About Elana and her research

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Elana Hobkirk

I am a Research Masters student (seeking a PhD position!) and a key member of Dr Sean Twiss’ Animal Behaviour research team at Durham University, UK. However, I am a little different to the other key members as I am primarily a wolf (Canis lupus) biologist (the other members being seal biologists!). My research interests include animal behaviour, animal cognition, forms and functions of communicative signalling, animal affective states, the causes and consequences of individual variation in behaviour, and of course, canine behavioural ecology. In fact, I am obsessed with Behavioural Ecology and wolves!

I obtained my Zoology B.Sc. degree here at Durham University, where I had my very first Animal Behaviour lecture in my first year of undergrad. I was immediately hooked from there on out on the subject, and thought, “yep, I’m definitely doing this for the rest of my life!”. This led to a complete obsession with the discipline of Behavioural Ecology and spending a lot of my free time researching literature on the subject for fun….yes, fun! And assisting in all manner of fieldwork, including tracking otters (Lutra lutra) for ecological surveys and applying Elastomer Visible Implants (EVI), Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT), and radio tags to varying river fish species, including some rather large Brown trout (Salmo trutta); all to track their migratory behaviour! My obsessive pastime was taken to new extremes in my final year of undergrad, as not only did I get to tailor my degree more towards Behavioural Ecology, but I also got to write my final year literature review on wolves, a species that has fascinated me for as long as I can remember.

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Me and Pukak, a male Arctic wolf, the lower rank member of his pack but amazing nonetheless – this photo was taken when we first met and he came to greet me! (Photo credit: SD Twiss)

Wolves are the Marmite of the animal kingdom, some people love them others hate them. To me, wolves have always been awe inspiring; the way they look, the way they hunt in packs, their intelligence, the way they raise young together, their adaptability to various environments, but more importantly, the way they communicate with each other. So, it was no surprise to my final year supervisor (Dr Sean Twiss), that I conducted extensive research (and hardly had any social life…..) into wolf behaviour for my literature review. I conducted so much research in fact, that I was able to write my very own research proposal for my Masters degree, and it is that research that I am conducting now with Sean and Dr Isla Fishburn. But, what is my research? In a nutshell, my research aims to unravel some of the complexities of facial signalling in wolves and domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) using state-of-the-art video analyses techniques. It also aims to provide a means for humans to better understand the social and communicative behaviour of their canny canid companions!

Meet my two German Shepherds, my canny canid companions! White Fang (left) and Saphire (right), enjoying a romp about Durham.

I am often asked two particular questions about my research; One, why did I choose to become an empirical Behavioural Ecologist? Two, why wolves? So, I will try to answer these questions here; question one: Do you remember being a child and being captivated by everything and trying to work out why everything happened in the way it did? Well, I guess I never grew out of that. I can not remember a time in my life that I was not captivated by the behaviours of non-human animals, from watching countless documentaries to wandering about the countryside all day, every day, watching wildlife live and interact, and asking questions such as, why is that kestrel hovering right there? Why is that fox screaming like that? Why is that blue tit attacking the wing mirror of that car!? Why? Being able to understand Behavioural Ecology allows one to understand these animal behaviours and understand how the natural world works; why everything is the way it is and how things can change temporarily and spatially.

Question two? I honestly do not have a solid scientific reason for this, I am just fascinated by everything about wolves, and I want to understand everything about them. I have spent a lifetime with my head in books and scientific publications on wolves, and with my eyes and ears fixated on wolf documentaries; as a child I would loan or buy expensive animal books even if they just had one page on wolves, why? Because I wanted to know everything about them, and I still do. But, there is only so much you can learn from a book, publication or documentary; a wolf picture in a book does not move, it can not interact with a conspecific or it’s surroundings. Only by actually observing the behaviour of wolves yourself, and dedicating time and effort to wait for the less obvious and less frequent, yet important behaviours, can you learn everything about them, as a species and as individuals. So, this is what I do, and with the hope that one day my research will help remove some of the negative stereotype that generally plagues wild wolves. To conserve a species, you must understand that species, and when you understand a wolf, you build an unimaginable amount of respect and wonder for it…….

On that note, I will leave you with my motto, but stay tuned for more folks as I embark (pun intended!) upon my journey of researching the communicative behaviour of wolves and their domestic cousins!

“I canid get enough of canids”

For more information contact me at: e.r.hobkirk@durham.ac.uk 

or use the “Contact Elana” link for more options.

Member of:

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Acknowledgements:

Funded by the Grevillea Trust, the Norman Richardson Postgraduate Fund, and the Thriplow Charitable Trust.

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Durham University | Department of Biosciences

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UK Wolf Conservation Trust

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Dogs Trust

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Stray Aid

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