Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Batty Break from Hyenas

Though my heart will always belong to hyenas, it’s hard not to get invested in some of the other animals we see in the Mara every day. I thought I’d take today’s blog to share with you a little about one of my personal favorites: the bat-eared fox.

A pair of foxes who live in Serena South territory. Thanks for letting us hang out within photo-taking distance of your kits!
Adult bat-eared foxes are a pretty common sight around Serena camp. To my delight, we recently stumbled on several dens of fox kits around our territories, and I think we can be forgiven for taking 5 minutes out of our busy days to sit and watch these adorable fuzzballs romping in the grass.

I'm pretty shocked Disney has never made a movie about one of these. 
The most prominent feature on a bat-eared fox is, of course, its ears. While they do add to the fox’s irresistible charm, they play a couple more important roles. The first is the most obvious: the bat-eared fox has incredibly acute hearing, and is able to locate and dig up beetle larvae tunneling underground. Bat-eared foxes are primarily insectivorous, although they won’t turn their noses up at the occasional lizard, baby bird, or rodent.

Digging for some tasty, tasty insects. 
The second role of their enormous ears is to help the foxes deal with the heat of their savanna homeland. Each ear is densely packed with blood vessels, allowing the fox to vent excess body heat into the atmosphere. This adaptation is a common one in warm-weather animals; take a look at an elephant’s ears, or a cousin of the bat-eared fox, the fennec fox. Increasing the surface area of skin exposed to air is a handy method of cooling down when you live this close to the equator.

A pile of fox kits stumbling out of the den, while a parent keeps a wary eye on us. 
Bat-eared foxes are socially monogamous, which means they will spend most of their lives with a given mate. Both parents take turns foraging and caring for their kits. When they reach 6 months of age, the kits will go out into the great wide world, looking for a territory and a mate of their own. Until then, we’re always happy to watch them take their wobbly first steps out of the den, pouncing on their siblings and harassing their parents as every good child should.


Monday, November 23, 2015

A Fond Farewell from the Mara

This year has been great, and it’s gone by in the blink of an eye. I’ve met some amazing people, and seen some incredible things. As my departure date draws nearer, I can’t help but think that I may never get the chance to see some of these things again, and although I’m excited to get back to school and see all of my family and friends again, I’m definitely going to miss everything out here.

But strangely enough, the Mara seems to understand that. Every time we near the end of a research assistant’s stint out here, something spectacular happens. Back in May, when it was time to say goodbye to Molly, we had one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever witnessed, accompanied by a double rainbow and almost the entire clan of Happy Zebra hyenas. I know she must have been happy with that send-off. Then, when it was Heidi’s turn to go, we braved the “un-crossable lugga,” and were rewarded with a family of five beautiful cheetahs, standing on top of termite mounds and looking majestically off into the distance. And, on top of that, more than half of the North clan decided to show up at the den that night to bid Heidi adieu.

With only about a week left out here, I was beginning to wonder how the Mara was going to wish me farewell. And a few nights ago, I got my answer.

Emily, Erin, Robyn and I were driving back from a great observation session in Happy Zebra Territory, and talking about leopards. A few weeks ago, when I was in Nairobi to pick up Robyn from the airport, Emily and Erin were lucky enough to see one. Naturally, I was extremely jealous; I had been saying for weeks that I’d just like to see one more leopard before my time is up, and I can leave happy. The Mara certainly did not disappoint.

Out of the darkness, about one meter in front of our car, a baby zebra came dashing into the view of our headlights. It was running frantically, and we weren’t exactly sure why, until a leopard came bounding after it and made the kill, giving us front-row seats. We couldn’t quite believe what had happened; just to see a leopard is a lucky thing, but to see one actively hunt and make a kill, and so close by, is just incredible. We quickly backed the car up so that the triumphant hunter could enjoy its hard work without being bothered by us, and started madly snapping photos from a distance that made it more comfortable.

Just as we were starting to process what had gone down, and were preparing to head back to camp, a female lion came trotting out of the darkness, and swiftly stole the carcass away from the leopard and continued on into the night. That was it. There was just no way to top what we had already seen, so we headed back to camp and talked excitedly about the evening’s events for the next hour until the adrenaline wore off and we all went to bed.

Photo by: Robyn Strong

Photo by: Robyn Strong

Photo by: Erin Person

So, the Mara went above and beyond, and almost a week later, I still have trouble believing that it wasn’t all just a dream. I will still miss this place terribly, but I can leave happy now, and I can’t wait to hear what’s in store for the next RA who reaches the end of their stay!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Wedding

So here is the scoop. I wanted to write all about different cultures and their wedding practices. But I think I want to let you all see the wonders for yourselves.

 I do encourage you to read about traditional weddings within the Maasai, Kikuyu, Luo, Luya, Kisii and all remaining 37 tribes in kenya. I have found them quite interesting compared to traditional perspectives in the western worlds.

I had the privilege to attend a Maasai wedding for the Kamaamia Family.
It was extravagant!
It was more than extravagant.
It was phenomenal!
It was eye opening!
Fantastic! Flamboyant! Guady!
And all the above.

My feelings can not be described with words. So I'll show you in Pictures.

(All photos are patent and should not be duplicated for personal use unless given permission. Asante)

I present The Handsome Fisi Guys: 
Benson Pion, Joseph Kamaamia, Jared Grimmer and Chief Pion

Looking Snazzy Dazzy there Jared.

Model, Chief Pion, shows off his wedding attire made by Anne's Fundi.

Model, Benson Pion, shows off his wedding attire made by Anne's Fundi.

We got a flat tire on the way. So I let the guys get a little dirty before the wedding.

We arrived!!! Time to get this wedding started. We were a part of the entourage. The family cars would line up all decorated and follow in the Bride and Groom.

Kimberly aka KBRrrrr was looking up to par.

These two little girls looked dashing in their white dresses.

The Kamaamia Family Relatives. 
Today Joseph's niece was going to get married.






Mama Joseph, a respected elder in the Kamaamia Family.


There were 30 colorful motorbikes ready to bring in the Bride.

Jared found his twin at the wedding.

"Ahay Baba, Ashay Baba, Ashay Baba"....The stunning lads danced in synchrony to the openning wedding song, "Thank you Father, Thank you Father, Thank you Father, for this wedding day."

The girls were looking quite well.

The Bride's Maids




The Bride, Christine Kamaamia

The Father and the Bride

Filomina Kamaamia , Jared and Chief

Jared and I had a blast and it was experience I will never forget. 
Asante Sana everyone who was apart of making this day such a blessing.

This experience was life changing.
I hope to be a part of many more weddings and Maasai celebrations to come.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Hyenas. Why?

Why are hyenas important?

The “Why are _______ important?” question. Every wildlife researcher is asked this question at some point in his or her career. Heck, I’ve already had to answer it myself; first when I studied red knots as an undergrad, and now as a hyena researcher. It’s a valid question that often helps to justify spending money, effort, time, and limited resources to conduct these studies.

So, just why are we spending lots of time and effort to study hyenas when they are (albeit absolutely fascinating) abundant and listed as Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)?

Well, the hyenas’ complex social system, vocalizations, female dominance, and unique physical features have been a boon to researchers studying exceptions to the rules of mammal evolution. By understanding these exceptions found in hyena behavior and sociality, we can better understand why the majority of mammals evolved in opposite ways (male dominance, solitary sociality, etc.) Their value to behavioral, ecological, and physiological sciences is immeasurable.

A male cautiously approaching the very dominant matriarch. Female dominance is rare among mammals.
Furthermore, hyenas are keystone species in many of their native ecosystems. In science language, a keystone species exerts a great effect on its ecosystem that is disproportionate to its abundance. In normal language, a keystone species is one vital to its ecosystem; without this species, the environment might degrade, change drastically, or even collapse. In our case, without hyenas to hunt herbivores here in the Mara, the antelopes and gazelles would be left unchecked to graze to their hearts’ content, potentially causing massive and most likely deleterious changes to the landscape.

Hyenas eating a buffalo, and doing their part to maintain balance in the Mara. 
Hyenas are also resilient in ways few other mammals are. They have incredibly strong immune systems and are resistant to diseases that would readily extirpate other species, including canine distemper, rabies, even anthrax. Hyenas also exhibit behavioral plasticity: they can change their behavior in order to live in varying environmental conditions. They can be active during the day or at night, survive on dead or fresh meat (even insects!), get by on very little water, and even breed any time of year depending on resource availability. Essentially, these guys are survivors. So, should a hyena population start to decline, researchers and managers can use that as an indicator that the ecosystem is most likely severely degraded and there’s a serious problem.

So,...are hyenas important?

Answer: A big, resounding YES!! Without hyenas, African ecosystems would be very different and our collective human knowledge about our fellow mammals would be wanting. And, as a hyena researcher, I think the world would be a lesser place without these charismatic, goofy, fierce, playful, loving, fascinating, and curious animals.

 Everyone needs a little hyena in their life!

If you want to read further about hyena history and conservation (there’s so much to learn!), check out the IUCN’s Hyaena Specialist Group’s website here.

"Hyena Conservation." IUCN Hyaena Specialist Group, n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2015. 
Smith, J.E. and Holekamp, K.E. "Spotted hyenas." Elsevier Ltd., 2010. PDF file. 

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science