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Studying Vocal Communication among Hyenas (Crocuta crocuta)


Andy Gersick spent the 2010-2011 academic year in the Masai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya, studying vocal communication among spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta). Hyena society is structurally similar to those of many social primates (with the interesting twist of being female-dominated), which makes spotted hyenas an interesting test species for investigating questions about the role that social challenges play in shaping behavioral and cognitive adaptations. Andy’s current research examines the flexibility and informational carrying capacity of hyenas’ long-distance calls, called whoops. For much of the year, he followed three free-living clans of hyenas in the Masai Mara, collecting recordings of the whoop bouts they produced in different social contexts. Preliminary analyses revealed a number of parameters that might provide distant listeners with unique information about the circumstances under which a given whoop bout was produced. He is currently conducting a set of playback experiments, using digitally manipulated versions of calls from his collection, to test whether manipulating some of those parameters will lead to predictably variable responses in wild hyenas.

Address Goals

The work of Gersick is uniquely interdisciplinary as he is using tools learned in IGERT courses, such as acoustic analysis and manipulation of calls, to ask fundamental questions about animal communication in the wild.

Gersick’s research is highly accessible and exciting to a broad audience. Understanding interactions between communication and social behavior suggests insights into human social behavior and the factors that shape it. His work also contributes knowledge that can assist in preservation efforts for wild populations of animals with complex social structures and behaviors.