Friday, December 2, 2016

Rate the Mara: Common Eland (Taurotraigus oryx)

Hello all! Rate The Mara is a possible series I may post every now and then, when the blog is need of an infusion of subpar humor.  It's intended to be a gleeful series presenting some facts about the animal, having some fun, and giving a completely arbitrary, subjective, and overall meaningless rating to species we encounter in the Maasai Mara.  We'll see where it goes.  Enjoy!

A magnificent bull Eland sporting a trendy dewlap* around its jowly neck.
Height: 1.6m (♂♂) and 1.4m (♀♀) at the shoulder    

Weight: 500-600kg (♂♂) and 340-445 kg (♀♀), largest being 942kg

First Described By: Peter Simon Pallas in 1766

Number of Horns: 2                            Number of Legs: 4

Does it have a tail?: Yes! Very handy for swatting those pesky biting insects.                   

Circadian Rhythm: Diurnal 

Mara High School Superlative: Largest antelope in Kenya…definitely largest antelope in its graduating class, only the Giant Eland is greater in size but he plays for our cross-continent rivals and is not considered in this analysis.

Best Friend in the Mara: Sadly, none really – Eland are kind of stuck up and they don’t like associating with others outside of their herd.  They are still really beautiful though!

Predator Response:  Not many carnivores are insane enough to attack Eland.  They congregate in large herds of up to 500 individuals, are very wary and shy of outsiders, can move surprisingly quickly for animals of their size…oh yeah and their size, would you want to take on an animal capable of acquiring the mass of a metric ton? But if a carnivore was insane enough, the Eland would utilize postural movements, its advanced vocal repertoire of loud barks, and the flehmen response to warn others of danger.  The herd would then gracefully vacate the area.  Normally predators are so very mesmerized by the graceful, synchronized gliding of the Eland that they simply stop and stare to relish such a beautiful sight. 

Preferred Habitat: Common Eland prefer habitats with a wide variety of flowering plants like savannah, woodlands, and even montane grasslands…but they despise dense forest because even though they won’t admit it, they are very afraid of the dark (some even sleep with night lights!).

Special Powers: The Eland is capable of jumping 2.4 meters straight into the air from a standstill, which not only means that it can box jump Yao Ming – but also complete a 100m hurdle involving Dikembe Mutombo, Shaquille O’Neal, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Frankenstein, James P. Sullivan from Monsters Inc., and the Flying Spaghetti Monster faster than Kendra Harrison.  Also as a footnote, males are capable of growing a dewlap*, very special indeed.  This unique feature is a continuous piece of loose skin which hangs about their necks with a tuft of thick black hair growing on the end that increases their sexiness to female Eland.

Weaknesses: The Eland cannot sprint, anatomically cannot – perhaps due the fact that it can outweigh a Volkswagen Beetle.  However, as meager compensation evolution saw fit to grant them the power to out-trot every other antelope in the animal kingdom.  Seriously they are really good a trotting.

If it was rendered into one of the Original 151 Pokémon:
650 HP, 450 Defense, 300 Attack, 330 Special, 240 Speed.

Is it Noble?: Absolutely, look up nobility in your dictionary and you will find a picture of an Eland.  Eland is also a synonym for nobility if you have one of those fantastic pocket thesaurus gizmos on your person.

What would happen if it fought a Lion?: First of all, female Eland would not fight a lion, they would abstain peacefully.  However, male Eland with lower moral standards could be tricked into fighting a lion.  The Eland could not out-sprint the lion, since it literally can’t, but it could trot away from it for a significant period of time.  Whenever the lion got close the Eland would simply box jump over it and continue trotting in the opposite direction.  Eventually, the lion would become so exhausted from dehydration that it would faint – ceding the KO to the Eland by default.

Final Rating: 9/10

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Hyena hunting techniques - diversity and adaptability Part 1

Several weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see my first full hunt since I've come to the Mara. Seeing the event in person has made me really appreciate the extent to which the hunting tactics of these animals have been evolutionarily tailored and refined. Due to the influence of the migration, no one hunt in the Mara is the same, and making use of a variety of tools and techniques is crucial to ensuring the survival and well being of the individual year round. The prevalence of group hunting in spotted hyenas adds an additional dynamic to the tactics each individual can or should use, and depending on the rank of the hunter can be a help or a hindrance to the successful acquisition of prey. Whether one makes the choice to hunt alone or recruit the help of their group mates, each individual is a precise and deadly hunter in their own right. Here, I'll give a brief introduction to the diverse set of skills and traits which make them so.
PC Lily J-U
Making use of the environment
Especially in times of the year when prey is abundant, it seems like everyone in the clan should always be able to find a suitable meal at any time of the day. However, hyenas in hunting mode constantly assess their environment and, unless a better opportunity arises, will consistently hunt in conditions which render prey species most compromised. For example, spotted hyenas are primarily crepuscular, and will take advantage of their superior eyesight in low-light to no-light periods of the day to more easily overcome prey. In addition, the landscape type is chosen specifically to match the preferred hunting style of hyenas. Spotted hyenas often prefer to hunt in open plains to areas with denser vegetation because it affords them higher visibility and more room to either maneuver as a group or run down prey using their exceptional endurance. Some hyenas have even been known to take advantage of terrain and weather conditions and will actually preferentially hunt in wet and stormy conditions because prey can be rendered more vulnerable during these times.
PC Lily J-U
Prey choice
Like many other carnivores which make the Mara their home, prey choice is an important part of the hunt. Hyenas will engage in a behavior called "test chasing" as a means of assessing the availability of prey within any one herd of ungulates. The age and weakness of each individual in the herd is assessed based on their ability to run away from the pursuing hyenas. If no individual is determined to be a suitable candidate for the hunt, then the hyenas will simply give up the chase and look to another herd. However, if one is found which can be separated from the group, the hunters will quickly do so and take it down within minutes. Opportunism is a large part in what makes hyenas excellent hunters. Due to the large fluctuations in the composition of prey over the course of the year, one will also see similar changes reflected in the proportions of different prey species hunted. While our Mara hyenas certainly have their preferences in prey (zebra happen to be one of their favorites when they can get it), they will eat pretty much any herbivore found in the Mara in proportions which roughly reflect the ease at which they can acquire it at any one point in the year.
PC Lily J-U
Among the most interesting and useful tools in a spotted hyena's repertoire is the variety of vocalizations they use in different phases of the hunt. Among the most famed, and incidentally the most versatile, is the classic whoop. While often used for long distance communication (e.g. in alerting other members of the clan kilometers away to one's presence), this call can be used in the short range as an indication of alarm. In these instances, individuals will use a shorter, higher frequency series of calls than the classic long and low variety. For lower ranking hyenas, whooping can also be a powerful deceptive device. It is not uncommon to see an immigrant males and other low ranking hyenas stand off to the side of a carcass and whoop for the attention of the rest of the clan (a favorite tactic of our very own immigrant male Roswell, I might add). This causes the higher ranked hyenas feeding to pause and scan the area for danger, allowing our whooper to sneak in and steal some food for a few seconds before he is caught!

The alarm rumble, a low staccato sound, can be used in the same manner, although this vocalization is more often used as an indication of a sighting of real danger. The first individual to see the imminent approach of a lion, human, or some other danger which could attempt to steal food or otherwise interrupt feeding will vocalize in an attempt to mobilize the entire group. In this way, every individual present at the carcass has an immediate cue to alert and cooperate in the defense of their prey.

PC Lily J-U
Giggles are also a highly useful tool in the hunting of prey. When directed at other hyenas, they often serve as a way of communicating distress or telling a clanmate to back off. They can also indicate excitement, and call other clan members in the immediate area to the scene. Simply due to the properties of the vocalization (the irregular pitch and length especially), giggles can serve other functions like conveying fear or confusion to the prey being targeted, especially when many hyenas are doing so at once. This likely lowers the effectiveness of a prey animal's ability to escape the hunt, and may have even selected for such qualities of the vocalization to become more pronounced. In any event, the numerous ways in which any one of these vocalizations can be used has allowed hyenas an equal versatility in their control of the pitch, speed, and frequency of each vocalization employed in the hunt.

To be continued...

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving from the Mara

I hope that everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend, with lots of family, food and fun!!!

Every year the Mara Hyena Project research assistants and graduate students also get together for our own little Thanksgiving in the field to stuff our faces with good food. Of course getting the food, and cooking here is an adventure all in its own!

Pre-planning and getting some last minute work done

The little oven that could!
As you can see our stove and range are not huge, so we had to strategize. We made the pumpkin (butternut squash) pies the day before. Then in the morning we prepped the stuffing, and started the chicken stock. Once the chickens (graciously donated by our neighbor Ali from Balloon Safaris) went in the oven, we peeled the green beans (which just happened to be found at the local Masai market!?) and made some cream of mushroom sauce. Stuffing went in next utilizing the broiler pan, while we started the mashed potatoes. Last, Joseph fried us some onions to go on top of the green been casserole, which switched places with the stuffing in the oven, all while the gravy was made with the chicken drippings and chicken stock. We even had time to grill some extra chicken legs that would not fit in the oven.

Time to feast!
Once around the table, and in between bites, we shared our stories about all of our great experiences out here in the Mara, as well as some of the things we are thankful for. As usual Ali, who has been here for decades with her husband John, was able to top all of our crazy stories. However, combined the RAs and camp staff were able to hold their own with Mara "tale tales", and we eventually got down to talking about what we are thankful for this year. I won't share the more personal thanks, but the most common were for health and happiness of friends and family, and science in general. We also like to think that others in the Mara have their own thanks.

Balloon pilots like Riz here are thankful for tourists.
Mothers are thankful for new life
Hyenas are happy for one of the largest wildebeest migrations in a decade
"Fay" is thankful that the rains have come
"Legend" is probably just happy for lazy and warm sunny mornings
We could go on and on about what we think the people and animals may be thankful for, but in the end we are all thankful for the chance to live and work in the Masai Mara with great friends.

Happy Holidays from the Mara.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Multi-Access Box Hall of Fame

Hall of Fame

Opening the multi-access box is proving to be a challenging task for wild hyenas. The MAB tests a hyena’s ability to innovate, i.e. learn something new. So far only a few hyenas have shown that they have what it takes. First for the hall of fame, here are my champion MAB solvers.

Remington is a mid-ranking subadult male hyena in North clan. He’s part of the “guns” lineage. While the three other hyenas hanging out at this session all fell asleep, Remi persisted and opened the box using the door knob side. You can see he figures out how to bite the knob to pull open the door opposite the camera.

Next up, “Shoot Her” is a very low ranking subadult male in North clan. I put out the box for some young, newly graduated cubs that were highly enthusiastic about the box. However, after playing with the box for an hour none of them had opened it. Shooter decided he would check it out and opened it within minutes using the door knob side, despite having never seen the box before!

Soup is a high ranking subadult female in North clan. Are you noticing a trend here? Subadults are rocking the box. Soup is one of only two hyenas to open the box using the “push” solution. Hyenas really like to bite and pull on things and to open the push flap a hyena has to push it inwards. Here, Soup quickly pushed open the push flap using her paws; she opened the box in record-setting time! In addition, Soup beat out Remington, who had already opened the box!

BANG with a mouthful of milk powder.
Bang is one of only two hyenas to open the box twice! He’s a subadult male in South clan. He’s opened it once with the door knob side and once with the drawer.

Lady is a subadult male from North clan. At the time he opened the box however he was deep inside of South Clan’s territory! It looks like he might be immigrating to South because we saw him hanging out at South Den with Toledo (TLDO), one of South’s highest ranking immigrant males. Lady was super enthusiastic about the box and spent a lot of time biting and pawing at it before he got the push flap to open. Toledo wasn’t so sure about the box, he watched warily from a distance during Lady’s trial. (I posted about LADY a month ago here.).

RANG is a tough young hyena.
RANG is easy to identify by her ear damage.
Rangsang is a distinctive looking hyena, she’s a young adult female in South clan and she just recently had her very first cub! However, a few months before I arrived in Serena she was involved in a nasty clan war and got some very distinctive ear damage! She’s a cognition trial fiend and has already completed all of inhibitory control cylinder trials and now she’s conquering the box!

RANG's first cub, JEMI.
RANG opens the box. 
Tervuren is still a little fluffer! 
Tervuren is the youngest hyena to ever open the box! He is still a little fluffy cub at South's communal den, yet he beat out all the older subadults and adults that were also investigating the box. I put out the box almost 100m from the den hoping to see if RANG or BANG could open it again. Also present was the infamous HONR, who was so enthusiastic about his inhibitory control cylinder trials that he wouldn’t let the RAs have the cylinder back! However, none of these hyenas opened the box today… nope… little Terv comes loping up and opens the door knob!

Yola is difficult to ID by his spots. 
Yola is the only hyena in Talek to open the box so far and he’s also opened it twice. He opened the box first using the sliding door, and then again using the door knob side. Yola is a fluffy young subadult in KCM clan. He’s mostly ID-able by the fact that he’s too fluffy to have spots.

Coming up soon: Hall of Shame

Which hyenas have tried, but failed, to open the multi-access box?

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