The Circle of (Big Cat) Life with Anne Hilborn – CHEETAH WEEK at Real Scientists

This week it’s Cheetah Week at Real Scientists! We are delighted to welcome Anne Hilborn(@annewhilborn), ecologist and PhD student at Virginia Tech, USA, as our curator to share her research and adventures studying Big Cats. We asked Anne to talk about her work and here she is in her own words.

Dusty (1)

I was set on the glamorous and profitable path that is ecology when I spent 6 months in Serengeti National Park with my family when I was 12. I learned to love both the place and the astonishing array of animals it contains and always hoped to return. After graduating from university I went back to Serengeti to work as the research assistant for the Serengeti Cheetah Project. For 3 years I followed cheetahs and if I was lucky, picked up their poop. As entrancing as that was, I burnt out after a while, washed back up in Seattle and shifted to working on sockeye salmon with the Alaska Salmon Program at the University of Washington. This involved more lab work and less field work, but the fieldwork involved spending the summer in Bristol Bay, Alaska, messing about on streams, catching, tagging, squeezing, and following salmon. Sadly, the rest of the year was spent doing mind numbing lab work and data entry, which pushed me into realizing I wanted to go to grad school. I did a Masters at Imperial College London (on cheetah hunting behavior) and then started my PhD at Virginia Tech in 2012, again on cheetah hunting behavior. I am using mostly historical data for my PhD, but I did manage 9 months of fieldwork and data collection in Serengeti in 2014. Which mostly consisted of watching cheetahs sleep all day and then failing to find the same cheetah the next day. Now I mostly sit my desk and relive the highlights via twitter.


I’ve always liked animals and my father is a fisheries scientist and we did fieldwork as a family when I was youngII. I learned that science was a way to do learn about animals and go to cool and interesting places. This has more or less panned out so far.


Fieldwork. Fieldwork is why I got into it, and fieldwork is why I stay. Being able to think about ecological concepts is really interesting and deepens my appreciation of fieldwork or visiting natural places, but being able to go outside and mess about with nature is the best part.


I work on the hunting behavior of cheetahs. Specifically I look at how the differences between individual cheetahs in age/sex/# of cubs/social grouping, and the presence of larger carnivores like lions influences cheetahs hunting behavior. I hope to gain a better understanding of how the relationships between multiple carnivore species affect not only the hunting behavior of smaller carnivores but how that knocks on to affect the prey population.


DSCN4965Understanding the dynamics between large predators like lions, smaller predators like cheetahs, and their prey has potential to help us conserve not only individual carnivore species, but the ecosystems that include multiple predators and prey species. And also because I have lots of gory and gross pictures of carnivores killing and eating things


Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations? Not really, the PhD has gotten rid of all of those.


Any interesting hobbies? Using social media to combat the idea that carnivores are cute and cuddly with a barrage of pictures featuring gore, poop, genitals, and urine.


How would you describe your ideal day off? (Scientists are people too!) Due to a recent marvelous experience, my ideal day off now involves snorkeling in the Galapagos and seeing sea turtles, ray, and sharks. This is in no way typical of my normal days off.


Since we will be covering Big Cats this week, it’s likely we will have photographs of animal predation. ¬†We do appreciate that some followers may be averse to seeing photos of animals hunting. Any such media will be marked as sensitive, and if you wish you can also adjust your own media settings on twitter to warn you that sensitive content is incoming.


Lions, Cheetahs, the Serengeti and fragile ecosystems – it’s all here! We are very excited to host Cheetah Week, so please welcome Anne to Real Scientists!

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