The Hyena Scientist is part of the Scientists in the Field Series, which are always a joy to read as the motivation and skill sets of field biologists become palpable to the reader through the talents of the authors and photographers who create these books. In this case, Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop traveled to a game park on the Masai Mara in Kenya, to gain enough first-hand knowledge from the source so that they could communicate to the reader. Montgomery and Bishop are not unlike journalistic embeds in military units who report authentic information about war.
According to Montgomery’s report in Chapter 1 of her book: “…This species is almost universally despised across human cultures. Feared for biting children, hated for digging up corpses, dismissed as cowardly scavengers, the loving, social attractive animals playing and resting in front of us are widely considered to be dirty, ugly and mean.” The “Not so!” that follows for the remainder of this 72-page, lavishly illustrated book for young adults (and adults) is an eye-opening narrative that introduces us to this species and the people who study them.
Here are some of the unusual traits of hyenas: Their social groups are female dominated. Indeed, the females are about 10% larger than the males. Their heads are enormous compared to their bodies and their jaws and teeth can crush and grind the bones of larger animals. Hyenas are not just scavengers, feeding on the leftovers of a lion’s kill, although they will eat just about any meat they can find. They are also skilled hunters—the second largest carnivore in Africa after the lion. As a result, they are a keystone specie that controls the life of an ecosystem. What happens if we kill all the hyenas? This once happened in South Africa, “The result? Ecological disaster: explosions of herbivores reduced grasslands to deserts. Soil erosion ruined roads and altered the courses of rivers. Only when the predators returned did the ecosystem begin to recover.”
As embeds, Montgomery and Bishop become a part of the five-person crew headed by Kay Holekamp, who live together in a camp, not far from the dens of the hyenas. We get to know each of them and their varied backgrounds; most are graduate students, but one is a native Masai who started at the camp as an assistant cook and is now planning to study in the United States before returning to continue working in the field in his native Kenya.
One trait they all have is patience. Each day they plan on morning and afternoon sorties to observe the hyena colonies in action. The hyenas are habituated to their vehicles (that took some time!) so they are not a disruption to their lives. The thinking of the scientists is that you must be there every day to increase the odds of viewing something unusual and spectacular. Montgomery and Bishop lucked out and witnessed one such rare event. No spoiler here.
The subtitle of this series is “Where science meets adventure.” The Hyena Scientist might get some couch potatoes with their fingers on video games thinking that there just might be a few other options on how to live a life.
My curiosity (and a book contract) got me to the Masai Mara many years ago. Unforgettable and transformative. Montgomery and Bishop brought me back.