Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Hello hyena lovers worldwide!

I am the new Research Assistant (RA) in Serena Camp. My name is Heidi, although for the last 5 months I have gone by Hippo. Why Hippo? Well, 3 short weeks ago I completed a 2,100+ mile, 5-month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) through California, Oregon and Washington. One rarely leaves the PCT without a “trail name” deemed by fellow through hikers and I was no less fortunate. I was hungry every hour of my hike (a “hungry hippo” one might say)… so “Hippo” I became.

           Views of the PCT around Ashland, OR

Prior to becoming Hippo, I graduated from Chico State, CA with a degree in Environmental Science: Applied Ecology and a minor in Biology. I have also had the pleasure of working with the USGS Oakhurst on the Yosemite Toad and Mountain Yellow-legged Frog within Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks and Tamarisk in Moab, UT and Mesquite, NV.

Once the trail was finished, I had two weeks to pack and organize life before flying to Nairobi to meet grad students Kenna, Eli and Tracy. They wasted no time in training me in the fine art of shopping—hyena researcher style. We wheeled around cartloads full of one month’s worth of food and supplies for both camps. Our vehicle barely had the room for my baggage and goods. Six hours of driving with one quasi-breakdown later, we arrived in Talek Camp. In Talek fellow RAs, Ashley and Chase, bitter about the onslaught of rain, busied themselves with organizing ID books. Information about the hyenas saturated every discussion. Before leaving with Molly to Serena camp where I will be until October of next year, we clarified some hyena jargon. We discussed what constitutes a stand over, chase vs. lunge, snap, bite, bite-shake, head wave, greet with a lifted leg or greet without a lifted leg, point vs. look, ears back vs. ears really, really back (a topic of much debate) and much more.

Now equipped with a foundation of knowledge about hyena research and much enthusiasm to try my hand at the job, it has regretfully still been raining. Therefore, instead of driving to Serena’s hyena dens to learn their spots and behaviors, Molly and I are stuck in camp. However, there is still much to learn here at camp and of course there is always The Behavior Guide to Africa Mammals by Richard Despard Estes and Swahili phrasebooks.

In all, this hippo is happy to now wallow in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, “the Triangle”.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Field Flashback

September 4th, 2014 was my 23rd birthday and third day on the job as Kay’s new lab manager. One of the tasks I had been charged with was cataloging and organizing every sample we have stored in freezers at MSU. (Read, a dozen or so samples for every hyena darted, plus fecal samples plus paste samples plus tissue samples from necropsies and miscellaneous samples…over decades of research).

Please release the image of your freezer at home and input this:

 And we have 2+ chock full of samples!

            So there I was, in the lab on campus where we keep our overflow, cataloguing away. 

Picking up each 2.0ml tube, recording the pertinent information of which hyena, type of sample, etc etc, and then assigning it an exact row and column location in a 81-spot box to be filed into the freezer. Trying to not make contact with the dry ice and suffer the sharp burn of solid carbon dioxide, listening to Benson and I’s favorite country music quietly. I had filled several rows when I reached into the box, drew out another un-catalogued tube, looked down and saw my handwriting…and then read the information: GALA #658 04Sep13.

Have you ever had one of those clichéd moments where you’re going about your day and without warning something grabs one of your senses and life in the present moment freezes as you’re thrown back into a memory? This was one of those times for me.

September 4th, 2013
365 days from that moment, Benson, Dave and I had been sitting with Galapagos (GALA) and a dwindling group of hyenas for over an hour in the field. I was newly confident in the driver’s seat on the right side, not so confidently using the sitting time to memorize at least a few more spot patterns. The hyenas were chewing on scraps of a cow carcass, nonplussed by our presence.
We had identified our target (GALA), prepped the dart, and Benson had been aiming out the window with Dave whispering prompts of when the other hyenas weren’t looking, when the blades of grass weren’t swaying to much, and when GALA’s body was angled properly.
I was silently sitting in the drivers seat, sending out the most fervent birthday wish I can ever remember hoping for: please let me witness my first darting on my birthday. Please. At 7:41 Benson took the shot, the dart flew true, and I got to watch the full process of a darting for the first time. I remember thinking at one point, “This is probably not what Taylor Swift was thinking of when she sang, ‘I’m feeling 22!’”.  Every detail of the darting came back – how the sun was warming up my side of the car as we waited for the perfect moment, realizing how different a hyena’s spot pattern looks when you’re right up close, feeling the course fur for the first time, being mesmerized while watching GALA’s breath move in and out through her bone-crushing jaws, and then snapping back to focus as Dave and Benson called out measurements I needed to record.

And then of course the long period after we had taken her to the safe resting spot, where we stayed to ensure she would wake up safely. It had become heart –grippingly long as concern grew to worry grew to the flutterings of panic when she wasn’t stirring two hours later (the drug we use is meant to wear off in about an hour max). I smiled remembering the release of relief and laughter we shared when Dave threw the second rock in GALA’s general direction and she picked her head up ever so slightly; we realized then that the drama queen could simply not been bothered to try standing up when she could just take a nap in the shade instead.

            When the flashback released me, I stayed motionless for several moments, awed by the serendipity of finding the samples from the most unique birthday present I have ever had, and how neat it was to still be a part of setting that sample up to be a part of all the various genetic and hormone analysis that will be done with it. This is one of my favorite parts of my new job as the lab’s manager – getting to see what happens after we collect the data in the field, what is tested and learned, and being reminded what a legacy of scientific research we all play our role in. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Baits, Mates, and Dates

Hello once again Fisi lovers!

Many of you may already know that in the society of the spotted hyena females are socially dominant to males. While aggressions on females by males are not done frequently there are instances where males show some aggression. These instances of aggression against females are known as baitings.

Baitings like instances of mating are not something that we see everyday in Talek West. However baitings have been making quite the appearance lately. I decided to investigate this phenomenon and with the help of a paper (Rare Male Aggression Directed toward Females in a Female-Dominated Society: Baiting Behavior in the Spotted Hyena by Szykman et al) I found some answers.

During a baiting several males will come together and attack a lone adult female. These males lunge, chase, sniff, and sometimes even bite the female! Females who are ready to produce another litter are more likely to be baited than females in other reproductive states. These instances of male aggression are unprovoked. When attacked the female exhibits behavior characteristic of both submission and aggression. Her ears are flat against her head, she is low to the ground as if crawling, and her teeth are exposed. She may also lunge and bite at her attackers.

TWST a Talek West female during a baiting. She has two cubs PCES and TRUS. Both of her cubs are almost ready to graduate.

Males have been shown to bait females of various social ranks. BORA, like TWST is another female who has undergone a baiting. She is a wonderful mother to her two cubs GOFA and RUNGU. Both of BORA’s cub have graduated, making her a prime candidate for another litter.  She is lower ranking than TWST and has been catching they eye of many of the males here in Talek. This increased male attention has made her the latest target of baitings.

BORA (center) counter attacking males during a baiting

Higher ranking immigrant males participate in baitings more frequently that lower rankers or natal males (males who are born in the clan).

A few of the males who frequently participate in these baitings are PENE, ZITI, JUBA, and KHTM.

Participation of natal males in baiting incidents is rare but it does happen occasionally. PENE and ZITI are both natal males to the Talek West Clan who have been found at many baiting scenes. These hyenas have both reached sexual maturity and should be getting ready to disperse (immigrate to another clan). Females are less likely to mate with males that were around as they were growing up which is one of the reasons why male hyenas disperse. 

4 year old Talek West natal male and brother of ZITI.

4 year old Talek West natal male and brother of PENE.

Talek West immigrant male. 

Talek West immigrant male

While there are many hypotheses about the function of baitings, the purpose of this behavior is still being examined. Some hypotheses suggest that baiting is a way for males to show their strength and fitness while others state it is a form of sexual harassment (Szykman et al). What do you think is the function of baitings? Is it a chance for the males to show off their “guns” or are they just being a nuisance?

Interested in learning more about this behavioral phenomenon? Stay tuned to the MSU hyena blog to see if we can solve this behavioral mystery.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


The way we write our blogs, you might think we are the only people in the Mara.  Sometimes, it does feel that way, but the truth is, the Maasai Mara is the premier tourist destination of Kenya.  Most of the time, that's ok by us.  Tourists are great to talk to and we LOVE telling them all about hyenas and seeing their surprised reactions when we dispel all the common myths.  Plus, tourism is what makes such an amazing park like the Maasai Mara possible.  It employs many people in the area and the money that is spent here supports people all over the country.  It is also great to see so many people loving and enjoying the Mara as much as we do.  Seeing the joy and wonder on someone's face as they tell us about the first time they saw a lion (even though lions are almost always super boring) is great; it gives us the opportunity to remember how amazing this place is and how lucky we are to live here long enough to risk taking it for granted.

Sadly, tourists aren't always the greatest.  There are times when they break the rules, disturb the animals, and ruin the Mara experience for others.  With my recordings, I am hyper aware of how loud some people can be and how detrimental that can be for animals that rely on their hearing to communicate.

We had one especially bad evening at Roosevelt's Natal Den.  There were a ton of hyenas hanging out and interacting at the den and we had almost eight tour vehicles drive right up, just a couple meters from the den.  Of course, this scared all the cubs into their holes and all the moms took off to hide in the nearby bushes.  If the tourists had hung back a little bit, given the hyenas some space, and stayed quiet, they would have seen some amazing behavior and would have gotten a ton of pictures of adorable tiny hyena cubs.  

Here is how bad it sounded that evening:

If you plan to visit the Mara, please ask your drivers to respect the animals and give them the distance they deserve.  Keep your voices down, sit back and observe.  You never know what amazing behaviors you will be able to witness.

Monday, October 13, 2014

SOUNDS OF KENYA: Zebra Vocalizations

Before I arrived in the Mara I never would have guessed that the zebra's primary vocalizations are frantic barking noises. I was a little taken aback that their less than musical vocalizations didn't really match their picturesque appearance as they graze peacefully on the plains. So, to save you from the same confusion I went through the first time I heard this noise, here are some zebra barks, with some more soothing gnu grunts mixed in!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Sauer kills a lilac-breasted roller!

Yesterday we saw Sauer, an adult female, kill a lilac-breasted roller!  Once dead, this bird was a popular item among the hyenas.  Two cubs, Aunt Jemima and Gobekli, were curious and followed Sauer around trying to get a taste.  Gobekli got hold of the roller first, but once he had it he decided he didn’t actually like bird.  Typical, right?  Aunt Jemima, only a year old, finally got to chew on it after everyone else abandoned it.

Sauer kills a lilac-breasted roller!

Aunt Jemima comes to investigate the roller.

Sauer (ears back) avoids with food.
Gobekli finally gets hold of the roller!

Aunt Jemima chases Gobekli for control of the yummy-looking snack.

Gobekli actually tries the roller and does not enjoy his bite.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


As you may know, hyenas use dens to keep their young cubs safe from the dangers of the outside world. Large den complexes often times are comprised of many holes, some of which are connected underground and seem capable of housing an endless number of hyena cubs. While these dens serve as the perfect home for some happy hyena cubs, there are often previous tenants who helped make the holes the cozy abodes that we find our hyenas in. Aardvarks are often the initial excavators, digging out a termite mound in search of a tasty meal. Warthogs and porcupines do most of the remodeling work, taking a smaller hole and expanding it into larger den complex. Finally the hyenas arrive, usually adding little more to the den than enlarging the entrances to improve ease of access.
Hyenas at the South Clan den have just moved into this mansion of a den built into a towering termite mound.    
            While hyenas usually move in after the previous inhabitants have left, they occasionally end up sharing their den with some other creatures. We have seen both porcupines and warthogs living in the same den with a bunch of hyenas!
            The Happy Zebra clan is currently sharing their communal den with a warthog. We first noticed this was happening when we saw a warthog slowly approaching the den in the midst of a frenzied evening den session. One of the moms alarm rumbled and all the hyenas scattered as the warthog sauntered up to one of the den holes and disappeared inside! A few days later we saw it emerge from the same hole, a hole we have seen black cubs go into and come out of.

            While this warthog and the Happy Zebra hyenas appear to have achieved a stable coexistence, they don’t always get along all that well. Check out some photos and video of the warthog chasing hyenas around their home!


Photo courtesy of Sarah Jones
The resident warthog chasing a hyena away from the den.
Photo courtesy of Sarah Jones


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