Hortobagy National Park, Hungary
This last summer, I was fortunate enough to land a position studying Przewalski Horses in the Hortobagy National Park of Hungary. Przewalski Horses are the last surviving subspecies of wild horse in existence, and were formally declared to be extinct in the wild by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in 1960. At the time, there were a total of 53 animals contained in zoological collections worldwide, and of those, 12 with individual genomes that could contribute to the founding population of the species (others had fallen off due to inbreeding depression and bottlenecks in the species). Since then, captive breeding programmes have substantially increased the numbers of Przewalski’s horses; today there are over 2000 animals kept in semi-reserves worldwide, and the reintroduction programmes continue to monitor the genetic variability of these populations.
My project, specifically, was designed to investigate the influence of hormones on the behaviour of the species. Reintroduced populations, though still growing in size, have seen a number of disturbing behaviours arise, including infanticide. It was originally thought that foals were being killed by native foxes, coyotes or other carnivorous animals in the park, but further investigation lead to the discovery of horse tooth marks on the necks of some of the (less deposed) individuals, and internal bleeding afforded to kicking.
To lay the basis for studying these aberrant behaviours, I was sent to collect testosterone samples from as of the stallions as possible in a 200+ head herd of horses in the Hortobagy National Park, and document their concencentrations on the basis of age and harem status. We predicted that harem stallions would have a higher testosterone concentration than bachelors, and that more aggressive stallions would have a higher concentration of testosterone than either demographic of passively interacting males, but we are as of yet waiting for the results from the endocrinology lab!
I managed to get put on this project through the STAR program – Students Training in Advanced Research. Generally these projects are carried out at UC Davis, in the laboratory of the mentoring professor. However, I knew that I wanted to go abroad during my two summers that I had available to me, and so I wasn’t even considering it for the most part. On the last day available to talk to mentoring professors, I decided to skim through the list, and I saw one opportunity to study in Hungary, so I jumped on it. Luckily for me my professor and I meshed well, and from then on it was meeting people who knew other people and making some of the most important connections I have at this point in my life!
The time I spent in Hungary was really eye opening for me. It was a total of 6 weeks in a relatively isolated area (my only neighbors being a Wild Bird Sanctuary, an ATM and a bridge), working through the national park, but on a project of my own. It was necessary for me to be completely self sufficient (the language barrier was steep – to the point where I could know what shampoo meant, show people a shampoo bottle, reach an understanding of what shampoo was, but not be able to communicate conditioner), and interact with all my colleagues on a professional level even when things went very wrong (us being driven into a swamp, or us being left in the middle of the national park, 4 hours away from the infocenter, and without food or water except for what was in the swamp).
Moreover, I had a little bit of time to travel around after the program, and I found that Hungary was in an area of Europe that is not really appreciated by Western travellers. The great majority of the countries I visited (Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, constituents of Yugoslavia) were completely demolished by the world wars, for example, and had differing demographics of social and religious communities coming into the modern century. There were criss crossing and overlapping border lines in the Balkan nations, moreover, and I met more than a few people who felt aggressively about the Serbian and Kosovian conflict.
But I learned a lot about the history of some very interesting countries, and retained so much more information than I ever have from a history course in University. I met a lot of people who changed my perspective on life as well – for the most part, everywhere I went, people were generous. Their sentiment was ‘when you are in my country, I will take care of you. When I visit your country, then you can take care of me”. I came back feeling much more generous than I have felt in a long time, and I am willing to go out of my way to assist the casual passerby more often than not. I still have the general ‘do good for the simple reason of doing good’ sentiment, so here’s to hoping it sticks around.