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Animal Behavior Society
Animal Behavior Society

Working towards a better understanding of animal behavior

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Field Assistants
Posted Mar 18
The Mara Hyena Project is now hiring for several NSF IRES (National Science Foundation International Research Experience for Students) funded research positions starting in 2019 and 2020. IRES students are expected to commit to staying on for the entire year. During this time they will work closely with one other American IRES student as well as male Kenyan research assistants (RAs) and camp staff. The IRES student position requires extremely long hours working in rustic conditions but IRES students will gain valuable research experience with the possibility of co-authoring a scientific paper. In particular, those interested in pursuing a graduate education in ecology or behavior should apply.

The Mara Hyena Project is led by Dr. Kay Holekamp, Professor of Integrative Biology and Director of the program in Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, & Behavior (EEBB) at Michigan State University. The Mara Hyena Project is a long-term field study started in 1988 by Dr. Holekamp and Dr. Laura Smale on the behavior of free-living spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. Research focuses on development, physiological substrates, and evolution of mammalian behavior. Current research topics include cognition & problem-solving, vocal communication, diet, early-life effects and development, and collective movements.

Job Responsibilities
IRES student duties include collecting daily behavioral and demographic data on several clans of spotted hyenas, collecting and processing fecal and saliva samples, conducting prey transects, recording the location and description of other carnivores, writing and compiling behavioral notes, managing staff and maintaining camp, handling finances, printing photos, assisting graduate students with their research, conducting water & supply trips to nearby towns and monthly supply trips to Nairobi, and also staying on top of vehicle maintenance. Watching hyenas sounds exciting, but much of the job is tedious or boring with long hours in hot vehicles or in front of a computer in camp. However, the Maasai Mara is also one of the richest wildlife viewing areas in the world and each day brings something new.

Camp Life
All RAs are assigned their own safari-style tent complete with a bed and desk. Cell connectivity is fairly strong, but also spotty and unreliable. RAs can usually check their email and make phone calls home once a day. All electricity comes from solar panels and is carefully monitored; charging Hyena Project laptops takes priority over personal electronics. There is no running water in camp, bathrooms are in the form of pit-latrines called “choos”. Water is collected from local wells or from rainwater and stored in sealed tubs. Meals are all taken outdoors at tables protected underneath tarps; applicants should not be squeamish about bugs or snakes. Camps are located inside the National Reserve and we frequently get animal visitors inside camp. However, wildlife are usually not a threat, the largest safety concern is Malaria for which we recommend all RAs take prophylaxis.

All applicants should be U.S. Citizens with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in a field related to animal behavior (e.g. Biology, Psychology, Physical Anthropology, etc.) or previous employment in a similar job. Collecting behavioral data can be tedious and collecting high quality data requires a great deal of perseverance, the ability to sustain attention for extended periods and pay close attention to detail as well as being a fast, flexible, and attentive learner. Over-confidence is not tolerated, RAs must be willing to have their data constantly double-checked by their co-IRES student for any possible mistakes or mis-identifications of hyenas. RAs must get up well before the crack of dawn and go out again late in the evening to observe hyenas with time during the middle of day used to input data into computers. Many people simply do not have the level of interest to maintain the work ethic required for this job. Applicants should be enthusiastic about working outdoors in varying weather, the Mara is cold at night and hot during the day and turns into a muddy swamp during the monsoon seasons. RAs must be culturally sensitive and able to work with Kenyan RAs and staff. Maintaining an excellent relationship with the local community is important, we rely on the community for water, supplies, information, vehicle repair and occasional vehicle rescue when stuck in a hole or mud. Applicants must also work closely with their fellow American IRES student; living and working with the same person 24/7 can be challenging and applicants should have very strong interpersonal skills, excel at cooperation and be an excellent communicator. Imagine you must not only live with, but also work with, your randomly assigned college freshman roommate (albeit, a roommate also interested in animal behavior) and have little other social contact for an entire year. Being a good IRES student is all about being a strong team player, this position is NOT for those who prefer to work alone.

All of our research vehicles are manual transmission diesel Land Cruisers. Experience driving manual transmission vehicles is helpful, but not required. In sum, the most important qualifications are being a conscientious, hard-working, team player who enjoys animals and the outdoors.

All IRES students receive a stipend of $5000 for the year and all associated costs are covered including a round-trip flight in and out of Nairobi and all food & living expenses while in Kenya. IRES students are given 3 weeks of vacation time during this year where they may travel on their expense.

We have several positions currently open. The first starts in May 2019, the second in November or December 2019, and the third in March/April of 2020.

If you are interested in participating in this research program, please send to Dr. Kay Holekamp (Director, Mara Hyena Project) at a single PDF file that includes the following documents. Positions are filled on a rolling basis, please apply ASAP if you wish to be considered for the May 2019 position. IRES student positions are competitive and usually fill more than 6 months in advance of start dates.

1) A cover letter describing what you hope to get from this IRES program, what particular strengths you bring to the program, your specific research interests and experience, your career plans, and any special considerations such as financial need, membership in groups currently under-represented in science, etc. Please also describe any prior experience working in difficult field conditions or observing animal behavior.
2) Your curriculum vitae (CV).
3) An official scanned transcript from your current college or university.
4) Names, positions or titles, and complete contact information for two faculty members able to comment on your academic performance.
5) Two letters of recommendation from these faculty members required for all applicants. All letters of recommendation should be submitted via email to Dr. Kay Holekamp at Please inform your letter writers that their letters must be received within 1 week of the date of your application submission. 

Please include the following title in your email heading and PDF: IRES,Lastname,Firstname.

Decisions regarding selection of applicants will be made on a rolling basis and are open now. For additional information about our ongoing research program, please visit the website of Dr. Kay Holekamp at & our research blog at