Saturday, June 11, 2016

Studying Hyena Cognition

Cypher, Survey, and Cryptic 

Hi, I’m Lily. I’m currently a graduate student in the Holekamp Lab and I just arrived at Talek Camp in the Maasai Mara about a week ago to start collecting data for my dissertation. I was here two years ago as an RA in Serena Camp on the other side of the park.

For my dissertation I’m studying hyena cognition. I’m interested in the evolution of intelligence and I’m examining the social, environmental, and individual factors that affect behavioral flexibility, which is thought to be a hallmark of intelligence. Behavioral flexibility is the ability to adapt to changing conditions. Innovation, the ability to invent a novel behavior or solve a novel problem is a key aspect of flexibility and intelligence because innovation helps animals (including humans!) adapt to change.

Spotted hyenas have complex social systems (as you’ve probably heard) and also live in an extremely diverse array of habitats due to their ability to adapt to local conditions. Both of these factors, complex sociality and environmental variability, are thought to select for intelligence.

The spotted hyenas that we study live in two different parts of the park. In Serena, where I was an RA, the park is highly regulated and tourism, cattle grazing, and poaching are strictly controlled. In Talek, we study hyenas that live on the border of the (unfenced) park. Their territory actually overlaps the growing Maasai town of Talek. Talek hyenas regularly encounter tourists (due to the proximity to lodges and Talek gate) and grazing cattle. Our behavioral research has shown that they have altered their behavior in response to this anthropogenic disturbance. This suggests a high degree of behavioral flexibility in response to the high degree of variability that Talek hyenas are encountering. I hope to quantify this using my cognitive testing apparatus aka the multi-access box.

Since Talek hyenas are regularly encountering changing and novel conditions I predicted that they will be better at solving a novel foraging problem that my multi-access box represents. Spotted hyenas eat everything from “termites to elephants” as Dr. Holekamp says so figuring out how to get food from inside the multi-access box shouldn’t be too hard.

Wrath was a huge fan of the box. 

The multi-access box is a metal box about 16”x16”. It has four “solutions” on each of the four sides by which hyenas may obtain food. Each solution requires a different motor behavior to open. For example, on one side of the box is a drawer that has to be pulled open while on the other side is a push flap that has to be pushed inward. All solutions open to the same interior of the box.

Last night and this morning I started doing familiarization trials with the box where I take the top off so that the hyenas can get the food inside without using one of the four solutions. This way they learn not to be afraid of the box and learn to associate it with food. Food in this case is either milk powder (our hyenas are becoming milk powder junkies!), popcorn, or meat.

Studying the evolution of intelligence in hyenas is super fun, but it also contributes to a very important body of research on human intelligence. We know that intelligence is way more than just genes! Though it does have a genetic component, there is no single gene that can explain someone's IQ and research shows a very strong interaction between genes and your environment. When I say environment, I mean both prenatal environment and the environment you grow up in. Things like socioeconomic status can have a huge impact on IQ. Trying to understand the social and environmental factors that influence someone's intelligence helps us understand how to create environments that foster creativity and innovation in places like schools and the work place! This way, we can help everyone to reach their full potential and help create new generations of scientists and innovators. 

Studying the myriad factors that influence intelligence in humans is complex, as we no longer live in "natural" habitats. By studying when, where, and why spotted hyenas can innovate and be flexible I can take a step backwards to try and understand the ancestral environments that favored these traits. This kind of research lays the ground work for studies in humans and results in a deeper understanding of where human intelligence comes from and why we possess some of the most remarkable cognitive abilities of any animal on the planet. 

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