For those students who did not get to see enough of their extended family over the winter break, there is an exciting new class at Marlboro called “Biology of Mammals.” I sat in on the intro class yesterday, and I can tell you it will be way more fun than a barrel of cercopithecids (that’s Old World monkeys, for those of us who think that Artiodactyla is a kind of heart disease and not the order of even-toed ungulates). I mean, what could be more appealing than studying bright-eyed and bushy-tailed animals like hyraxes and hares and pikas and possums and bandicoots and bilbies? It makes my little whiskers quiver just thinking about it. The class will learn about the anatomy, physiology, behavior and ecology of mammals found here in Marlboro and far away. The only thing that could make it even more engaging would be to learn alongside a bright young scientist fresh from fieldwork in Africa, like Marlboro’s new biology professor, Jaime Tanner.
Jaime is one of those amazing people that didn’t just dream about going to Kenya to study wild animals but actually did it. For the last four years, she has lived off and on in the Masai Mara, where she has learned more than you can possibly imagine about spotted hyenas, among the most misunderstood mammals. Okay, so they aren’t as cute as pikas and they smell pretty bad and they have bone-crushing jaws and this funny shape that only a mother hyena could love. But hyenas are still amazing predators with a complex social system that makes Town Meeting look like child’s play. Jaime has intimately explored hyena social behavior and the development and of those bone-crushing jaws, so she is well equipped to handle a classroom of Marlboro students.
What’s even more exciting, and this had every whisker in the room aquiver, is that Jaime invited her Biology of Mammals class to join her in Kenya over spring break. Going to East Africa to study mammals would be the same as going to Stratford-upon-Avon to study theater or going to Florence to study art history or going to Nirvana to study Buddhism. Kenya is like the mother lode of mammals, and many of the mammals there are large and easy to find in the open grasslands. It may be hard for students to return to Vermont to reflect on meadow voles and white-tailed deer, but I’m sure they will find the trip worth this sacrifice.