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'Hyena Scientist' Book Features Kay Holekamp

On April 26 at 10:30 a.m., Kay Holekamp, one of the world’s leading behavioral ecologists, will be featured in East Lansing Public Library’s event, “Hyena Scientist!” as part of the critically acclaimed “Scientist in the Field” series.

This myth-busting new addition to the “Scientist in the Field” series by author Sy Montgomery and photographer Nic Bishop debunks myths about hyenas, while featuring the pioneering research of Kay, Michigan State University Distinguished Professor of integrative biology in the College of Natural Science. Montgomery will join Kay at the event.

Kay hosted Montgomery and Bishop at her research camp in Kenya in 2016, introducing them to her research methods and life as a behavioral ecologist.

“Sy and Nic happened to be in camp when a lot of exciting things were happening,” Holekamp said. “A very rare clan fission event and ensuing clan war, heavy rains and a near-flood of our research camp, and the immobilization of a young hyena.

“I was responsible for assembling the cast of characters Sy writes about in the book,” she continued. “They are a diverse group of wonderful people, united in their love for spotted hyenas but arriving there via wildly different routes.”

As a scientist studying one of the only mammalian societies led entirely by females, Kay has made it her life's work to understand hyenas since the beginning of her studies in 1988. Her MSU lab conducts long-term field studies of behavioral development and associated endocrine changes in spotted hyenas and has acquired over 30 years of data covering 10 generations.

Kay said the book is important because it gives readers a true picture of the hyena, a disparagingly misunderstood mammal throughout recorded human history.

“The most pressing conservation problem facing spotted hyenas and other hyena species is that people falsely assume they are not worthy of protection and conservation,” Kay said. “Sy’s book makes it clear that this long-standing assumption is false, by gently debunking long-standing myths about these animals.

“And,” she added, “Nic’s photographs clearly show that not only are hyenas not the hideous skulking scavengers depicted in legend but are, in fact, fascinating and loveable creatures with remarkably rich social and family lives.”

Since Kay’s arrival at MSU in 1991, more than 100 of her students have spent more than a year in Masai Mara, Kenya for these studies.