Friday, April 17, 2015

A long-term lens on Fig Tree

As I near the end of sessioning Fig Tree notes, I’ve gotten a perspective than I never could have in the field. While I lived in Kenya for a year following the hyenas, I witnessed the everyday drama of our clans in what I now realize was a very short moment of time. In sessioning, I get a broader picture over many years.

It’s been fun to watch the individuals that I knew as adults in the field grow up in the early notes. In the field, I knew Lucky Luciano (Lu, for short) as a tough mom and confident female in the clan. With the notes I get to see how she started out as an aggressive little cub, went through a loner phase, started getting courted by various males, and became a badass hunter, but still lost her first several litters. Another example is Einstein, who was a shy subadult who started getting courted as soon as she left the den. She then had a rocky start to motherhood before she became the steady mom I knew in the field. One of the biggest surprises for me was Juba, an immigrant Talek West male that I hadn’t even known was originally from Fig Tree, where he was affectionately known as Pumpkin.
Lu, with her cubs Akiba and Starehe
Juba, as an adult in Talek West
From my desk in Michigan, I am cataloguing an entire life history for the animals we’ve all cared about in the field. I always love watching cubs playing at the den, but I am sobered by going through the notes and realizing how very few actually survive the first year of life. It takes so long for the moms to get the hang of rearing their young, and almost all of the young mothers lose at least one litter of cubs before any survive. Even with experienced mothers nothing is certain either. So much of the hyenas’ success seems to be left up to chance. A good example of this is Medusa, a high-ranking female with a small posse of aggressive young offspring poised to have an incredible success biologically speaking—plenty of high-ranking females to swell her lineage. Suddenly Medusa died, no one knows how, and I watched as one by one her children disappeared as well without their strong leader to help protect and provide for them. One random event and an entire lineage goes away.
Fig Tree cubs, their future always uncertain
Another thing I’ve realized is that on the other hand, just because some hyenas die young doesn’t mean their stories aren’t still meaningful. Bella barely managed to rear one surviving offspring before she went missing, yet that cub has been relatively successful for a lower-ranking hyena. And all of these animals, no matter if they only lived a month or are still around, still add to a valuable dataset. When I think about the poisoning that killed so many hyenas when I was in Kenya, it’s comforting to realize how each one of them still gave us important scientific insights.

This broader view helps me realize how important these large, long-term research projects are. It takes an incredible amount of time to see rare events happen in these clans. For instance, in the eight years I have sessioned of Fig Tree, observers only witnessed one actual mating. We have documented only a handful of lion-hyena interactions of any kind, and even fewer successful hyena kills. This doesn’t mean these data aren’t useful, but rather that it takes a long time to collect enough information to make these rare events numerous enough to quantify or analyze.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

April Showers

April showers bring May flowers…at least that’s what they told me in kindergarten. In the Maasai Mara it seems the only thing these showers bring are mud, mud, and more mud.

While being rained in has it perks (we get to sleep in, the days are cool, the grass is greener) it also has its downfalls. When it rains it becomes hard if not impossible for us to get out of the driveway. Throughout the day we can hear other cars making their way through the territory. This symphony of car engines and sinking tires occasionally leads to us leaving our camp to investigate the commotion. Sometimes curiosity and adventure gets the best of us. At times our adventures result in us being stuck in the mud but other times we end up finding situations like this…

A tour car driver and his passengers found themselves trapped in Leopard Crossing.

Our driveway can be very treacherous especially for those who aren’t familiar with the area. You have to know which crossings to avoid and which are safe when it comes to Mara travel. Those who aren’t familiar with the territory have to learn the hard way. With a lot of teamwork and shovels we were eventually able to free this car from the trenches.

Along with bringing mud rain also brings some new visitors. I was getting ready for bed one night when I heard a tapping against my tent. I did not have to wait long to find out what that tapping was. As soon as I reached the entrance to my tent the culprit revealed itself…

I think this frog was just looking for a nice warm place to spend the night. Too bad this tent is already occupied.

Sometimes it can rain over 50mm within an hour! I recently went to my tent to take a nap and when I returned to the lab tent rested and refreshed I found large puddles waiting for me at the entrance. We keep track of the weather using a weather data spread sheet and use rain gauges to measure the amount of rain that falls per day.

Each data sheet has a column for the minimum and maximum temperature and the total amount of rain.

Our handy dandy rain gauges

After three months of dry dusty weather I was very excited when the first few drops began to fall. I decided to share my excitement by puddle jumping. Jumping in puddles in one way to keep your-self occupied during the rainy season.

Another way we keep ourselves occupied is board games.

Chief, Joseph, and Matt playing a game of cards in the kitchen tent.

Although the rainy season has been fun I'm starting to miss going on obs and seeing the hyenas. I never thought I would look forward to waking up at 5am. My fellow RAs and I are hoping to make it out of camp soon. Fingers crossed we do!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Support Science!

Dearest blog readers, depending on how much you follow our blog and Facebook page, you may not have heard of about our crowdfunding campaign to bring underfunded scientists to an international conference.  A collaborative group I work with, the Cooperative Predator Vocalization Consortium, is hosting a symposium that aims to “synthesize a new approach to the study of the cognitive-communicative-social complex, and its implications for future research into the evolution of cognition and language.”  We need the scientists at this symposium to be a diverse group to ensure that the science coming out of this symposium incorporates in depth knowledge of a wide range of species. Underfunded scientists like Bilal, who studies tigers, wolves, and dholes in India, will not be able to attend this conference without extra help.  Without extra help, I won't be able to bring my own hyena expertise, meaning hyenas may get left out of the new approach all together.  This sets science back.  We need to include all species in the framework being built at Behavior2015 to ensure that framework is strong enough to make good predictions about how language and cognition evolve.  

We can’t do that without your help! 

We are in the last couple days of our campaign and it is an all-or-nothing goal, so please, consider donating.  When we meet our goal, I will be sending hyena ringtones to all of our backers.  Don't miss out!!  Please share our link on Facebook or Twitter and help us get the word out to others that want to push science forward!

If you're curious to know more, read on to see my answers to some of the questions we've had about our campaign:

How did this idea come about?
I have been working with the Cooperative Predator Vocalization Consortium for almost a year now.  We are a group of scientists and professionals that have come together to collaborate on understanding the entwined evolution of communication, cooperation and cognition in social carnivores.  During our Skype meetings, we realized there was a real need to gather ourselves for an in-person exchange of information and experience.  We need the time and hands-on interaction to really tackle this topic. 

How did you become involved in this effort?
As an assistant professor at a teaching university, a researcher in an underdeveloped country, and a graduate student, Jessica, Bilal, and I do not receive financial support to attend international conferences.  Our inability to self-fund participation in these in conferences does not mean that we have less to contribute.  In fact, I believe it means we bring unique experiences and knowledge to the table.  Leaving us on the sidelines can only hurt scientific advancement.  Our organizer, Arik Kershenbaum decided that something needed to be done to resolve this issue.  He began spearheading the effort and asked us to participate.

Along with being able to go to the consortium, what else do you hope to accomplish?
 I will be educating my fellow researchers on the social structure and vocal and cooperative behavior of the spotted hyena.  Spotted hyenas have a social structure that is very complex but unique among social carnivores.  Being such a strange mammalian outlier, it is important to incorporate what we know about them into the scientific framework that our consortium plans to build at this conference.  I also hope to gain insight from my fellow researchers working on communication and behavior in other species.  Their years of experience will be invaluable to my work.

I’ve seen other crowdfunding requests. What makes this one unique?
This crowdfunding  campaign is not just supporting a single project that answers a single question.   It is supporting the advancement of the field of cooperation, communication, and cognitive science.  Helping to bring three scientists to this conference, that would otherwise not be able to participate, ensures that their work, knowledge, and experience are incorporated into the projects and collaborations that push our field forward.

What sold you on taking this approach?
Really, a lack of other options.  The funding I have obtained has already gone in to my research.  I am still developing as a scientist and it is very important to me to develop into not just a good scientist, but a great scientist.  This means I need to gain as much access as possible to other great scientists to learn from them.

Will this approach become a common tool for you or is this a one-time deal?
I plan to someday be well-established in the scientific community.  At that point, I will no longer require crowd-funding tools to fund my own research and collaboration efforts.  I would like to believe that, by that time, funding for conferences like this, and funding in general, will be commonplace for PhD students, assistant professors, and researchers from underdeveloped countries.  But, until it is, I will utilize whatever tools necessary to support the science of myself and others.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Social rank is incredibly important in the lives of spotted hyenas; high ranking hyenas have better access to food and therefore higher reproductive success than low ranking hyenas. Individuals inherit the rank just below their mother, and when males disperse into a new clan so that they can mate, they automatically fall to the very lowest rank in the clan. Sometimes there are upsets in rankings, but those are generally rare. All in all, individual hyenas don't have a whole lot of control over their place in the social hierarchy. The only hyenas they are allowed to fight with over rank are their siblings.

Hyena cubs are born with a full set of teeth, and are born fighting. There is a great video on Arkive that shows two hyena cubs fighting for dominance shortly after birth, while their mother is still cleaning the placenta off of her third cub. Cubs fight it out for inter-litter dominance in the first one to two days of life, while they are still in the natal den (Smale et al. 1995). Inter-litter dominance can be extremely important later in life. For example, Spencer mentioned in his last post that Pike, our Happy Zebra matriarch, just had new cubs. If both Lance and Morningstar are females, and Pike doesn't have any more daughters, whichever cub is dominant over the other will inherit her matriarch's position. Even being just one position up on the clan hierarchy can make a difference in later reproductive success, and is worth fighting for.

These early fights for dominance are particularly important in litters with three cubs. Typically, litters are only one or two cubs, because hyenas only have two nipples to nurse with. When a triplet litter is born, the lowest ranking of the three usually dies early on, while their dominant siblings monopolize the milk supply.

While it's rare to see three cub litters, I have seen two sets in my time in the Mara. Back in November, in South territory, Heidi and I were enjoying a quiet den session watching Komo's newest cubs, Voyager and Star Gazer romp around. Voyager and Gazer were nursing and generally harrying Komo, when a third cub emerged from the den and started to nurse too! We named Komo's third cub Enterprise, and were very excited to get to see a triplet litter. Enterprise was significantly smaller than his siblings, and it was clear that he couldn't keep up with their play or compete with them for access to Komo's nipples. 

Voyager and Star Gazer nursing from Komo, while Enterprise looks on.
However, Komo gently chased her larger cubs off, to allow Enterprise to nurse.

Enterprise nursing
Komo seemed to be protecting Enterprise from the rough play and aggressions of his larger siblings, and wouldn't let them get too close.

Komo, keeping an eye on all three of her babies

Unfortunately, that was the only time we saw Enterprise. He just couldn't keep up with Voyager and Star Gazer, who are very robust, healthy kids.

This week, though, we have another set of triplets! Heidi and I found Ink, a mom from North clan, hanging out with three babies at the communal den. For most of the session, Ink was sitting in the den hole, keeping her babies away from the older cubs and from the prying eyes of hyena researchers. Eventually we saw some little black cubs poking their heads out of the den, and then they started to nurse. Because they were still mostly in the den hole while they were nursing, it was hard to see, but at one point Ink picked one of the nursing cubs up in her mouth and proceeded to hold the little guy in place with her front leg and groom him. Even when she was done grooming, she kept holding on to him with her front leg, which allowed a third cub to come up from the den and start nursing!

Ink, grooming her cub, and preventing him from fighting with his siblings.
Video by Heidi Rogers

So far all three cubs look healthy and large, and Ink seems to be doing her best to make them share. It's a long shot that all three of them will make it, but for now they are providing us with a lot of adorable play time and a lot of contentious debate over which comic strips to name them after.

Smale, L.; Holekamp, K. E.; Wedele, M.; Frank, L.G.; & Glickman, S. (1995) Competition and cooperation between litter-mates in the spotted hyaena, Crocuta Crocuta. Animal Behaviour. 50:3. p. 671-682.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Community Relations

A large part of the continuation of the Mara Hyena project is maintaining a healthy relationship with the surrounding community.  As guest in the Maasai Mara, it is important to maintain the trust and respect of the local people.  Our good standing relationship with the Maasai people allows us to continue or research uninterrupted and prevents many misunderstandings.

The project has done numerous things to maintain this relationship over the years, and we do our best to foster this relationship into the future.  One of the things we do is provide stable business to the people of Talek Town by purchasing groceries, camp supplies, and needing endless car repairs.  In addition to being loyal customers, we provide informative talks about our research to nearby lodges.  We are always sharing information about our hyena research to the Maasai and to tourist in the Mara.  We also do a variety of miscellaneous deeds to help out the locals.

A few weeks ago, Chase and I were working in the lab tent when Joseph asked for us to help with an injured Maasai woman.  Chase and I walked from the lab tent to the kitchen tent and saw that this woman had sustained a deep gash in her ankle from cutting firewood.  She had somehow missed her target and instead found her ankle.  Immediately, Chase assumed the role of Dr. Chase, and I became Nurse Matt.   After some antibacterial ointment and a few butterfly bandages, we sent the lady on her way.  We heard from Joseph later that she eventually went to Talek Town and received numerous stitches.

Dr. Chase

A week later, Ashlei and I were working in the lab tent… This time it was a Maasai man who cut a deep gash into his wrist.  After convincing Ashlei that it would be great practice for veterinary school, I handed her the rubber gloves, and she became Dr. Ashlei.  With a similar procedure and a few more butterfly bandages, we sent this man on his way.

Dr. Ashlei
Other than an impromptu medical clinic, we also rescue loose cattle from their impending doom from hungry carnivores.  Cattle often get loose, and we see them wandering in the reserve, and if possible we coral them and return them to their rightful owner.  Below is a video of Wilson chasing a loose cow and some photos of its capture.


Though we primarily focus on our research, we do what we can to continue and maintain a positive community relationship.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Circle of Life

During the past three months since I arrived in Serena camp, I slowly began to realize that this has been an unusually crazy time in the Masai Mara. According to Philomen, one of the Kenyan’s who works in camp, the past quarter has seen the longest drought here since 1993. As a consequence of the drought and the frequent fires that have been set in nearby Tanzania, we had a huge blaze spread through the territory of our Happy Zebra clan. The littlest members of the clans have been most traumatically affected by drought and unfortunately we have had to perform several necropsies on cubs that just couldn’t seem to handle the arid conditions.

But that's enough depressing news, and if the Lion King taught me anything, it was about the “Circle of Life”: Death leads to new life!

Over the past week or so, we've received plenty of rain. The watering holes are starting to fill back up, the ungulates are finding more healthy grass to eat and, in turn, the hyenas are finding plenty of healthy ungulates to eat!

The fire that spread through the Happy Zebra territory was extinguished weeks ago, and now with help from the rain and the fertile soil created by the fire, we are starting to see a lush carpet of healthy, green grass (see pictures in Tracy's recent blog post.) The territory is again becoming true to its name, and the zebras are very happy with their fresh new grass.

But the best piece of news? The necropsies seem to be over and we have brand new cubs in two of our clans!

We had been noticing that Pike, the matriarch of our Happy Zebra clan, had been acting awfully strange for the past few weeks for a hyena with grown cubs. She had been hanging out at the den a lot and often times was seen sacked out in the den hole. We had suspected for a while now that she was hiding new cubs from us, but we weren't sure until recently when they decided to poke their fuzzy little heads out to say hello!

One of Pike's new cubs checking us out
Pike's cubs, Lance and Morningstar nursing!

One of our lowest ranking females in the Happy Zebra clan, Silk, also gave birth to two new cubs, Nightshade and Amanita, that she brought to one of the communal dens recently.

Nightshade snacking by the den 
Nightshade and Amanita hiding behind mom

And here's a video of Nightshade and Amanita wrestling.

More strange behavior in the Happy Zebra clan has been coming from Ojibway. Ojibway's only kids, Muon and Higgs, are old enough to start having babies themselves, but Ojibway has been hanging around the den very frequently. We are pretty sure this means Ojibway has a new litter of cubs to tend to. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to see the cubs yet, so no pictures of these guys.

And finally, in South clan, we have a brand new cub from Cheese Whiz! Cheese Whiz is a relatively low-ranking hyena, and doesn't like to hang around the den very often, so it’s very exciting to see her with a new cub because it means we'll get to see a lot more of her. Here's a picture of Cheese Whiz carrying her new cub, Nerd:

Cheese Whiz carrying her 2-week old
cub Nerd
Photo by: Tracy Montgomery

In recent months, we've gone through some tough times on this side of the park, but things are looking up and we've got lots of new cubs to become acquainted with. The rainy season has brought birth, renewal and regrowth to the Mara- such is the “Circle of Life”!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science