Monday, July 21, 2014

Less than glorious introduction of a grad student who finally escaped the lab

Hello all,

My name is Sarah, and I’m a graduate student who will be in the field this summer and fall. I am usually in the lab working with all the lovely poop and blood samples that come from the hyenas out here in the Masaai Mara, but I have escaped the flourescent lighting and pipettes to spend some quality time with my study animals! 

My research focuses on the biological basis of individual and sex differences in aggressive behavior. (In other words: what is going on in your body that makes you want to fight your friends and family to the death for that last cupcake...or last piece of wildebeest flesh, if you’re a hyena?  And why might one sex resolve the situation with some well placed glares while the other draws blood?) You might already know female hyenas are more aggressive than male hyenas, which is unusual for mammals. We also see a wide variation in aggressive behavior between individual hyenas, with some generally being brattier than others. I’m trying to understand which processes in the body and brain cause some individuals to be more aggressive than others.

(Eg. What is going on in this girl's brain that makes her such a punk??? Photo by Kate Shaw)

       As hyenas get older, their social rank (which is inherited from mom) primarily determines how much aggression they exhibit. Low ranking animals risk injury if they attack a higher ranking animal because other hyenas will side with the higher ranking hyena in the dispute. 

(Two higher ranking hyenas gang up against a bigger, but subordinate hyena. Photo by Kate Shaw)

I want to measure aggression before the hyenas know any better, so I will be observing cubs that haven’t learned their ranks completely. This way I’ll be looking at behavior that is reflective of biological (ie. innate/natural) differences in aggressiveness and competitive ability. Later, I can go back to the lab and measure chemicals (such as hormones like testosterone) in their blood and poop to see if it correlates to their aggression levels.

(Cub fights are exciting because they show how aggressive cubs are before their rank influences their behavior too much. Photo by Kate Shaw)

While I’m in Kenya, I will set up situations in which the cub’s competitive sides can shine. This should be easy. All I have to do is present them with something they find tasty. Then, I sit back and watch adorable hyena cubs tussle over the treat.

Disclaimer: The sort of fighting we’ll see with the cubs is normal, and most of the aggression consists of threats (like a human glare) and chasing. The worst thing that happens is a cub gets scared enough that it will stop trying to get powdered milk. They won’t be competing more than they would normally. They’ll just be competing in front of me!

The set up for my experiment is as follows:
Step 1: Turn cubs into snack junkies

This one was easy. Cubs looooove powdered milk, so I’ve been merrily dumping it out of the car at dens where they can lick it up to their heart’s content. We want every animal to recognize and be excited about the powdered milk, so when we start the real science, they all want to fight over some milk.

(Cub with powdered milk)

(Cubs waiting for delicious milk to start falling out of the car)

Step 2: Find a good situation for the experiment

I’m going to need multiple cubs present to fight over the milk, and none of their mothers. A cub might be braver and more aggressive if they know their mamma is there to back them up.

Seems simple enough right?

Nope! This is usually what I find when I go to dens in search of motherless cubs:


Or everyone’s mom is here (the big furry blobs are moms)...

(So unhelpful)

Curse hyenas and their excellent mothering skills!

But still, with enough patience we finally found the perfect situation - lots of cubs hanging around the communal den without a mamma in sight! Perfection.
So, onto step 3.

Step 3: Put out the milk near the den.

Here I put the milk in an area the size of a medium suitcase. This is a small enough area that an ambitious cub will think it’s possible to hog all the milk, but large enough to make guarding the food a very difficult task. I can then watch the fights that ensue between the little junkies and test how well they compete for a valued resource.

Success! (The powdered milk is in the white stuff in the front center.)

Step 4: Sit back and watch the cubs compete over the milk

So now its simple, right? I put out the milk powder, it’s a great situation, and I have a bunch of little junkies. Well, apparently not because I sat at the den for 2 hours watching cubs run in and out of the den hole, romp around with each other and nap, and not ONE of them noticed the milk powder which was RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEM.


(Get your act together and find the milk, you darn cub)

In the words of my surprisingly-wise-at-times older sister (also a scientist), “If it was supposed to work the first time, they wouldn’t call it REsearch. They would call it search.” With that comforting thought in mind, I will keep toting powdered milk around in the hope that the hyenas start to feel more accommodating.

In the meantime, I had lots of time to take absurdly cute photos of the little punks ignoring the milk. Enjoy! 

P.S. Since I wrote this out, I've gotten a couple trials. Yay! Soon I will tell you all about it.)


dee said...

Great post and the photos are wonderful! Please let us know all about your progressed..........or lack there of. AND if you can, how about some news about Cyberman as long as you are in Talek? Thanks for a really fun post.

Unknown said...

REsearch: now I understand...

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science