Anne Hilborn

IMG_5083 IMG_5084


In my blog I ramble on about various aspects of cheetahs and doing fieldwork that interest me. There is the occasional tangent about academia, but mostly it is cheetah pictures.

By Anne Hilborn, Apr 19 2016 07:16PM

Cheetahs need space. A lot of space.

One of the reasons is to avoid competitors and predators. Lions kill cheetahs cub [1] and hyenas (and occasionally lions) steal their hard earned kills [2] In order to successfully raise cubs and be able to feed themselves, cheetahs need to find areas where there aren’t many lions and hyenas and yet there are gazelles to eat and habitat to den their cubs. Even in Serengeti, no such cheetah paradise exists, at least not in the long term.

The short grass plains of Serengeti

The spatial rhythms of carnivores in Serengeti are largely driven by migrations of herbivores and the herbivore migration follows the rains. Rains can be patchy, habitats are varied, and lions and hyenas focus on wildebeest and zebra while cheetahs love tasty gazelle. Cheetahs exploit the varied nature of the herds and the landscape to spend more time on the edges of herds instead of the thick of things where lions and hyenas hang out [3]. Cheetahs are good at hunting in low prey densities, they especially like male Thomson’s gazelles who are solitary or on edges of the herd [4]. Male gazelle tend to be a bit less vigilant which allows cheetahs to stalk close enough to launch their full on high speed chase. And once a cheetah starts chasing, they have about a 50% chance of success [5]. So being on the edges of herds in low prey density areas is good for cheetahs. There are fewer lions and hyenas and enough prey. But as herds are constantly shifting and moving, this means cheetahs have to move along with them. No area is great for cheetahs at all times of year.

Sheridan chases a lone male Thomson's gazelle. And fails to catch it

Asti with a tasty male Thomson's Gazelle

Cheetahs need space and to be highly mobile in order to find the refuges from other predators. But what happens when they can’t move? This is the case with mothers with very young cubs. Cheetahs give birth in dens which are usually in swampy areas with tall reeds, or in rock outcroppings (kopjes). For two months that the cubs are in the den, the mother is limited in how far she can go in search of prey each day as she has to come back and suckle the cubs. If there are enough prey around to feed her heightened nutritional needs (making milk is energetically expensive) things are dandy. But what if the prey move away? A single cheetah would follow them, no problem, but a mother with small cubs can’t. Instead she will have to make daily trips to find prey. And as new research has shown, it is walking that is energetically costly for cheetahs [6]. So there is a limit to how far mothers can go, if they have to go too far, they can end up abandoning the cubs. Another stressor on mothers is that unfortunately lions also like swamps and kopjes. This is bad news for cheetah cubs as cub mortality is very high (95% born do not make it to become independent from their mothers at 18 months) and 70% of that mortality is caused by lions and hyenas [1].

The search for prey can be exhausting.

Thus because they are tied to the den, mother cheetahs are much more likely to be around other carnivores than cheetahs that do not have such constraints [3]. Most other cheetahs get the hell out of dodge if they see lions, but mothers with cubs in the den can’t, they have to stay near the den to try to protect their cubs if possible. Lions don’t just kill cheetah cubs, they are known to also kill adults, so not only do they pose a threat to her cubs, but also to herself.

Armitage just wanted a nice patch of shade to lie down in, but quickly decided to find alternate shade with fewer lions in it.

A good cheetah mother is one who can manage to den her cubs somewhere they are not discovered and killed by lions (no easy feat that), and manages to feed them and keep them safe as they grow. In this respect, not all cheetah mothers are the same. Research suggests that avoiding lions is a learned skill, and those females who are better at avoiding lions have more cubs that survive [7]. Young cheetah mothers have a lot to learn about where to den cubs so that there is enough food around over two months to feed them and not so many lions. Not all females get the hang of it. Some are a bit thick and don’t seem to avoid predators as well. There is a large variety in quality of mothers. Some are super moms and some are just crap at the whole business. Since lions cause so much cub mortality, the ability to avoid predators may be a driving factor in whether a cheetah is a good mother or not.

Cambazola was a lovely cheetah, but didn't really seem to be bothered by the whole raising cubs thing

While Amarula was a super mom

The moral of the story is that cheetahs need space. They need enough space to find refuges from predators and find food. This is why despite the Serengeti being so large (14,750 km2), cheetahs are pretty sparse on the landscape. There are only so many places where they can avoid ~3000 lions and ~9000 hyenas. It is the size of Serengeti ecosystem that contributes to it being a stronghold for cheetahs. With room enough to avoid other carnivores and a social system that allows them to be very mobile, cheetahs can persist in landscape full of larger predators.

By Anne Hilborn, Apr 18 2016 09:35PM

June 21 2015

I went to see the new Mad Max movie and was impressed for the usual reasons- eye popping visuals, multiple female characters being badass, the amount of character development that happens with minimal dialog, the refusal to have a romantic subplot etc… Tom Hardy plays Mad Max as a rather different type of action hero than you usually see in Hollywood blockbusters, and it occurred to me that he had many of the qualities of a fine field assistant. Believe me, the usual Hollywood action hero would make an utterly awful field assistant, but Mad Max…Different story. I complied my personal list of qualities that would make me likely to hire him. Bear in mind this list is heavily influenced by the type of fieldwork I have done in both Serengeti and Alaska which involves long periods of time spent in isolation with a small group of people where pretty much everything depends on having working vehicles or boats.

Thanks to feministmadmax.tumblr for some of the images.

Why Tom Hardy’s Mad Max has the many qualities of a good field assistant.

1. Thinks independently and presents his ideas but takes direction well.- want someone smart who thinks for themselves but will do what you say.

2. Understands who is boss. Don’t want someone talking over you or changing protocol on your project. You also don’t want a guy who resents having a woman as a boss. I haven’t seen this happen many times, but when it does it is a complete mess.

3. Isn’t grabby. Max doesn’t touch any of the female characters unless it is in the act of fighting, driving the rig, or administering first aid. This is very rare in male cinematic ‘heroes’. Usually they regard the woman/women they ‘save’ as owing them something, be it attention, some sort of domestic labor, or sexual activity. Or they just cop a feel if possible. Even my faves such as Sean Bean as Sharpe and Jonny Depp as Jack Sparrow do this.

Jack Sparrow cops a feel
Jack Sparrow cops a feel

Sharpe after trying to seduce Theresa when she really wasn't into it

Max does not, even when crammed in the belly of the war rig with several half naked young women, he takes absolutely no interest in them. For me very few things make a work dynamic go uncomfortable and edgy as someone touching me without my consent. Being in a car for 12 hours with someone who tries to tuck your hair behind your ear or in a field camp with someone who touches your stomach as you pass—nope. Not good. Thankfully is hasn’t happened very often to me (but sexual harassment and assault in field camps is common-see Kate Clancy and co.'s research on this issue) but it is such a relief to have someone working with or for you where you know it won’t be an issue.

4. Knows when to let the best person for a job take over- Yes, I am talking about the rifle scene.

Field jobs are a great place to learn new skills, but when the chips are down and resources/time/tempers are short, the most qualified person should do the job. This is a lesson I had to learn the hard way. When I was younger I felt I had A LOT to prove about how tough and skilled I was and would often try to do things beyond my abilities. In 2002 I was a bird skinning trip to Siberia and to get to a study site we needed to row across a sizeable river. For the first few days I sat in the boat and one of the guys on the team rowed everyone across. But after a while I felt like I shouldn’t be just sitting there like useless cargo so I offered to row. Now I once rowed a boat when I was 10 and that made me think it was fairly straightforward.

How I'd thought I'd look rowing a boat. Not very accurate

Let me assure you it is not. At all. Even now after a fair amount of practice I cannot row a boat in a straight line, but back then I made a complete hash of it. I am eternally grateful and astonished that one my passenger sat mute and silent as I completely soaked him as I flailed with the oars. Eventually with much bruised pride, I admitted defeat and let the guys take over the rowing. In that situation I was not the right person for the job and as I have matured I’ve realized that letting someone who is more competent than myself do the job doesn’t somehow diminish my value. This realization was helped along by becoming more competent myself and being in situations where someone else less skilled wanted to take over. Most of the time I’ll let him or her go ahead, but if time is tight, or the result is important then, no. I’ll pull rank and do it myself, and it helps to have someone who doesn't get upset by that.

5. Can work effectively independently and as part of a team- Want someone who you can trust to do good work on their own but who can also work effectively with other people.

6. Has mechanical skills and can fix stuff- I’ve been stuck too many times with a broken fan belt, over heated radiator, broken door etc.. Mechanics are hard to find in the middle of nowhere and having someone on your team who can do even basic car repairs is immensely valuable.

7. Knows how to dig a car out of the mud. This is KEY!! The scene where the war rig is stuck in the mud is one of my favorites because it reminds me off the many many times I’ve been stuck in the mud, alone and with others, jacking, digging, throwing boards, sand ladders, spare tires... anything we had under the wheels, grinding in low range, desperately swearing and hoping that this time the car will move.

That time I got my parents stuck in a marsh in Serengeti. Pics by Ulrike Hilborn

Utter jubilation at getting the car unstuck

Despite our success, my dad doesn't seem very pleased about the whole situation

I approve of Mad Max’s digging out technique and his hustle in doing it. Because while there may not be blood thirsty war boys after us, we have cheetahs to find, and we don’t want to waste the day stuck in the mud.

8. Thoughtful. Now this isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of an action hero but it is exemplified by the boot. Max lost a boot to a warboy when he was still a blood bag, when he had Nux under his power he took a boot back leaving Nux with only one. In the scorching desert when you spend most of your time fighting or crawling around a very very hot vehicle, missing a boot is a problem. When Max returns from sorting out some of their pursuers, he carries back much needed weapons and ammunition, and a boot which he gives to Nux. Now he didn’t have to, he could have spared himself the trouble of carrying it all that way, but in doing so he signaled to Nux that he accepted him as part of the team and his safety and comfort were important. Thoughtful things like that between members of a field crew really help make what can be a boring repetitive job and a cramped living situation much easier to bear. Someone who does the dishes without asking, or remembers to pack your favorite snack for lunch. Or knows that you hate driving a boat in windy situations so does it instead. Or can see when you are stressed and about to break and makes you dinner or does a job or chore so you don’t have to. These things can be immensely important.

9. Has some first aid skills- you know, can sort out a collapsed lung.

10. Doesn’t mind staying filthy for periods of time. Mad Max obviously hadn’t changed clothes in years and the logical part of my mind knows that makes sharing a car or tent a challenge. In less extreme circumstances however, it helps to have someone who doesn’t mind getting filthy. Cutting ear bones out of rotting salmon, digging cars out of the mud or just camping for days in the dust are dirty jobs and you want someone who won’t use up precious water in non-essential washing.

11. Doesn’t say much- If I am in a car with someone for days at a time, I don’t want them to be talking all the time. One of the reasons I am good at being a cheetah researcher is because I can spend 5 days alone following cheetahs. So when I am sharing the car, I am not big on a lot of chit- chat, especially not in the morning. When I was training Laura to replace me on Cheetah Project, one of the reasons we got on so well was because there would be almost no talking in the car until the mid-morning tea break.

12. Can drive stick. All field cars in Serengeti are stick shifts and not being able to drive stick pretty much excludes one from being a field assistant.

While this list is pretty impressive, I am realistic and know there are some reasons that would also make him a challenging field assistant.


1. Not great communicator. Max as an agreeably silent car companion is great. Max as a field assistant who doesn’t let you know where he is going or if the car needs repairs or if he is having problems with data collection, or permitting issues etc.. is less than ideal. Max giving a research presentation to stakeholders might be a stretch. Having good communication skills in science is necessary and you want someone in the field who can effectively communicate both with you and other people.

2. Has rolled a car and might be considered a reckless driver.

Admittedly there are extreme extenuating circumstances. However, it will probably take a fair amount of time and training for Max to stop driving as if he was running for his life and more in the slow granny style we aim for. Landrovers in Serengeti and boats in Alaska are expensive to buy and maintain. Driving off road is tough on cars anyway, but this is exacerbated by fast or careless driving, and on Cheetah Project safe and careful driving is very important. Wrecking a car is one of the fastest ways to get fired.

4. He's hot. Now this is a whole can of worms that I am not going to fully get into. I’ll just say that I would find it really awkward to be attracted to someone who worked for me, especially if we spent a lot of time together such as in a car or research camp.

By Anne Hilborn, Apr 18 2016 09:05PM

Cheetahs. They are fast, elegant, and spotted. But that is not enough for some of them. Some of them also rock the mustache. There are lots of variants in the cheetah mustache world.

Most aren't blessed with a mustache at all (and feel grumpy about it)

Some are distinguished

Some are subtle

Some are refined

While some are bad-ass

I never saw a cub with a mustache so it is possible that they develop with age. Both males and females can be blessed with the facial bowtie. And apparently some not naturally fortunate can make up for it with the ever popular Meat Mustache.

By Anne Hilborn, Apr 18 2016 01:29AM

June 12 2015

Initially I had mixed feelings about #distractinglysexy because it seemed to play into the tired trope of women scientists not being attractive. But then I saw how many women were using it to post pictures of themselves doing cool and interesting work in the lab and field with comments that pointed out the ridiculousness of Tim Hunt’s remarks. And I decided it was generally a good thing.

For me the point is not that women scientists can’t be sexy but that we are not distracting. If men cannot work besides us without losing focus on their own work, that is their problem not ours. I have worked in many labs and field situations with lots of different people and seen all sorts of romantic and sexual relationships occur. That is life, scientists are human and have messy human emotions. But we still manage to get the work done. Being able to work with people of other genders, races, nationalities, sexual orientations, class, economic backgrounds and combinations of the above is a prerequisite for being a decent human. Science is rife with sexism, racism, and many types of oppression, but segregation (as Tim Hunt suggested) is really not the way to make it better.

Another aspect for me is that competence in the field/ lab is really attractive. The pictures show women doing work they love where the focus is not on how they look or how conventionally attractive they are. As a cisgendered woman, it is assumed that much of what I do and how I present myself is deliberate and meant for the male gaze. For me, these pictures push back against that, showing women doing awesome things where their appearance is besides the point. One of the many reasons I like fieldwork is because it doesn’t matter how I look but how competent I am. The important things in the field are can you drive a boat, can you set up a mist net correctly and skin a bird attractively and quickly? Can you find cheetahs and watch them for 11 hours a day without falling asleep or losing track of them? Can you collect, measure, tag and get a genetic sample from a salmon in under a minute? Can you work in crappy weather without complaining? Can you dig a Landover out of the mud? These are the things I judge myself and my coworkers on and how we look while doing them is not particularly important.

I know many other women will have a variety of different opinions and experiences regarding this issue, and that is what makes it complex and fascinating. There are as many experiences being a woman in science as there are women, and I like that #distractinglysexy shows at least some of that diversity.

For mainsteam media coverage of #distractinglysexy try these links



By Anne Hilborn, Apr 18 2016 01:18AM

January 2015

Well I am taking a break from updating you all about my travails and adventures in Serengeti from 5 months ago. The reason for this momentous shift is that I have started data analysis and am a wee bit excited about the small victories. The monumental task of actually making scientific sense of the data I collected is going to take a long long time, and there will be lots of steps on that road. One of the first steps that needs doing after coming back from the field is data entry. Of course this doesn’t apply to all those organized/dedicated/technologically blessed souls who enter their data in the field. I came back from Serengeti with 2 ½ books of prey survey data and a modest pile of hunt data sheets. I had entered approximately 10 lines of data while in Serengeti so faced a large amount of grunt work ahead of me. Now some grad students are blessed with the ability to pawn off time consuming and mostly mindless data entry on undergrad students. Theoretically this option was open to me, but I was reluctant to take advantage of it for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that I don’t trust other people with my data. Before vaulting into the dizzying heights of grad school I too toiled entering other people’s data. While I was decently paid, it still was mind numbing and I most likely wasn’t as careful as I should have been. Know how sloppy people (including myself) are when it is not their data, I have severe reservations about trusting anybody with my precious data. The second reason is my handwriting is not as perfect as it should be, making data entry mistakes even more probable. The third is that the hunting behavior data is quite complex, there are a lot of interconnected bits of data, some of which are often missing but can be extrapolated from other bits of data.

All my data! Doesn't look like much.

The ideal person for data entry would be meticulous, patient, careful, familiar with the cheetah project data and my handwriting, be able to ask me lots of questions as they arose, and happy to sleuth for missing data. And most importantly, not be me as I had other things to work on. I am incredibly lucky that such a paragon exists in the person of my mother. Through her heroic labors, all of my hunting data got entered by this morning. I scraped through my databooks for every last scrap and reference to hunting behavior and at the end of it all I had 150 records of predation. Many of these were a record of a hunt that failed, so there were no records of the kill or eat. Other times I came across a cheetah already eating, so I have data about eating behavior but not the hunt. However 150 records in 9 months isn’t bad, especially since in February-April I was collecting demographic data for the Serengeti Cheetah Project, and training Dennis to be the research assistant on the project so had very little time for my own work.

With the 150 records so fresh and so clean in my hands, I did a pivot table in Excel to see which cheetahs I had the most hunts from.

*I know I should have done this in R, but I would have had to learn how, while I already know how to do it in Excel.*

Of those 150 hunts, 44 were successful, making the overall success rate a decent 29%. This is similar to the success rates gotten from past decades of hunting data.

Some of the results were not surprising. The champion with the most number of hunts was Wendi. Since I followed her for 6 days straight, it isn’t bizarre that I had so many hunts, she had 3 hungry and mischievous cubs to feed so had to kill a gazelle pretty much every day. To get 5 gazelle, she hunted 18 times, making her success rate pretty standard.

Wendi, provider extraordinaire

The second most prolific hunters were the group of three adolescents comprising of Laura’s two independent daughters and a random young male of unknown provenance that joined up with them. I considered them fairly useless hunters but it turns out they weren’t so bad. Out of their 15 hunts, they managed to catch something 4 times.

Apollo and Bacchus came in a respectable third as far as number of hunts, but they were quite successful, bringing down prey in 4 of their 12 hunts.

Boke (Studel’s newly independent male cub) attracted some mockery for his hunting skills. In fact he was named (not by me) after a hapless human hunter. And it is true that of the 10 hunts I saw, he only caught something twice. But in fairness, Courtney was just as bad (10 hunts, 2 successes) and she's made it to the ripe age of 11.

Boke gets his stalk and chase on.

The most successful cheetahs with a 66% success rate were Vitalis (6 hunts) and the studly brothers Richard and Armitage (only 3 hunts).

Richard and Armitage, slayers of wildebeest calves

Quite a few cheetahs were fairly useless, none of Brandy’s 4 hunts was successful but she made up for it in cuteness.

To my utter lack of surprise it turned out Bradley and Cooper were worthless on the hunting front. Despite watching them for DAYS, they only hunted 3 times, and failed on all fronts. Those boys were more interested in spooning and armpit grooming than hunting.

A tiny first step has been taken, the road I am on seems remarkably long and dark at the moment, but hopefully I’ll manage to stumble on to the end, ideally doing some halfway decent science along the way. I’ll try to keep you updated as I do.

RSS Feed

Web feed