Cackling down from the Berkeley Hills are 13 spotted hyenas — they form the only captive research hyena colony in the world — but these animals will soon need to find new homes in zoos and private facilities across the country after funding cuts to research.
The hyenas have been the subject of a 30-year research project led by Stephen Glickman, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of integrative biology, to better understand their social structure and the unusual genital features found in female hyenas. The campus, however, informed researchers about two months ago that it can no longer sustain the project’s costs.
Part of the 29-acre Field Station for the Study of Behavior, Ecology and Reproduction, the colony’s population has dwindled over the years, and 41 hyenas were donated to zoological parks across the world. Now, with just one behavioral research project at the colony led by UC Berkeley professor Frederic Theunissen, the research has not been able to attract enough funding to keep its doors open.
The animals, which eat a varied diet of exotic meats and bones, cost about $30 per day per animal, according to campus attending veterinarian Roger Van Andel.
The colony lost its funding from the National Institute of Mental Health in 2007. The institute had funded the research because of the potential links between hormones and social behavior, particularly aggression, Glickman said. But after the institute determined that the hyena research was not sufficiently relevant to the practical problems it sought to address, funding was discontinued. Between 2008 and 2013, the colony worked with grants from the National Science Foundation.
For the past year, UC Berkeley has funded the project. But Robert Price, associate vice chancellor for research, notified researchers in an email that the campus would begin actively pursuing the relocation of the hyenas.
“It’s a great asset, but there is not enough people doing research. It would be great to support it if there were researchers interested in using it,” Price said. “Without any faculty research at the colony other than Fred Theunissen’s, we had to make the decision to close it.”
Colony manager and research specialist Mary Weldele, who has been with the animals for 29 years, has seen five of the hyenas adopted out in the last few years, but there are still many that need homes. Most of her work today is centered around finding the right place for the remaining carnivores.
“They are all going to homes. Probably one will go in May and a couple more after that,” Weldele said. “It will take a few months, and they will be going to retirement homes, basically. They won’t be participating in any research.”
In 1984, Glickman — who is now retired — and his then-graduate student Laurence Frank traveled to the Maasai Mara region in Kenya, where some hyena cubs were struggling to survive. Locals encouraged Glickman and Frank to take as many as they could in an attempt to protect their cattle, which are easy prey for hyenas.
Glickman and his team bottle-fed and raised the cubs by hand in Berkeley, more than 9,000 miles away from their natural African savanna. Although hyenas have a reputation for being loathsome scavengers, UC Berkeley researchers found them to be friendly and intelligent.
Beyond personality, researchers were interested in the sexual morphology of the female, whose clitoris protrudes and resembles the male genitalia. Prior to Glickman’s work, many in the scientific community believed the animals to be hermaphrodites. These animals, however, break many of the rules within mammalian biology. The females give birth, urinate and mate through their extended clitoris, or pseudo-penis, and dominate over male hyenas, Glickman said. The lowest-ranking female will still hold a higher status than the males in the group.
“We are still doing research on this,” Glickman said. “It’s painful not to be able to carry it to the end.”
While many of those who study hyenas are fascinated by their sexual morphology, researchers such as Theunissen are also interested in their vocalizations, which range from whoops and giggles to groans and whines.
Work at the hyena colony has significantly slowed down since Glickman’s retirement, and Theunissen’s study on vocalizations represents the last active behavioral research project at the colony. His lab is currently testing the ability of hyenas to discriminate sounds.
“Can they really tell apart the whoop of two different individuals or the giggle of two different individuals?” Theunissen said.
Researchers noted the difference between conducting their research in a captive colony versus in the wild. Theunissen said the combination of work in the field and in captivity is useful for research like his, which requires the collection of specific data. Hyenas tend to live in large groups, which makes distinguishing sounds in the wild challenging, Theunissen said.
“You can conduct research in the wild on them, but you can only go so far. You have to take what nature hands you,” said Kay Holekamp, a hyena expert and professor of zoology at Michigan State University.
The hyenas in Berkeley also became the subject of interest for Disney animators, who observed the animals in preparation for the creation of “The Lion King’s” animated hyenas. Some of the 13 hyenas housed in Berkeley may soon move to Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida.
While many of the ongoing projects face challenges, the researchers are preparing a library where all their findings, complete with videos and tissue samples, will be stored for future reference.