The Hyena Scientist
(Scientists in the Field Series)
HMH Books for Young Readers, ISBN 978-0544635111

by Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop

The Hyena Scientist


“A practiced and proficient team returns to the African plains to visit a field camp in Masai Mara, Kenya, where zoologist Kay Holekamp has been studying spotted hyenas for 30 years. This surprisingly engaging title introduces a species whose bad reputation is nearly universal. Holekamp disagrees. Her study of eight generations of hyenas has revealed the spotted hyena to be “an unexpectedly brave, smart, and extremely social species” as well as the “most formidable carnivore in Africa.” During their 10-day visit, Montgomery and Bishop go with the researchers for morning and evening observations, watch one sedate a young male with a dart gun so all can take measurements and specimens, see a skirmish in a war between rival factions of the large Talek West hyena clan, and, during a downpour, when flood threatens, help evacuate precious specimens and equipment. Montgomery’s graceful prose draws readers into the experience with clear explanations and vivid description. Bishop’s striking photographs show off the doglike hyenas’ furry cuteness. He includes close-ups of cubs at play and rest, researchers at work, and adult hyenas interacting with one another, as well as tent scenes, other wildlife, and the always-impressive scenery. Readers may be inspired by the stories of the scientist’s diverse team of assistants: a retired medical social worker, U.S. graduate students, and a young Kenyan who hopes to study in the U.S. An appealing, elegantly designed introduction to another much-maligned species.”

star—Kirkus, starred review

Has there ever been a creature more maligned than the hyena? From folklore to Disney, hyenas are often reduced to a cackling, scavenging villain, digging up corpses and stealing from mightier predators. But how much of this reputation is fairly earned? According to zoologist Kay Holekamp, very little.

This latest installment in the acclaimed Scientists in the Field series, penned by National Book Award finalist Montgomery, heads to Kenya’s Masai Mara reserve, where Kay has studied the spotted hyena for three decades. Hyenas are unusual among mammals in that they’re entirely led by females; appropriate, then, that Kay has led groundbreaking zoological research in a field dominated by men. Her findings are changing not just public opinion about hyenas (they’re affectionate, social animals and accomplished hunters—lions steal from them more than the other way around) but also the way hyenas are viewed by scientists. From their physiology to their social structure, hyenas break a lot of scientific rules and scientists can glean a lot by studying them.

Montgomery covers hyena behavior, field work processes, and daily life in the African bush, but she also profiles Kay and her research team, all of whom have their own reasons for being interested in hyenas. Similarly, Bishop’s photos capture the research base, Kenyan fauna, and, of course, the hyenas themselves. A fascinating, informative, and inclusive window into a feared and misunderstood species.

star— Booklist, starred review