatest job ever.
For the past couple years, I have oriented my studies mostly toward sociality and animal behavior. Specifically I found myself interested in social carnivores; this interest led me to research the evolution of sociality in lions (the only truly social felid), which somehow led me to hyenas, which led me to Dr. Holekamp, which eventually led me here.
Come to find out, hyenas are incredible. Who knew, right? I, like most other people, was first introduced to hyenas through The Lion King, which got almost everything wrong. I loved the noble lions of Pride Rock, and disdained the lowly hyena lackeys. While I eventually realized that it was a Disney movie and therefore not an accurate portrayal of animal behavior, it never really occurred to me that hyenas had lives beyond lions until reading scientific papers that discussed hyena communication and social dynamics.
Hyenas live in a matriarchal society with strict dominance hierarchies, have the cognitive power to remember other clan members' ranks and identities, and they communicate via complex vocalizations and unique olfactory signatures. While watching them these past few weeks, I have seen hyenas aggress on each other, sack out in the middle of roads, nurse their young, curiously investigate novel objects, romp around excitedly, play with old topi horns, roll in the mud, glare balefully at any humans in the vicinity, and trot right up to our research cruiser to sniff the muddy tires. I have heard horrible squeals and long, drawn-out whoops, excited giggles and obsequious groans. These animals fascinate, amuse, and impress me.
There are no words to explain the emotion that wells up in me when I realize that I am here in the middle of all this life, observing and taking notes, contributing real data to real scientists. And not only do I get to see hyenas every day, I get to see all the inhabitants of the Maasai Mara. Lions and leopards and rhinos, oh my! It is truly amazing, and I am beyond grateful to be here. I am looking forward to a year full of animals and science, and am very excited to share some of that with you!