Animal behavior research comes with a sense of urgency all its own. Climate change and human encroachment are enacting a global pincer maneuver that puts insistent pressure on species to adapt or perish. For animal behaviorists this represents a constant double challenge: to determine the baseline behavior of animals, and then how that behavior is being knocked about by humanity’s fervid press. That determination involves a mixture of high adventure and rigorous meticulousness that are, for those
of a very particular field behaviorist temperament, entirely their own reward.
Toni Lyn Morelli (b. 1979) is one such, who has spent time tranquilizing hyenas in Africa and swabbing lemurs in Madagascar, all while logging countless hours notating field data. Her work has revealed the impact of climate change on montane species, the effect of forest thinning on lemur feeding behavior, and shed light on the chemistry of primate familial recognition, and she’s only thirty-six years old.
She was born to a blue collar Michigan, two-working-parent Catholic family, her mother a court reporter and her father in construction. Their home bordered on a bit of woodland that produced a steady stream of animals to be observed, cared for, and played with, and those experiences made zoology and animal behavior a natural choice come college. At Michigan State University, she lost little time in using the resources around her to their fullest. Already as a freshman, she got a job studying the circadian rhythms of Nile Rats while spending her off hours mixing it up with a dangerous crowd of atheistic physics students who gave her cause to reconsider the religious beliefs of her youth.
Still an undergraduate, she worked in a genetics lab for two years and received a fellowship to assist a graduate student in studying hyena communication, scrutinizing behavioral data which, as Morelli puts it, “in practice meant hour upon hour of poring over recorded notes looking for any instance of scent marking or territoriality behavior or, the jackpot, pooping!” It’s a good lesson in how the collection of data, as exciting as it can be, has to ultimately terminate in the minute notating of that data, a task for the steadfast. That undergraduate work allowed her to actually travel to Africa and observe the hyenas first hand, resulting in a paper that deepened our knowledge of these animals’ complex social structure.
It’s a structure worth going into deeper detail about. The social unit for hyenas centers around the females, who tend to stick together in a cohesive group, while males, when they come of age, head off to find a new group of females to tag along with. If they are accepted, they live a life of quiet subservience to all the natal animals of their new clan, waiting for the females to eat their share before taking the remnants for themselves. It’s a societal system organized and sustained by the females, with borders maintained by scent markings and patrols. Morelli was part of the group that studied interactions between alien hyenas and a native clan. In particular, they studied how gender affected behavior. It turned out that the stakes were raised significantly in same-gender confrontations. Males, for obvious reasons, did not want other males possibly joining the clan, and so reacted with greater
violence than when females encountered an alien male, just as females tended to challenge female aliens with greater aggression than native males did.
After having learned the ropes of studying animals in the wild in Kenya (she even made a necklace of the spent tranquilizer dart tips she’d used in the field, which is pretty much the hardest-core thing I’ve heard in 47 episodes of doing this), it was off to Madagascar for a year of living in a tent and studying the native lemurs. It was in many ways an ideal combination of the genetics work she had done as an undergraduate and the field skills she had picked up as a hyena researcher. One of the questions she investigated was how lemurs use scent to convey information. The lemurs were tranquilized, and their scent glands swabbed and analyzed for correlations with genetic content. What Morelli’s team discovered was that, indeed, the scent contained familial information, that by smelling a marking you could know if the lemur who left it was related to you or not, a useful tool for cutting down on inbreeding. While there she also conducted studies of how lemurs changed their feeding behaviors in the face of forest dilapidation, a type of study she continues in her work with the adaptations of Sierra-Nevada and Appalachian Mountain species to climate change.
Ah, and did I mention she has a two year old child as well? Because, yes, on top of the constant travel necessitated by a career in animal field behavior, on top of the chemical and statistical analysis, and the paper writing, and the governmental advising (she was technical advisor to the DR Congo’s Minister of Environment for a year), she is raising a toddler with her engineer husband. The amount of energy that must take is well-nigh unfathomable, but Morelli radiates a steady and infectious enthusiasm for her work. “Almost every scientist I know loves their job, and wouldn’t want to do anything else, and I can’t say that about a lot of other people,” she says, and continues, “I have been paid to trek through the rainforest, hike the northeast’s tallest mountain, sleep under the stars in alpine meadows, hug hyenas, take photos with lemurs, protect endangered species…over and over again I run into people who pay a lot of money to do what I get a paycheck for.”
It’s easy to think of scientists as all falling into essentially one mould, as math-brainy recluses who lurk in basements and work on problems by writing things on whiteboards until they are solved. And there will always be room for those sorts of happy homebody loners, but it’s important to recognize that you can have a spirit of adventure, a love of collaboration, and an honest joy of working with wild animals, and still thrive in the sciences. The “Oh you’re too social to be a real scientist” line is a myth, one proved wrong by the steady and astounding work put out by people like Dr. Morelli. “Recognize that the skills it takes to be a scientist are diverse. This can be a real downside for those of us who love
nothing more than to crunch data at the computer, or pipette at the lab bench, or record behaviors while staring through binoculars. But a successful science career also requires good communication skills, thoughtful mentoring, a pleasant collaborative personality, writing discipline, and imagination. You can be good at all of these things or just excellent at some to be a good scientist.” No matter what type of curious you are, there is a place for you, and no matter what place you find, there is a lifetime’s worth of questions to be answered once you’re there.
And lemurs. If you’re lucky.