Former Ballerina Leaps Into Wildlife Research

Science mimics dance training ─ slow and precise

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Anna Mosser

It’s rather a leap from studying lions and chimps in Africa to researching caribou in Ontario’s north. But then Anna Mosser had already made rather a grand jeté to studying biology in the first place.

Growing up in Minneapolis ─ home to the University of Minnesota’s Lion Research Centre, although she wouldn’t learn that until much later ─ she had planned to become a professional ballet dancer.

She began dancing at age eight. By 17, she headed across the country to California, where she’d been recruited to the San Francisco Ballet School. Mosser spent 18 months pursuing her dream as a semi-professional, including performing in the city’s ensemble in such productions as Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet and The Nutcracker.

Perched on the edge of a chair in the U of G science complex atrium, she says, “I loved it, but what I realized was that the whole life was so crazy. You couldn’t take two weeks off.”

The turning point came when someone in the troupe voiced a question out loud: Would you rather become a dancer or go to the moon? “Everyone said, ‘I want to dance.’ But I said, ‘I want to go to the moon.’”

Not literally, of course. But her answer helped Mosser decide it was time to pursue another childhood love, one that would also take her closer to her family in the Midwest. “I always loved animals,” she says, remembering her childhood subscription to Zoobooks magazine. “I absorbed every detail. I knew the names of all the whales.”

She learned about whales and other creatures during her biology undergrad at the University of Chicago. That led to her first African visit, during a field course in Tanzania. It was at Chicago that she also met animal behaviourist Jeanne Altmann. Since the early 1960s, Altmann had helped to lead a project monitoring baboons in the Amboseli region of East Africa.

Mosser spent a month working in Amboseli after her undergrad. Wanting to learn more about animals’ social lives, she returned home to pursue a PhD at the University of Minnesota.

That’s when she learned that her hometown academy was home base for the Lion Research Centre. “I didn’t know growing up there until I went to grad school.” Its director, Craig Packer, became her supervisor. In the late 1970s, he had taken over a project monitoring lions in Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania.

Based in Minnesota, Mosser studied the evolution of social behaviour in lions, using data collected by Packer and other researchers since the mid-1960s. That research involved monitoring lions’ behaviour as well as using satellite map data to get a big-picture look at their activity.

Most big cats are solitary creatures, but not lions. The researchers found that lions live in prides of about 20 individuals not because they hunt better together but because groups can hold prized territory more easily. (Most of a pride’s members are adult females, and territories are “handed down” through the female line.)

It was only after her PhD that Mosser got a chance to live in Africa, and then through studying not lions but chimps.

Anna Mosser, with a chimp behind her, at the Gombe Stream Research Centre in western Tanzania.

The U of Minnesota also houses the Jane Goodall Institute’s Centre for Primate Studies, run by biologist Anne Pusey. Pusey had worked with Goodall since the 1970s at the Gombe Stream Research Centre in western Tanzania. That’s where Mosser landed in 2008 as research director. She enjoyed working at Gombe. But finding she was doing more directing than research, she looked for alternatives.

Last spring she arrived in Guelph as a post-doc with Prof. John Fryxell in the Department of Integrative Biology ─ her first time in Canada, apart from occasional canoe trips in Quetico Provincial Park above the Ontario-Minnesota border. Mosser had met Fryxell during her lion research on the Serengeti. She’d actually provided data for his studies of prey-predator relationships in wildebeest and lions.

Now she’s looking at the behaviour of woodland caribou and wolves between Lake Nipigon and Hudson Bay. That work hasn’t yet taken her north. As with much of her earlier work, she’s looking at electronic data, arriving real-time from GPS collars mounted on animals roaming wild.

Says Fryxell: “We want to better understand what influences caribou populations, because they’re dwindling all over Canada and particularly in Ontario.” He says timber harvesting has altered habitat in many parts of the province, encouraging growth of moose populations that thrive in more open, young forests. Researchers believe more moose have led to more wolves, which then prey on caribou as well.

He expects Mosser’s home range studies will help explain these changes, information that might benefit wildlife management and timber harvesting policies. This research has received more than $3 million in funding from various sources, including the Canadian Forest Service, the Forest Ecosystem Science Co-operative Inc., the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

Mosser says she hasn’t danced for years, but something of her early experience carries over into this research project and into her teaching. “Ballet involves a lot of time and dedication. It’s similar in science ─ careful, slow, precise.” She remembers her dancing instructors taking time to bring out abilities in every student, something she’s attempting to do this semester with the roughly 200 students in her introductory ecology course. “I find in teaching or working with students, that approach is helpful.”