Monday, June 19, 2017

Finally Here

Pleased to meet you all.

I'm Kecil, one of the new Serena Camp research assistants. I just graduated from MSU in May with a degree in Zoology and a concentration in Evolution and Ecological Biology. I have been part of the MSU Hyena Project since freshman year, when I joined the lab in East Lansing as a professorial assistant. My job was to enter data from the field into spreadsheets so the graduate students could investigate the behavior of these social carnivores.  It is a dream come true to travel to Kenya and participate in field research.

After graduation I had a month at home, then I packed my bags and headed to Kenya. I flew into Nairobi on June 7, and got to Serena on June 14. It has been an awe-inspiring few days. Waking up with giraffes right next to the driveway is amazing. Last night we drove into camp and there were elephants among the tents (we stayed in the cars until they passed by). As someone from a mid-sized city in Michigan, it is incredible to be among these legendary creatures. Yesterday was especially exciting.

For some background, there are only between 30 and 40 adult cheetahs in the whole Mara, around 3,000 square kilometers. Cheetah sightings are extremely rare. Last year the research assistants in Serena only saw 10 cheetahs total.

Yesterday, we saw three.

To be fair, it's not clear if they were three separate cheetahs or the same individual multiple times, but it was extraordinary all the same. I grew up watching Animal Planet specials about big cats, and now here I am seeing them in the wild with my own eyes.


If this is what my first three days in the Mara has been like, I can't wait to see what the next year holds.

I am in the back of the car trying to get a good picture to ID the cheetah.
You can see the cheetah next to the ladder on the side of the car.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Mean Girls

It was a sunny afternoon when we left camp for an evening of observations in South Clan on May 27th 2017, but there was a storm front brewing in the east.  From very early on, it was very obvious that something was amiss and the hyenas knew something we didn’t.  Hyenas of all different ranks, genders, and ages were frantically loping about in seemingly random directions.  Many were too skittish to even slow down enough for us to get a good look at their spots, while others scattered into bushland or large boulder fields where we couldn’t follow lest we partake in some serious rockin’ n’ rollin’.  Finally, a pattern seemed to emerge.  We would often see a group of three mud balls off in the distance loping this way and that, with the remainder of the Southies giving them a wide berth.  Although we didn’t know who they were yet, or even if they were the same triumvirate of hyenas that we had seen in different parts of the territory, we decided to follow them.

Here’s our coalition of lovely ladies that everyone was steering clear off.  There should be some sort of award for identifying hyenas in this condition, just saying. They are all female members of TAJ’s family, which is large but quite low ranking.  PALA is the highest-ranking by a hair.  PALA and BLG both have had several litters of cubs, while BSCT (a daughter of BLG) is about to enter the age where we would expect her to have her first litter. 
The three hyenas turned out to be PALA, BLG, and BSCT, later confirmed via wounds sustained, ear damage, and a handful of spots.  Their overall behavioral patterns were quite interesting.  Something had them wired as there were lots of bristle tails, social sniffs, bursts of loping, and rapid changes of direction as if they couldn’t decide what they wanted to do.  It wasn’t quite a border patrol since they spent a marginal amount of time along the border and were never aligned along its axis.  It wasn’t quite a hunt either, despite a ludicrous overabundance of game (also giving them a wide berth) in the area, they never targeted an individual or test chased a herd.  There also wasn’t a carcass that could explain the manic frenzy they appeared to be in.  Nor was there one clear direction they set out in – loping for 500m to the East, then another 300m to the North, followed by a kilometer back to the South.  Just about the only thing that was clear was that these gals were cruisin’ for a bruisin’.  As you can see - or can’t see depending on the resolution - in the photos above, all three already had fresh puncture wounds all over their body (BSCT on her neck and BLG on her back-right leg) but they were looking for some more.  It did not take long for them to find some either.
For those keeping score at home, the location of the activities for the remainder of the night occurred at the southern end of the Car Wash track, opposite of the Kuni Beach side and right near Warthog Plains.  PALA, BSCT, and BLG (here on referred to as “PALA’s coalition”) locked-on to a muddy, unsuspecting, sacked out hyena in a boulder field and decided it was time for their reckoning.  By this time, the unidentified hyena realized trouble was upon them it was far too late.  BSCT and BLG immobilized the head by bite-shaking the ears, while PALA went to town on the remainder of body with bite shakes of her own – free from any sort of retaliation from their victim (not that these three would heed any quarter tonight).  This hyena could not even express any submissive behavior due to the fact that it literally could not move with three hyenas pinning them down and bite-shaking to kingdom come.  At this point, the hero of the night DETH (one of the matriarch JAVA’s granddaughters), hurled herself into the developing madness in an act of extreme altruism.  DETH loped over to the ensuing slugfest, sniffed the poor soul caught in the clutches of PALA’s coalition, and then took all of the aggressions from said coalition, allowing the victim to escape into the night to lick their wounds. 

Super-DETH sacrificing herself to save a clan mate from certain destruction. DETH is the spotty hyena getting bite-shaken for the majority of the video.

Unfortunately, now DETH found herself in the unenviable position of being on the receiving end of the jaws of PALA, BSCT, and BLG who moved to employ the same battle tactics they used on their previous victims: a ferocious trifecta of immobilizing bite-shakes.  Then perhaps the bravest hyenas of the evening took center stage: ANUB (DETH’s daughter) and LEFI (unrelated).  These two guys are just freshly graduated and just over a year old – they could very easily be killed with one bone-crushing bite to the skull from an adult hyena, yet they still entered the fray.  LEFI and ANUB began bobbing and weaving as they nipped at the back feet of PALA’s coalition.  Wary of relinquishing their vice grip on DETH, PALA’s coalition paid LEFI and ANUB almost no mind.  However, these interlopers couldn’t simply let LEFI and ANUB nom on their feet until hell froze over.  Although the bite shakes continued without fail, the concentration diverted towards dancing their hind legs away from LEFI and ANUB's snapping jaws and the loss of the use of these same legs as counter balances, allowed DETH to break free and escape down a rocky outcropping.  PALA and her gang were remiss to follow her down there, content with their unconditional victory over a member of JAVA’s family to simply glare down at DETH and dare her to come back up.  With a break in the action, DETH, LEFI, ANUB, and a couple of other hyenas who had gathered to watch the struggle, sent up a chorus of whoops at this grave violation of their dogmatic social hierarchy.  It was these whoops that set the stage for the ultimate showdown for the matriarchy of South Clan. 

With no clear, immediate response to victims call for help, PALA’s coalition sauntered off to the West and began sniffing a small waterhole as if they picked up the scent of something they wanted to track.  The moments that immediately followed are perhaps the most triumphant and distraught I’ve felt over the course of my short Fisi career.  All of a sudden PALA, BLG, and BSCT snap to attention, ears pricked and backs straight, looking vigilant in all directions.  The tracking transceiver receiving signals from the Omni antenna on top of the cruiser faintly starts to beep to life.  Olivia notices and asks, “Who are we picking up?”.  It takes me a few seconds to turn on my headlamp and navigate through the menu on the transceiver.  My heart nearly skips a beat upon reading the name.  Still dumbstruck, with inklings of both disbelief and wonderment, I reply, “…JAVA”.  The beeps from the transceiver are increasing in amplitude by the second.  Olivia and I begin to frantically search in all directions for the approach of the matriarch, just as the members of PALA’s coalition do the same.  Then, out from behind the blaze of the setting sun in the West, we see a silhouette cresting a small slope and charging down upon those who would dare defy her.  We didn’t need to spot match this hyena to know who it was.  This was JAVA, the matriarch of South Clan, coming to set the record straight. 

 The clash of JAVA and the challenging coalition of PALA, BLG, and BSCT.  JAVA is the one who is being bite shaken.  WARNING: There's some strong language in this video, apologies.

The bodies of these two opposing forces collided moments later, with devastating bites and an uproar of vocalizations.  When the dust settled though, a harrowing reality set in upon the observers: the record was not set straight, JAVA might not even escape with her life.  The matriarch managed to land a bite or two onto PALA and company, but it was not long before she too was subdued by this formidable coalition, like her granddaughter DETH and the unidentified hyena before her.  Again, two hyenas clamped down on either side of her head, while the third mercilessly tore apart JAVA’s body, unmolested.  All JAVA could do was growl in frustration.  In little over a minute, JAVA was dragged through the mud and bloodied beyond belief.  The left side of her head was scalped leaving her left ear hanging off the side of her head, as blood poured from the dozens of flesh wounds she incurred at the jaws of PALA’s coalition.  I honestly could not foresee any way in which JAVA could escape this seemingly inevitable fate.  Then, in what can only be considered a true herculean effort, DETH comes to the aid of her grandmother and matriarch to stave off the attacking hyenas.  Once again, she sacrifices her body to allow another hyena to escape the terror of PALA’s coalition.  As PALA and BSCT wheel off to attack her, JAVA is able to drag BLG away from the fight and lope off into the darkness. 

 Return of the DETH.  JAVA's hopes of escaping are pretty slim until DETH enters the fray to divert some attention.


It was pretty unbelievable that nobody (save DETH) would come to the aid of their matriarch, even members of her own family, which is the largest in the clan.  PALA either had a very cunning plan to isolate and render all of the members of JAVA’s family lame throughout the day before openly challenging the matriarch who would then have no coalition of her own to retaliate with…or JAVA’s family simply had better things to do.  Irregardless, it could only be considered a total defeat for the matriarch, her family, and their respective ranks within the hierarchy at the time.  Yet in the following days, the aftermath seemed much less extreme than we initially expected.  AXIO, a recently graduated sub-adult the same age as LEFI and ANUB, was seen aggressing onto BLG and her two cubs AMRL and PHRH. Meanwhile, about a week after the events detailed here, we saw JAVA at the communal den with her daughters GILI and DANG, her son BANG, and her two cubs TOBA and KAPU.  JAVA's wounds were slowly healing and she was still healthy enough to nurse TOBA and KAPU.  Applying Occam’s Razor in conjunction with AXIO’s aggressions, I can only assume that her establishing herself at the center of the territory with a regiment of loyal hyenas means she has retained the matriarchy, at least for the moment.

On the left, we have JAVA with her two cubs TOBA and KAPU, who are less than a year old but are looking like full grown hyenas! While on the right, you can see some of JAVA’s mangled ears.  The cartilage was heavily damaged, but for the licking she incurred she is faring surprisingly well.  

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science