Hyaena funding success

I am back in South Africa enjoying the sunshine and summer!! It’s good to be back.

My SciFund Challenge funding campaign finished a few days ago and was an amazing success. I raised an incredible $2,135!

I would like to send out a huge thanks to the following people who funded my project

Sam Williams – Kathy Phillips – Karen Talaski – Jacqui Kirk – Pam Patek – Kristen Kenedy – The Hyaena Gallery – Jack Standish – Sally Swift – Mikita Brottman – Peter Cock – Sharelle Howard – Kristen Devaney and Rob Paquin – Norm and Maureen McManus Powers – Arleda Watson – Trystan George – Marc S – Janet Bergeron – and Bridget Shaw.

Thank you all so very much. I have started the process of finding a suitable South African candidate to work with me! I’ll keep you updated as my research unfolds in the new year.


We did it!

We did it! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Thanks to Greg Russo,Stephanie Higgins, and Selena Jattan for bringing it home, and to all the others that have made this happen. I’m quite thankful to have all your support and look forward to sharing results with you as the project progresses. I’m not trying to be greedy, but you can still donate after the deadline. :) Thanks again everyone and sorry to post so many messages.



An interview about my research is online today thanks to Anthony Salvagno! Click here or just read it below.

#Scifund Round 3 is underway and each day I will highlight a new proposal from the Challenge to give you a more in-depth understanding of each participant and their research.

Today I present Katy Williams. Her research combines the biological study of the brown hyaena with the sociology of human-hyaena interaction.

Tell us about yourself, where you are from, and where you see yourself going.

My name is Katy Williams and I am a PhD student from Durham University, UK. I have moved around a lot and lived in different countries when growing up but essentially I am British and American with a bit of a South African twang once in a while. I love using the South African ‘now now’ and ‘just now’ which confuses anyone who isn’t from southern Africa. I lived in Zimbabwe for two years where I worked on lion and cheetah conservation projects and I am currently living in South Africa. I love Africa, carnivore research, and working with people. I can see myself staying in Africa and continuing with research or becoming a field guide.

How did you get involved in your research project?

I was hired by the Durham University Primate and Predator Project as the Field Team Leader. In this position I have been leading primate behavioural research, trapping and collaring leopards, working with Earthwatch Institute volunteers, collecting leopard and hyaena scats, and camera trapping. I am very lucky to be supported by the project’s Principal Investigator, Dr Russell Hill, who helped me to start my PhD research on the elusive brown hyaenas and their relations with people in the Soutpansberg Mountains, South Africa.

Why is your research important to you? Why should others fund it?

Hyaenas have such a bad reputation and are killed by farmers who believe that they are killing their livestock. However there is so little known about brown hyaenas, especially in mountainous environments, and about how people perceive and interact with them. I am excited to work with communities to get to the root of the problem and to find new ways to think and talk about stereotyped problem animals. This research uses biological research to learn more about the species, and uses social science research to discover the human impact on hyaenas. With this information I hope to turn things around for hyaenas and people living in proximity with them.

Do you have a favorite story that came from working on your research project?

In order to trap large carnivores we use calf foetuses as bait. We hang them from trees and encourage the carnivore to walk towards them at which point they get caught in a foot trap. The foetuses are often rotting and have maggots on them. Sometimes they burst all over you. It is grim. One of my research assistants was walking by a trap site in the day when the trap was not set and he heard this growling noise coming from the trap area. He looked over and there was a honey badger on its hind legs hugging the foetus as hard as he could and growling to protect it. He wasn’t going to let it go!

Why did you decide to participate in the SciFund Challenge?

My husband who loves technology and science heard about the SciFund Challenge and signed me up. I wasn’t sure what it was at first but as the emails came in with instructions on what to do next I followed them, and, ta-da, at the end of the day I had a film made and a project launched. Easy! It’s been a really interesting learning process for me and it’s a really innovative way to gain funding for science.

What was the most difficult aspect of building your SciFund Proposal? What was your favorite?

The most difficult aspect and my favourite aspect of the process was making the film! I honestly had no clue how to do it. I was having a bit of a meltdown about not knowing how to make a film and so I went to the pub. That’s the solution to most problems in the UK! At the pub I randomly started talking to this amazing guy who is a filmmaker and he said he would help me. It was lots of fun working with him. We filmed at his house and had to work around hammering coming from next door and the sound of trains going by but we got there in the end.

Tell us something random. Something funny. Something borrowed. Something blue.

I ate live octopus and lived to tell the tale. You can feel the suckers sticking to the top of your mouth and it wiggling around as you try to chew it. That was in South Korea where I also ate dog. When you travel sometimes you just have to roll with it.

And to save you time from scrolling up, you can read about her project and contribute here. Thanks Katy for sharing your science!


Coastal Erosion After Hurricane Sandy: The Implications for Leatherbacks

Hurricane Sandy was one of the largest storms to hit the East Coast in decades. Much of the news surrounding this storm has focused on the economic and social fallout. Many people are now displaced, businesses are lost, and the clean-up for this highly populated region will be huge. As we move forward to address the clean-up and restoration efforts of this region, it is pertinent that we consider the environment. More specifically, we should consider coastal geomorphology, a key determinant in how well these coastal landscapes can handle storms. As we move forward, decisions we make in restoration and rebuilding will effect our resilience to future storms and coastal ecosystems’ resilience to future storms. As we increase coastal resilience, we get the added bonus of improving leatherback sea turtle nesting sites.

Beach dunes are the first line of defense against storms. When a storm does come, there is re-working of the beach dune system. In general, the sand is redistributed in ways that increase the land surface elevation, protecting those areas from future flooding and erosion. Development along beachfronts weakens the dune structure and tends to lower the land surface through subsidence (lowering of the land surface due to stress, in this case, by building weight) and manual removal of sediments to build things like roads. By developing these areas, we are making them less resilient. When this happens in areas where sea turtles nest, such as the southeast U.S., they lose nesting habitat.

Clearly, a movement to stop beachfront development would be extremely difficult at the very least. The current plan in the New Jersey/New York region is to bulldoze the coastal areas to remove the sand and rebuild roads and houses. This plan, goes back to the status quo – or as USGS puts it, the pre-Sandy geomorphology. However, we can use technological and engineering innovations to make our beachfronts more resilient to storm surges like Katrina, Ivan, and Sandy. If we use the restoration of areas hurt by Hurricane Sandy to spur this innovation, we can minimize future storm destruction of both beachfront communities and sea turtle nesting sites. This will be better economically, socially, and ecologically.

Easier said then done? Probably not. There are two easy options. First, move inland. Second, move up. Creating houses that can be relocated, as was done in the first half of the 20th century, would make moving inland much easier as the sea level rises and storms become more intense. As for the option of moving up: we know lowering our land surface makes us more susceptible to flooding and loss of life and property. Building techniques can be used that raise the land surface or keep it at the current elevation rather than lowering the land surface.

Now to tie this in to our leatherback sea turtle nesting project. Coastal erosion is a major threat to sea turtle nesting. With our field and remote sensing-based exploration, we collect data on coastal geomorphology and leatherback physiology. Then, we create our ecosystem-climate change model to predict the current and future state and distribution of leatherback nesting. When analyzing our model, we can include data on coastal erosion and flood risks for determining management areas for leatherback sea turtle nesting. If we learn ways to work with the coastal environment rather than against it, the future of the leatherback sea turtle will be a lot brighter.

To see more information on coastal geomorphology and Hurricane Sandy, go to this great article written by scientists at the USGS: Shifting Sands: Sandy’s Lessons in Coastal Geology


Special thanks to our first fuelers on the Sci Fund Challenge!

We are so very grateful to the support of Wendy Erb, Julia Trops, Jennifer Seale and Marghi McKeon! Thank you for making the first day of the Sci Fund Challenge a great success for us! Asante sana from the Sanje Mangabey Project!


Press from the Ecological Society of America conference

I  gave a talk at the ESA conference in Portland, OR last week. Journalist Carol Frischmann was in attendance, and wrote a blog post about our research.  http://thiswildlife.com/2012/08/10/what-happens-when-birds-disappear/


Cold turkey

We are back from the Research Society on Alcoholism meeting brimming with new ideas. Conferences are always a fun time to show off your discoveries, get ideas for new projects and start up new collaborations with your friends and colleagues.  Some of our new ideas demanded our immediate attention (in part because our summer students needed projects), and we took a little hiatus from our blog to get those projects going in the lab.

Something we have not talked about in the development of new medicines, but is nonetheless important, is gene regulation.  It is commonly thrown around in every day media that we are born with (and die with) a set of genes that influence what we look like, our behaviors and our susceptibility to certain diseases. How this happens is that our genes provide the code for the proteins that make up our bodies.

What is important for drug development is the fact that gene expression is highly regulated. That is to say, which ones, how much and where in our body our genes are used to make protein is all under strict control. Not only can our genes influence our susceptibility to certain diseases but disease can also change how our genes are regulated.  New research indicates that targeting gene regulation seems to be a viable option for developing new treatments for disease.

One form of gene regulation is histone acetylation and deactylation. Histone acetylation allows genes to be transcribed and eventually used to make proteins while histone deactylation prevents this from happening. Histone deactylase (HDAC) inhibitors are a type of drug that tips the scales in favor of the former process, that is, allowing genes to be used to make proteins. One example in which this form of gene regulation has been targeted for disease treatment is for alcohol dependence.

For people addicted to alcohol and in animal models of alcohol abuse, going cold turkey on booze produces a number of withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can be alleviated by alcohol and are a large component of what drive people to drink again. One of these symptoms is extreme anxiety.  During withdrawal, HDAC activity in the brain increases and the production of a protein called neuropeptide Y decreases. These effects of alcohol withdrawal can be treated by an HDAC inhibitor called trichostatin A . Trichostatin A treatment decreases HDAC activity and increases NPY production during withdrawal. More importantly, this treatment reduces withdrawal-induced anxiety.

Much more research needs to be done to better understand how genes are regulated normally and in diseased states.  This area of research will bring a promising new class of drug treatments.



Hot Hot Heat – Jasper, TX


All this heat can’t stop the love

We are in Jasper, TX and there are plenty of frogs to go around. Kassi and I will spend the next 2 weeks running the experiments (you can read more about these on the project page). It’s pretty hot here during the day, but we run experiments from about 8pm until 4am, so we have become nocturnal for the most part.

Also, we’ve been told that there is “an 8-footer, we don’t know where he is, but it’s ok because he’s shy” – of course referring to an alligator. Keep tuned for updates on this!

More pictures available over on the picture page!



Why study genes and politics?

Apologies for having this up a few days later than promised; I have been sick this week, but everything is back to normal now.

For my first discussion post, I’d like to talk a bit about an important question: why is it important to understand how genes influence politics? The punchline is this: having an accurate theory of where political attitudes and behaviors come from can help us improve our democracy.

First, the strategies that are used to mobilize voter turnout rely on what we think makes people tick. By understanding how genes affect whether people care about politics and whether they vote, we can design messages that will be more effective in turning out the vote and avoid messages which could have unintended consequences. For example, research from California has shown that messages which we thought would mobilize voters can actually end up having a negative impact on turnout among certain genetic populations.

Second, understanding how genes affect politics can help address one of the biggest problems in politics today: polarization. Some people have stronger physiological responses to threat, disgust, and other stimuli; these responses have been shown to be related to policy preferences on national defense, gay marriage, abortion, and other important political issues. By understanding that part of the reason that people disagree about politics is because they physiologically experience the world differently from each other, we can become more accepting of different points of view. From this perspective, people who support the other party are not simply stubborn and wrong-headed, but rather that they are reacting to the world as they experience it. While this means that our differences may be difficult to resolve, realizing the multiple sources of those differences opens a venue for dialogue where it might not otherwise exist.

If we ignore the role of genes in politics, we will be stuck with an inaccurate theory of human behavior that limits our ability to accomplish our political goals.



Life as a Frog

Hey there! I will be using this wordpress to promote my Scifund  campaign as well as a window for non-scientists to field work in ecology. Expect lots of pictures, videos, sound files, and updates as Kassi and I travel across the South.