Kaia Tombak is a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Jessica Rothman’s nutritional ecology laboratory at Hunter College, CUNY. She received a Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University, supervised by Dr. Daniel Rubenstein, and a B.Sc. and M.Sc. from McGill University, working with Dr. Colin Chapman. Tombak is interested in the ecological factors that drive individuals to group and societies to take different shapes, such as egalitarian or hierarchical structures, stable or fission-fusion groups, and mate-guarding vs. territorial mating strategies. Her doctoral thesis compared two zebra species by tracking the grouping behavior of hundreds of individuals with stripe recognition software, determining their resource use and parasite communities using DNA metabarcoding techniques, and factored in predation risk by comparing zebra behavior in sites with different lion densities. Resource use turned out to be central to social behavior, and in Dr. Rothman’s lab, she is now filling in key gaps in our understanding of the complex ways in which resource competition affects how societies are structured from a nutritional perspective, breaking down the landscape into hotspots of protein, carbohydrates, lipids, amino acids, and micronutrients.
Her Master’s thesis focused on food competition, female dominance hierarchies, and social mechanisms of maintaining egalitarianism in primates in Uganda. Before commencing doctoral studies, she worked for the UNEP Convention for Biological Diversity and for Wildlife Conservation Society Canada and completed a National Geographic Young Explorers project on oceanic blacktip sharks in South Africa before commencing her doctoral studies.