Michigan State University masthead

Evolution in Action: Hyenas Rule!

A new, 5-year series of exhibitions created in partnership with the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action

Opening April 22
West Gallery

What Can Evolution Do for You
Hyenas Rule

view online exhibit videos

Beginning April 22 and throughout the next five years, the MSU Museum presents a series of exhibitions that explore evolution in action.

"What Can Evolution Do for You" and "Hyenas Rule!" are the first pair of exhibits developed in partnership with the new BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action, based at Michigan State University. Here, researchers approach evolution in an innovative way, bringing together biologists, computer scientists, and engineers to study evolution as it happens and apply this knowledge to solve real-world problems.

BEACON, created with a 5-year, $25 million grant from the National Science Foundation, is a Science and Technology Center with research partners at North Carolina A&T State University, University of Idaho, University of Texas at Austin, and University of Washington.

"Evolution happens around us every day - it's not just something that happened in the past, in the fossil record. Diseases develop resistance to antibiotics. Animal behavior changes in response to climate change. Computer viruses change nearly every day, making antiviral software quickly out-of-date," observes Erik Goodman, BEACON Center director and MSU professor of electrical and computer engineering. "The biological world is full of complex interactions and data, and BEACON unites evolutionary biologists and computer scientists more closely than ever before."

From hyenas to robots?
BEACON scientists explore evolution at the genetic level, at the level of the individual organism (the microbe, plant, or animal), and at the community level (organisms interacting together). For example, in the natural world, where only the √ěttest survive, if you don't have size, you need numbers - especially when competing for food with hungry lions. Hyenas have evolved to do just this -- by working cooperatively, forming coalitions and successfully competing with lions.

The exhibit pairs the evolutionary biology and behavior research of MSU Professor and MSU Museum Adjunct Curator Kay Holekamp, with that of Risto Miikkulainen, who studies neural networks and artificial intelligence at the University of Texas at Austin.

Going a step further, by studying the "rules" of communication and cooperation among hyenas, BEACON scientists hope someday to be able to program robots to communicate and cooperate. Researchers are currently working to develop computer programs that will allow robots and other machines to perform collaborative tasks, just as spotted hyenas cooperatively defend their kills from lions.

The tantalizing question that's propelling the BEACON scientists: what if robots could come together to accomplish complex tasks when necessary?

Debuting at the MSU Museum, the exhibits are designed to be modular, for placement at the museum and other locations. BEACON planners expect the exhibits -- including real-life specimens, computer simulations and multimedia elements -- to be developed and circulated around the partner universities as well as other learning centers in an effort to help advance public understanding of science. "Our museum is a great point of intersection between the complex, innovative work going on in university research labs, and the students, tour groups, community members and other people who visit us each day," observes Gary Morgan, MSU Museum director. "We can bring ideas alive and excite minds about what is truly ground-breaking and life-changing, but all too often, is not well understood outside of those labs."

Related links:
-BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action: http://beacon-center.org/
-Kay Holekamp Laboratory, MSU: http://www.hyenas.zoology.msu.edu/
-Risto Miikkulainen, University of Texas: http://www.cs.utexas.edu/~risto/