Sunday, January 17, 2016

I'm Back!

“I find myself driving along yet another rocky red dirt road. It is cold, dry and dusty, as it has been every morning. Despite this, I can still feel the pressure of the sun’s rays as they filter through the windshield and warm my soul. The horizon stretches so far that I can see the gentle curve of the earth’s surface, and the clouds seem fixed in the azure bowl of the sky, reminiscent of a Georgia O'Keeffe painting. I have lived in New Mexico all my life, and these images always connect me to the earth beneath me and sky above me, to my home. Only right here, right now, I’m somewhere else that feels like home, but isn't. The same sky, the same smell, even the dirt looks the same, but I’m not spooking black-tailed jackrabbits out from under junipers as I trundle along; no, instead that was a springhare fleeing into a copse of acacia bushes. That’s right, despite the odds I somehow managed to achieve my childhood dream to travel halfway around the world to a mysterious land to study the habits of foreign mammals. I’m in the Masai Mara Reserve, Kenya! However, I don’t feel as if I have left the only home I have ever known, I belong here. This savannah is as familiar to me as the vast mesas of the American southwest and many of the animals as well: the jackal, a coyote; the impala, a whitetail deer; the cape buffalo, a bison. Even the animal I am tracking right now has its own American counter-part; though physically different, both are wrongly reviled by many as villainous killers. It would only be natural for me to find parallels between my beloved wolves and Africa’s most successful predator, the spotted hyena.”

I wrote that statement during my first stint as a research assistant back in the spring of 2013, and I used it in my first grant application as a graduate student in the Holekamp lab later that fall. It’s been about two years since I have been separated from the Mara, my Fisi family, and of course my beloved hyenas. However, in those two years I have grown as a graduate student, and refined my research plan, all in the hope of returning to study the personality development of Kenya’s most amazing carnivore. Now I’m back and I still feel the same way I did three years ago. Kenya is my home away from home no matter how different it may appear.

“What am I doing out here?” Well, back in the lab I have been quantifying the social development of personality traits using the field notes RAs send home every quarter, while at the same time analyzing hyena gene expression and regulation using our lab’s archived blood samples. The goal of this study is to determine if an individual’s social development can affect how their genes are expressed later in life, and if this variation in gene expression matches the variation observed in personality traits of adult hyenas.  Using the field notes and the blood samples I have already found some interesting results suggesting that the level of submissive and aggressive interactions a cub experiences early in life is related to later adult aggressive and submissive personality traits.

However, now I need to spend some time with the little hyenas to determine if mom’s presence during early development is altering the cub’s social experiences, which will require me to follow moms and their cubs very closely. As such, I will be posting a lot of cute cub photos and behavior for the next couple of years for everyone to enjoy, such as these little guys below.

Until later, Safari Njema

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