Article

Christine Drea is an animal behavior scientist.

Photograph by Lydia Greene, courtesy Christine Drea

By Stuart Thornton

Friday, June 8, 2012

Christine is a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Her work focuses on social behavior in mammals. She is particularly interested in looking at species where females are dominant. Some of these species include hyenas, lemurs, and meerkats.

“I look at the mechanisms underlying social interaction and behavior within these species that live in these complex societies, and then beyond that I focus on unusual species, in particular species in which there’s a sort of sex reversal of the roles of animals,” Christine says.

EARLY WORK

Christine was born in Kenitra, Morocco, and raised in Paris, France, and its suburbs, including Orgeval, Gif-sur-Yvette, and Bailly. She frequently traveled with her father, who worked for the Foreign Agricultural Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

These trips helped foster Christine’s interest in animals. “My father was a research entomologist,” she says. “I was raised going on field trips to catch grasshoppers or butterflies or collect caterpillars or aphids. Whereas my dad was interested in the insects, which I thought were cool, I was always just more interested in animals.”

When she was 19, Christine moved to Beltsville, Maryland, in the United States. She majored in zoology at the University of Maryland in College Park, and earned a PhD in psychobiology from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK

Christine has traveled to Kenya’s Maasai Mara wildlife reserve to study spotted hyenas, Namibia’s Namib Desert for brown hyenas, and the Kalahari Desert in Botswana for meerkats.

“The most exciting part is always the field trip to see the animals in their natural habitat,” Christine says.

MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK

“In this day and age, it would definitely have to be grant-writing, the constant justification of what we do and the begging for money to do it.”

HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?

“I see the continuum between the lay of the land, the geographical features, and the inhabitants of that land to mean they are intricately connected,” Christine says. “I think of geography spanning large continents to little ecological differences.”

GEO-CONNECTION

Christine says her research shows a definite connection between a region’s geographic features and how animals have adapted to those features to survive.

“It’s always been a combination of looking at animals in captive situations so that we can study details and mechanisms, but then also to have a finger on the pulse of their behavior in the wild,” she says. “… What challenges does this particular species face in this particular part of the world?” For example, she says, the geography of the Namib Desert has caused brown hyenas, which are not coastal dwellers, to head to the coast to feed on Cape fur seals.

Christine says she uses geographic tools such as GPS receivers to study meerkats and other animals. “You can record their daily movement patterns to infer things about their behavior, about their home range, about their territory size,” she says. “You also use it to find your car at the end of the day when you have walked around in circles for eight hours in the hot sun!”

SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN ANIMAL BEHAVIOR SCIENTIST

Christine says there is one essential class to take: “Biology is at the base of all this kind of work.”

GET INVOLVED

Christine suggests children and young adults interested in animal behavior should attend a summer science camp or volunteer at a zoo. “Exposure,” she says, “I think is key.”

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

agriculture

Noun

the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).

Encyclopedic Entry: agriculture

biology

Noun

study of living things.

coast

Noun

edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

Encyclopedic Entry: coast

continuum

Noun

connected series of things.

dominant

Adjective

main or most important.

ecology

Noun

branch of biology that studies the relationship between living organisms and their environment.

Encyclopedic Entry: ecology

entomologist

Noun

person who studies insects and their interaction with the environment.

evolutionary anthropology

Noun

interdisciplinary study of the biological and cultural evolution of humanity, and our relationship to other animals.

geography

Noun

study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

Encyclopedic Entry: geography

GPS receiver

Noun

device that gets radio signals from satellites in orbit above Earth in order to calculate a precise location.

grant-writing

Noun

process of applying to a person, business, or other organization for money or other funding.

habitat

Noun

environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

Encyclopedic Entry: habitat

home range

Noun

area where an animal lives.

mammal

Noun

animal with hair that gives birth to live offspring. Female mammals produce milk to feed their offspring.

mechanism

Noun

process or assembly that performs a function.

PhD

Noun

(doctor of philosophy) highest degree offered by most graduate schools.

psychobiology

Noun

study of the biological and chemical foundations of emotions and thought processes. Also called biological psychology and behavioral neuroscience.

suburb

Noun

geographic area, mostly residential, just outside the borders of an urban area.

territory

Noun

land an animal, human, or government protects from intruders.

zoo

Noun

place where animals are kept for exhibition.

Encyclopedic Entry: zoo

zoology

Noun

the study of animals.

Credits

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Writer

Stuart Thornton

Editor

Jeannie Evers
Kara West

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

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