Roland Kays started studying animals in a physics class. He thought he wanted to work in a genetic engineering lab but thought better of it when he saw a film about a zoologist peering into prairie dog mounds looking for burrowing owls. He switched his major to zoology and fell in love with mammals. Today, he keeps tabs on thousands of mammals in their natural habitats with the aid of new technology and citizen volunteers at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences.
Zoologist: Studies the animal kingdom—the structure, classification, embryology, habits, evolution and ecology of animals.
When did you discover you wanted to be a zoologist?
As a kid growing up in Michigan, I was always really into science and the outdoors but I didn’t think the two were related. I designed my first science experiment for a science fair while in a physics class. We were studying the electromagnetic spectrum in class so I came up with this question: what happens to fruit flies if they are exposed to x-rays? I designed an experiment that would send fruit fly eggs through the security x-ray machines at the airport. They probably wouldn’t let me do that now, but I was able to send these eggs through the x-ray machine over and over again. I thought sending the eggs through 20 times had killed them because they didn’t hatch like the others. But about two weeks after the fair, I noticed all these fruit flies emerging from that tube. I extracted the DNA and looked under the microscope. I was disappointed not to be able to see the base pairs. I didn’t realize that our high school scopes didn’t have the ability to see that small.
What did you study in school?
I was interested in DNA. I went to college to become a genetic engineer, even though I didn’t really know what that meant. I chose Cornell so I could wrestle. I was a lightweight at 126 pounds. I learned a lot from wrestling: it’s not a team sport, you know. It’s one on one. So you learn quickly that there are no excuses. I learned to take responsibility for my work. I was either going to succeed or fail but I was not going to not try. At the end of freshman year, I got a summer job as a researcher in medical lab looking at the regeneration of brain cells. I was exhausted after working long days in a lab, not physically, but mentally. I realized maybe this isn’t how I want to spend my life. So when I got back to school, I looked for other types of science. I ended up in a mammalogy course. I saw a film about a guy using science but instead of fiddling around with test tubes and Petri dishes, he was on his knees looking into prairie dog holes for burrowing owls. That’s when I realized you could combine science with the outdoors. So I switched my focus to organismal biology and fieldwork.
From Cornell, I went right into a Ph.D. program at the University of Tennessee in zoology, which today is called ecology and evolutionary biology. I got a summer internship working in French Guiana for the American Museum of Natural History.
I wanted to explore the rain forest canopy. This was a new frontier of exploration for ecologists. My dissertation documented the ecology and social structure of the kinkajou. Although the ancestors of kinkajous were carnivores, they don’t hunt prey by day. Instead, they prefer to eat ripe fruit by night. And that’s just the beginning of the Kinkajou oddities. They have raccoon-like hands but the social structure of spider monkeys. And although they forage alone, they live in family groups and groom each other. And periodically, they have family picnics where large groups assemble and share food. I wondered why this solitary group of animals, that includes the raccoon, had adopted social behavior like that of the primates.
It turns out that tree living helps them hide from jaguars and pumas. Feeding at night prevents eagles from finding them. And a body weight of 6 pounds is too big for an owl. In most cases, the fear of predators is what promotes social behavior in animals but it comes with a cost—food sharing. In a tropical rain forest, however, there is always fruit ripening somewhere and in large quantities. So here was a group that was safe from most predators and an abundance of patchy food ripening at different times and places. What, I wondered, did they gain from the picnics? I hypothesized that a dispersed food resource is another reason for group living.
Where did your career take you?
After a post doc at the Field Museum in Chicago, where I got to study the man-eating lions of Tsavo, Kenya, I landed a job at the New York State Museum in Albany. I spent 12 years there tracking more South American animals—toucans, orchid bees, olinguito, sloth, ocelots and agouti. I even put tracking devices on seeds to understand how mice moved them around.
What do you like about your work today?
Today, I am the Director of the Biodiversity Lab at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and a Professor at NC State University. I’m interested in understanding North American animal movement and behavior for conservation purposes. I am an expert in using new technologies to study free-ranging animals, especially to track their movement with telemetry, GPS, and remote camera traps. I combine this high-tech work with traditional methods, collecting data through new fieldwork and studies of museum collections. I’m able to collect massive amounts of data through two new websites, eMammal and Movebank. Movebank contains millions of records uploaded or streamed live by hundreds of scientists, who can share their data with the public, or only with key collaborators and agencies. eMammal is a facebook page where volunteers run cameras to study the effects of hunting and hiking on mammal communities.
- By Lucy Laffitte