Monday, August 3, 2015

Another new face

Hello, hyena lovers! My name is Erin Person and I will soon be joining the ranks of the new Fisi Camp RAs. I recently graduated with a degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Michigan. I spent my four years at U of M working for the Gelada Research Project, where I developed an interest in animal behavior and endocrinology. Those interests led me to the Hyena Project, which I’m totally delighted to be taking part in.

I’m set to depart for Kenya on August 9th, which gave me a few months after graduation with nothing to do but pack and twiddle my thumbs. Being the sort of person who goes stir crazy after about two weeks of relaxing, I got in touch with our lab manager Hadley and asked if there was anything I could do to help out at the lab at MSU before I left. She set me a task of Herculean proportions: organizing and inventorying the lab’s -80°C freezers with a couple other members of the lab.

This process involves emptying a shelf at a time into coolers of dry ice (“My hands are so cold”), sorting through the contents (“What’s in that bag?” “It’s…a dead bird.”), and attempting to put everything back in some kind of logical order (“Does hair qualify as a tissue sample?”). Once we had everything sorted into categories, we began the long process of inventorying every single sample into labeled boxes so future students could use our new repository to quickly find the samples they need. Two months, four lab members, and a couple hundred pounds of dry ice later, we emerged with two complete freezer maps and a partial repository database of hyena blood, DNA, and tissue samples.

Besides that deeply cathartic sense of satisfaction from taking something chaotic and making it organized, it’s been a lot of fun getting to know both the lab and its members while working there this summer. Before starting here, my only hints of what my year would be like were from this very blog, so it’s been marvelous to talk to people who have been there and done that and lived to tell about it. I’ve gotten a lot of great packing advice, but perhaps more importantly I’ve found that learning how the samples collected in the field will be used in the lab can help inform how I will collect said samples. For one thing, I can tell you right now my handwriting in the field is going to be spectacular after attempting to read and record the labels on hundreds of tubes (“Is that a 5? A 3?” “I think it’s an 8?”).

For a slightly more serious example: when blood is collected from darted hyenas in the field, it’s separated into many small tubes instead of one big one. One reason this is done is that blood can be affected by freeze/thaw cycles; if a member of the lab wants to study blood taken from a particular hyena, they can thaw one of the small tubes and leave the rest frozen and therefore unaffected for future use. Understanding the logic behind some of the protocols will (hopefully) make the mountain of new things to learn when I arrive in camp a little more manageable.

After a summer of talking about nothing but hyenas, I can’t wait to begin my year as an RA. I look forward to writing my next post from a tent in the Mara. Kenya, here I come!
A photo of yours truly on my last epic journey. The stunning Greek background is soon to be replaced by a stunning Kenyan background when I start my newest adventure!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

"Being here"... finally!

     Well, hey there fellow hyena enthusiasts! The name’s Jared. I’m one of the new research assistants for the next year and my home camp is Talek. I’ve been here for just over a month now and golly gee it’s been beyond amazing. I’m a recent graduate of Kalamazoo “K” College having majored in Biology and minored in Psychology. I hail from Bay City, Michigan a quaint, welcoming town on the East side of the state. So how, you may ask, did I wind up in Kenya? Well, it’s my pleasure to tell you. Back during my sophomore year at K I was lucky enough to have taken Animal Behavior instructed by Dr. Anne Engh, a former researcher with the project, and she sparked and fueled my interest in Crocuta crocuta.  Since that life-changing course all things spotted hyena and the incomparable work of the project have absorbed me. Farfetched aspirations of being able to observe the fascinating creatures someday have consumed me ever since. This past Autumn I applied to the NSF-IRES program and by the grace of some higher power, here I sit today in the lab tent writing this post watching tiny butterflies of white, yellow, and orange hues flitter around with effortless whimsy. Needless to say, being here is a dream come true.

     Being here in the midst of such powerful and innovative research has cemented the journey I’ve always envisioned for myself as a research biologist. My interests in animal behavior, physiology, and morphology have consistently gravitated towards exploration of factors influencing individual variation in social populations. The multifaceted relationship between individuality and larger-scale population patterns within and among populations, such as social structure and population stability, genuinely saturates my mind daily with continuous thoughts and ponderings. Individuality as it applies to personality specifically motivates my interests. The thought of investigating the connections between individual variation of personality with individual variation in agonistic, affiliative, cognitive, dispersal, maternal, and sexual behaviors gets my neurons a’ firing. What better study organism then, than the spotted hyena? Come the time this year ends, which I am already dreading, I hope to pursue (fingers and toes crossed!) my Ph.D. in Animal Behavior. Through all that rambling I hope you have a sense of who I am, and hope to be, as a researcher. This year will undoubtedly allow me to develop my interests, and for that alone I am entirely grateful.

     Being here means I am blessed with the opportunity to observe hyenas every single day (at least so far, come rainy season that won’t hold true...). My first nights in the Mara were spent in Serena camp and I vividly recall my first official PM observations session locking eyes with a young sub-adult and feeling an insane rush of adrenaline and uncontainable enthusiasm. That’s how it is every obs session though, finding it hard to look away, tunnel vision on the chapter of the story that I’m witnessing develop right in front of my eyes. I’ve already grown an insatiable desire to learn all that I can about these magnificent beings and I am thrilled to be in this position.

Here I am during my first darting! It was surreal and I'll never forget it. Better yet, Kay was present; taking samples and measurements alongside her was absolutely incredible. I was able to name the hyena as he was outside of Talek territory and unknown to us. Ironically it was my little brother's birthday, so I dubbed this beautiful male Joshua on July 6, 2015. The first of many amazing darting experiences! 
     From waking up to the resident fruit bat every morning at 0430, to falling asleep to the distant whoops of hyenas, and every magical moment in between, life as an RA has been absolutely incredible but rightfully challenging so far. I couldn’t be more excited to see what happens with the Talek West clan over the course of these next eleven months and I am so grateful that I get to do so. This is the adventure of a lifetime and I thank you all for taking the time to read this blog. The thrills and wonders of spotted hyenas will not cease -- so until next time, this is Jared wishing you all well!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Time of Many Firsts

Hello everyone! My name is Connie Rojas and I am the newest member of the Dr. Kay Holekamp laboratory! I will be starting my Ph. D in Integrative Biology at Michigan State University this Fall, and am currently in the Maasai Mara in Kenya learning tons about the Mara Hyena Project, spotted hyenas, and Kenyan culture.

I have always been interested in animal behavior; I majored in Biological Sciences and Psychology at Wellesley College, and throughout my undergraduate education, sought opportunities to strengthen my molecular research and field work skills. It all started when I decided to study abroad in northeastern Queensland, Australia, with the School for Field Studies (SFS): Tropical Rainforest Studies program. I had the opportunity to live and take courses in the Wet Tropics, and conduct independent research comparing the functional diversity and redundancy of secondary tropical forests to those of primary forests. I found my experience incredibly rewarding, and when returning to Wellesley, was determined to look for additional field opportunities. The following summer, I participated in the NSF-funded Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program in Costa Rica. I spent 8-weeks investigating if diet had an effect on the parasite load and immune response of frugivorous bats, and learned tons about being resourceful, troubleshooting when unexpected circumstances arose, and maintaining a great work ethic in a demanding environment. Although, I did not find any significant effects, the experience drew me to the evolution of mammalian social behavior.

At Wellesley, I took a different direction and diversified my interests in cellular biology. Most of my courses were molecular-based (e.g. genetics, cellular physiology, evolutionary developmental biology, microbiology) and my senior research project analyzed the composition and diversity of bacterial assemblages of a permanently stratified, meromictic lake by high-throughput 16S rRNA Illumina sequencing. I enjoyed performing DNA extractions & RNA amplifications, and learning about cis-regulation and hope to incorporate this into my prospective research. Most recently, I was a field assistant for Dr. James Higham (New York University, Department of Anthropology), collecting behavioral data on the reproductive strategies of rhesus macaques living in the free-ranging colony of Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico. My responsibilities included collecting and uploading data on a daily basis, assisting with the annual capturing season during which blood and morphological data is collected, and collecting urine & fecal samples for hormone analysis. My work with the monkeys is definitely helping me better understand the complexities of hyena social behavior.

I am very happy to be in the Mara right now. It has been helpful to see how observations are carried out, data is transcribed, and hyenas are identified, and simply how camp life is like and how camp is maintained. This is a time of many firsts: first time in Africa, first time seeing the wildlife up-close (gazelles, wildebeest, hyenas, lions, cheetahs, jackals, mongooses, etc), first time driving a car (!!!, thanks Benson), first time in a hot air balloon, first time getting up at 5am consistently, the list continues. The hyenas, sunrises, sunsets, homemade bread, and chai tea never get old. Also, everyone at camp is so nice and I look forward to getting to know them better.

My time here has made me even more excited about starting my Ph. D, researching hyenas and working alongside Kay for the years to come. My specific project has not been fleshed out, which is understandable, but whatever it is, it might deal with the energetics of maternal care, factors influencing female mate choice, or stress physiology, and coupling field observations with genetic/endocrinological/microbial analyses (or so I say…).

I promise to talk more about the hyenas and my time at the camp in my next post, but in the meantime, feel free to email me at if you have any questions or comments, or simply want to chat.

Nakutakia siku njema!
(Have a nice day)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Thanks to you all!

It is with enormous gratitude that I write this post, which we hope will be the last in our series about the great flood of 2015. I have literally been moved to tears many times in the past couple of weeks seeing how many people have made donations to our “wetting registry” on the site. And we have not even ever even met most of our donors in person! I never expected to see such an overwhelmingly positive response, so I have been both stunned and delighted. Hyena camp is slowly coming together again, thanks to all of you and the heroic efforts of my students and camp staff. It will be quite a while yet before we get back to the same level of function we enjoyed before the flood, but the truly miraculous thing from my point of view is that, thanks to your generous contributions to our flood relief efforts, it is now clear that we WILL be able to get back to that level before too much longer, and I will NOT be forced to c lose the hyena project down for good.

The Talek River has returned to its normal shallow, sleepy creek-like state, and one would never guess from looking at it now that it could ever rage so ferociously, or wreak such extraordinary havoc, in only a few hours as it did on the night of 13 June. The flood now seems like little more than a terrifying nightmare. The dry season has finally arrived here, and the plains are already turning brown and dusty.  Small groups of wildebeest have started to arrive in the Talek area so our hyenas are feasting on them every night. Our most interesting post-flood discovery to date has been the indication from the unusual behavior of our study animals that the enormous Talek clan may at last be ready to fission permanently into two or three new daughter clans. Student bloggers will undoubtedly keep you posted about that as the new social situation becomes clearer. For the moment, suffice it to say that I am very deeply grateful to all of our readers and friends of the hyena project who have made donations that will allow us to keep the project going.
Again, thanks to you all!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Joy of Normal

Hadley here, back in camp! After eleven months away from Fisi Camp, I returned a few weeks ago, with tears of joy in my eyes (and let’s face it, running down my face…I couldn’t stop them.)

As all of you reading our blog know, the camp I returned to was not the camp I left. Everyone here that had survived the flood and endured the weeks of rebuilding were exhausted and worn thin. I was told when I arrived that fresh energy and an optimistic outlook would be the most welcome and I had them both in abundance.

Before exuding that however, I tried to sit still long enough to absorb and respect how much the camp went through, and what an amazing job everyone did building us back up to a ‘normal’ (as ‘normal’ as you can get when you live in a bush camp.) On the outset, it just looks like the folks here decided to feng shui our camp a bit and rearrange a few tents – our lab tent sits where our laundry used to hang for drying, we sit by a bonfire each night where our old lab tent used to be, and there are two tent-sized bare patches of dirt awaiting an inspired idea from a new RA or a resurgence of plant growth from beneath the packed soil, whatever comes first.

While only time will fade the memories of what happened and what we lost, gratitude to be returning to normal in these past couple weeks has steadily emerged. They have been a flurry of excitement, energy, teaching protocols to new Research Assistants (Jared and Ciara) and dedicated efforts to collect as many samples of poop, blood, DNA, and saliva before Kay returned to the States. (Fun fact: In the past twenty days, we’ve collected at least one poop sample for each day except three.) We’ve been observing hyena behavior and clan dynamics (they be a changing!), taking cars into town for repair, attending Market Day for fresh produce, darting hyenas for blood and saliva collection, finishing the impressive re-organization of camp, and enjoying Joseph’s cooking after long days of hard work. Fisi Camp living can be quite saturating, but in the end, we all love it.

When Kay asked me if I would be willing to come back to the field to assist for three months, there was not even a moment of hesitation before I agreed and started looking at tickets. I have loved managed the lab in Michigan, learning another side of how science operates and understanding what happens to the data we collect in the field; however, nothing beats being in the field, collecting the data first hand, living in a tent and spending at least six hours a day out in the Mara observing the hyenas. It was through heroic efforts that Talek Fisi Camp is back to our stable routines and what a joy it is to be back : )

Monday, July 13, 2015

Postflood Day 15: New kitchen tent!

Today is our final day of rebuilding! We got the kitchen tent back from the tailor in Talek, where it was repaired post-flood. This meant it was finally time to move from the temporary kitchen tent on the firebreak to the real kitchen tent. We moved the stove, tables, and food supplies, and that evening we were finally able to eat dinner at the dining table in front of the new lab tent.

First dinner at the new lab tent! So many happy faces! 
Wilson & Joseph chatting, finally back in the kitchen's home
Benson cooking lunch inside the new kitchen tent!
We need your help! To donate to our flood relief efforts and our "wetting" registry, please visit: 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Postflood Day 14: Nairobi trip returns!

Rebuilding was starting to wind down today. We finished the odds and ends of wiring, did some organization, and got ready for Hadley and the new Talek RAs, Jared and Ciara, to arrive from Nairobi. They arrived with Eli in the late afternoon, bringing with them much needed food supplies, as well as morale-boosters in the form of delicious American snacks.

Eli, Jared, and Ciara getting ready to come to the Mara!
We need your help! To donate to our flood relief efforts and our "wetting" registry, please visit: 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Postflood Day 13: Set up solar power in solar tent

We got the solar tent back from the tailor today, after he repaired the damages and rips caused by the flood. That meant we were able to finally set up the solar systems and batteries for the personal tents! Joseph and Wilson helped me to wire the splitters, set up the solar controllers, and check for power in all the tents. Finally, we had lights in our tents at night again, and things were starting to feel slightly more normal.

Joseph & Wilson wiring the batteries in the solar tent
We need your help! To donate to our flood relief efforts and our "wetting" registry, please visit: 

Friday, July 10, 2015

Postflood Days 11 and 12: Splice and triage wires to personal tents

Today, we began the enormous task of rewiring all the personal tents in camp. Each tent in camp has the luxury of having a small 12V light, which enables you to read before bedtime and to see when you are getting ready for obs in the morning. With a total of 10 personal tents in camp, the wiring is a veritable maze, and the work of testing and splicing wires took us two whole days.

Benson, Dee & Kay covering the wire joins
with silicone (to keep the water out)
We need your help! To donate to our flood relief efforts and our "wetting" registry, please visit: 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Postflood Days 9 & 10: Darting challenges

On these two days, we took a break from camp rebuilding to resume the important task of darting hyenas. We drove out to the Double Crossing area and met up with Kay’s alumna Steph and her children. We were lucky to finally get a good darting on the second morning, which allowed us to collect much-needed blood samples and body measurements for our database.

Kay & I taking blood and saliva samples from the hyena
Photo by Steph Dloniak
An adult female spotted hyena as measured by a five-year old
Photo by Steph Dloniak
Beautiful bone-crushing teeth of a young adult female
Photo by Steph Dloniak
After our morning darting, we went to a nearby camp and did a hyena talk, teaching the guests about hyena biology and Mara ecology.

We need your help! To donate to our flood relief efforts and our "wetting" registry, please visit: 

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