An interview with Andy Gersick

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be featuring posts from researchers who’ve posted projects on Petridish, highlighting their backgrounds, research interests and experience with the funding process.  Our first interview is with Andy Gersick, a doctoral candidate in ethology (animal behavior) at the University of Pennsylvania. View his project, called “Decoding Hyena Calls in the Maasai Mara.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your research interests.

Basically I want to understand how animals think: what they know about the contents of their own minds and the minds of others. Since I can’t ask them directly, I try to do the next best thing by studying the information that they exchange when they communicate.  People talk (much of the time) because we want to move information from inside our own heads into the minds of other people. There is a brilliant fundamental insight in that kind of communication – the awareness that others have their own minds and experiences, and that they won’t know what we know unless we tell them. Animals may or may not possess some version of that understanding, and I like thinking about.

Q: What inspired you to become a scientist?

Dr. Doolitte, Jane Goodall, David Attenborough. I liked nature as a kid – reading about it, being in it, watching nature shows. As an adult that meant wanting to do something to help preserve the natural world. Being a scientist turns out to be the right way for me to be involved in that effort. When I first got out of college I worked in non-profits that were more about direct action on a number of issues, but after awhile I felt like what I wanted to contribute was not activism or even advocacy, but just to address people’s ability to be fascinated by nature, and therefore to care about it. Animal behaviorists and field biologists and other scientists put the words in the mouths of nature-show hosts and make zoo and museum programs meaningful. So as a scientist I get to satisfy my own curiosity while also, hopefully, feeding the curiosity of others.

Q: Why did you decide to post your project on Petridish?  

The site seems like a very good idea. Like I said, I think many people are just interested in science, and would like to be involved in supporting it. Funding for all sorts of research is thin these days and the idea of getting the public directly involved seems, intuitively, to make sense.

Q: What has been the most surprising thing you’ve found in your
research so far?

That’s a hard question. Everything about animal behavior is surprising once you start really paying attention to it. Because I think that when I was younger I had an idea that other species were like us, and that a scientist who studied animals really would be a little like Dr. Doolittle –someone who knew the language of the beasts and could  tell what they were saying. And that what they were saying would be some version of what people are saying. But other species aren’t exactly like us, they’re more like aliens. The world for a hyena – the things that she perceives and attends to and how she deals with other individuals – is so different from our own. Which actually makes the work of trying to understand that world much harder, but also more interesting.

Q: What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you in the

Almost everything funny that happens to me in the field is of the “funny after the fact” variety – getting our truck catastrophically stuck in a muddy rut, getting mock-charged by elephants, etc. I left my tent for a drink of water the other night and walked all the way to the water station in the middle of our camp before a lion started roaring in the dark about 20 feet to my right. I started backtracking very, very slowly, but then another lion roared about 20 feet to my left. So I just crouched down and drank my water. The two lions seemed to be occupied roaring back and forth at each other, so I sort of crab-walked back to my tent and tried to slide in without making too much zipper noise. Is that funny? Maybe you had to be there. I think I probably looked funny to the lions.

To read more about Andy’s research, ask questions or back his work, view the project page:

Decoding Hyena Calls in the Maasai Mara

The hyena’s whoop is one of the eeriest, most distinctive sounds of the African bush. What do whoops mean, and how do hyenas use them to survive and thrive?

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