Photograph by Michael Nichols, National Geographic
Birthplace: Fort Worth, Texas
Current City: Minneapolis, Minnesota
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I thought I wanted to be an engineer or a doctor, except I really wanted to work outdoors and travel to exotic places.
How did you get started in your field of work?
I gave up my place in medical school to go to Tanzania to work as a field assistant for Jane Goodall in Gombe National Park. I had always been fascinated by evolution; I loved studying the intricacies of animal behavior.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to lions?
Lions are amazing animals: They live in complex social groups, they cooperate in a variety of ways, and they are at the top of the ecological pyramid. All of these topics take a great deal of time and effort to study, and we keep learning more and more about them every year. I'm especially interested in their impacts on other species: They make life extremely difficult for African wild dogs, but they have little impact on cheetahs and hyenas, for example. And in the coming years we will finally be able to see how they affect their various prey species.
What’s a normal day like for you?
I lead two lives: Half the year, I am a professor at the University of Minnesota, where I teach undergraduates about basic biology. The other half of the year, I lead the lion research team in the Serengeti. While in the Serengeti, I make sure that the camera traps are maintained in our Snapshot grid; I help with the conflict mitigation project in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, where the Maasai kill lions that eat their livestock; and I drive out looking for lions in our long-term Serengeti study area. In the evening, I discuss the day's observations with my assistants and students.
Do you have a hero and, if so, why is this person your hero?
I have two heroes. First, George Schaller, who started the Serengeti Lion Project in 1966 and subsequently went on to study pandas, jaguars, and many other animal species. George works harder than anyone I've ever met, and he is extremely modest about all his achievements. Second, John Maynard Smith, a British evolutionary biologist who died nearly ten years ago. John was an extremely clear thinker who had an unusually playful creative intelligence. He didn't mind being wrong every now and then, provided he had inspired people to look at the world in a new way.
What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?
The most difficult project involved working with a graduate student to watch lions for 96 consecutive hours twice a month for a year and a half. We alternated taking six-hour shifts, and it was excruciatingly difficult to stay awake while the lions slept 19-21 hours a day.
Until recently, the most fun I've ever had was using life-size toy lions to find out what real lions thought of the male's mane. It turned out that females really loved dark-maned males, and male lions were intimidated by dark-maned rivals.
These days I find the photos from our camera traps to be endlessly exciting and entertaining: We've seen photos of mating porcupines, tick-birds roosting overnight in the warmth and safety of a giraffe crotch, and encounters between bat-eared foxes and aardwolves. It's just one surprise after another.
What are your other passions?
Writing, photography, and teaching
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In Their Words
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