Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Finding Feces

Jambo! My name is Chase and I’m the newest RA situated at the beautiful Talek camp. As I’m sure you can gather from reading these blog entries, there is a lot to learn out here in Fisi camp. However, there are some natural processes that everyone can recognize.

One such activity is waste excretion. Also known as pooping. Prepare yourself for a digestion digression.

When I first arrived I was presented with a new area to do my personal business, known to us lovingly as “The Choo” (Pronounced: Cho). The hyenas we study, on the other hand, use a large plot of land known as the Mara. It is a vital part of our job, when recording observations on aggressions, to also be aware of when a hyena has to excrete some fecal matter.

The infamous Choo

Why does the matter matter to us?

Kenna Lehman sporting a hefty poop bag and a can-do attitude!
Although poop can be used to analyze DNA and determine paternity for cubs, back at the lab they also look at hormones. The amount of a hormone in an individual’s excrement represents the level in the body. In fact, one intrepid researcher Sarah Jones uses poop to look at the hormonal basis of sex reversal in hyenas. So, why are females more aggressive and socially dominant to male hyenas? (Future Dr.) Jones looks specifically at the hormone androstenedione, which can act similarly to testosterone, but doesn’t usually have the same side effects that would be bad for females (reducing fertility or parental care.) In fact, female spotted hyenas exhibit higher levels than males till they’re at least five years old! The largest difference between sexes is actually when they are born, suggesting why most females assert dominance over their brothers at a very early age. Jones is looking at whether androstenedione concentrations in poop are related to female aggressive behavior and their rank. Do higher ranked, more aggressive females have higher levels of androstenedione? Stay tuned for that dissertation!
Wilson Kilong thinks poop is just the best thing.
Two poops in one obs session? It's my lucky day!
Additionally, Tracy Montgomery examines poop with a passion. She’s curious about male dispersal and what hormones play a role in that process. Adult natal males actually have lower testosterone than immigrant males, even though both are reproductively mature. Why might that be? What hormonal changes occur during the dispersal process? But, Montgomery doesn’t stop there. She’s also looking at the hormone progesterone and how it may be associated with affiliative and cooperative behavior.

Ashlei Tinsley handling hyena excrement with class.

As you can see, there’s a lot to gather from examining stool samples.

But, I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “How can I do this at home? I want to analyze my bowel movements!” 
Here is my advice:

1.   A keen eye is important. When we see a hyena get into that well-known position (the squat) we use our binoculars to assess whether the bomb has been dropped or if it is simply urination. Once we decide the poop is indeed a poop, we drive over and scoop it up using a plastic bag (a large one if you’re lucky.) On the bag, we write the time it was collected, the location, and which hyena did the deed.
Chase O'Neil, aka expert poop collector, does her job.
We see a variety of colors like above: pale banana cream pie.
A typical sample complete with white hairs from a tasty wildebeest dinner. But look, your expert eyes are right! BONUS: there are worms.
2.    A poor sense of smell is helpful. If you place the plastic bag within the car or whatever transportation device you use, it may exude fumes. Once we arrive, back at camp, we firstly describe the poop. What’s the color? What’s the texture: firm, squishy, soupy (these are the worst)? Are there hairs (wildebeest for lunch)? Are there worms? Then we proceed to smash up the poop (a well-muscled foot does the job) while still in the bag. This is to make sure the contents of the feces will be mixed around and our tubes will have an accurate measurement of what exactly is in the droppings. Again a poor sense of smell will be helpful when you open the bag for the next steps.

Foot-smashing time! Socks with sandals recommended.
3.    Steady hands are key. Once the bag is open, we use a popsicle stick to scrape/scoop the mashed up poop into a tube. Once full, we seal it up tight, and place in a big container of liquid nitrogen, so around -200º C.

A researcher with steady hands shoves pieces of the droppings into a tube.
This is known as the icing technique. Sometimes a hyena has a soupy poop (hey, we've all been there.) In this case, we cut a hole in the bag and squeeze out the future data. Just like icing a cake.
It’s that simple! (Note: gloves are also recommended. Even if you have the above 1-3 traits, gloves are a necessary precaution.)

So far, I have been lucky enough to see many hyena feces and participate in the collection. Everyday is an adventure here, but even more so when we have to scoop poop into tubes!

If you have a lab at home to analyze your poop, Julie did a wonderfully detailed post about poop processing in the lab that will give you step-by-step instructions (

). Good luck!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Mama Bear..I mean hyena

            We recently confirmed that Polar, one of our Serena hyenas, has had a cub! As far as we know, this is Polar’s first cub (or at least it’s the first that has survived long enough for us to see it). It is looking very healthy, and Polar is a very attentive mother.

Prepare yourself for adorable photos:

Polar's baby poking its head out of the den

Polar getting her cub out of the den so it can nurse
The first time Molly and I saw Polar’s cub was pretty amusing. We had Polar at the den hole, and a black cub emerged from the den and appeared to be trying to nurse. Polar seemed rather irritated with the cub and would kick it off a nursing position with her hind leg. She finally got so annoyed that she tried to bite it. Molly and I were aghast at Polar’s lack of mothering skills and figured we shouldn’t get too attached to this obviously doomed cub. But lo and behold, a second, smaller black cub popped out of the den hole and started climbing all over Polar. She tolerated this with aplomb, and we later confirmed this was fact Polar’s cub when we saw it nurse. We later realized Polar was sharing her den with another mom, Diggory, and Diggory’s baby had been trying to nurse from Polar. It is not actually uncommon for cubs to try and nurse from the wrong mother, but they are usually quickly told off.

Polar telling Diggory's cub off

Polar putting up with her own pain in the butt cub

Diggory and Polar are keeping their cubs miles away from the communal den, where the older cubs hang out. Moms keep their babies in dens isolated from the rest of the clan while they are still very young. Diggory and Polar are both very protective of this den hole, so woe to any lower ranking hyena who wants to come say hi to the babies. In fact I’ve even seen Diggory chase and snap at Lady, a higher ranking hyena, because he dared to come within 5 meters of her den hole.

Diggory and Polar getting ready to chase off a male who
was silly enough to come within 30 meters of their den.

Polar chasing off some big cubs from the den hole

You might think these ladies are over-reactive bullies who terrorize anyone in the vicinity of the den hole. However, female hyenas have a very good reason to be defensive. Young cubs are easily killed by predators and adult hyenas of either sex.
On the other hand, this still doesn’t explain why Polar was so grumpy when a hungry cub tried to sneak some milk.

Hyena mothers have good reason to try and hoard resources for their own cub. The skull and jaw muscles of a young hyena take a particularly long time to develop compared to other mammals. This is because they need to develop the unique ability to crush bones. During this time of development, which lasts about three years, hyenas can’t eat their normal food very quickly. When you’re competing with clan-mates, which can devour an entire wildebeest in 15 minutes, this could be a serious liability (I grew up in a human family of four, and I’m still not sure how I survived being the slowest eater). Moms play an important role in ensuring their slow-feeding cubs get enough to eat in two ways: 1) Moms aggressively displace other hyenas at carcasses so their precious baby has time to feed. 2) Moms nurse cubs for prolonged periods of time, up to 2 years. Therefore, cubs rely on mom heavily for all their food for a long period of time. So yes, hyena moms have particularly good reason to be grumpy with anyone trying to steal food from their cub.

So good job Polar! Don’t let that bad cub nurse from you!

Polar's baby (left) with Diggory's baby (right)

Friday, September 12, 2014


From now on, we will have regular updates!  Blogs will be published EVERY Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Our loyal readers (that's you!) will now be able to anticipate a new blog.  They can check in three times a week without feeling the disappointment of finding the same blog they read last week.  It will be a long, sad weekend waiting two whole days for the next update, but our readers are tough and should survive.

We'll see you back here again on Monday for our very first scheduled update!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

SOUNDS OF KENYA – Rain in my Tent

Kenya doesn’t have seasons, at least, not in the traditional American sense.  The Maasai Mara is nearly on the equator so the days don’t get longer or shorter and there is nothing you would call Spring, Summer, Fall, or Winter.  Instead, we have rainy seasons. 

During a typical year, there are two rainy seasons: One from November to January (short rains) and another from March to June, when we get long rains.  When the short rains arrive, we will get an intense, hard rain once a day, usually in the afternoon or evening.  If we’re lucky, the short rains will come in cycles and we may have a few days to a week break.  The grass gets lush and green but we are still able to go out on hyena observations (obs) when the ground dries out enough for driving.  During the long rains, it is almost always raining and we can end up stuck in camp for weeks at a time.

It’s not the rainy season, but we have had an unseasonal amount of rain in the Mara this August.  Unfortunately, anytime we get more than 6ml of rain we have to cancel obs and stay in camp.  If we get more than that, we have to assess whether we can go out the next morning or even the next evening.  A 20ml rain can shut us down for a day and a half.  If the ground is already wet from a previous rain, even 10ml can make us miss a couple obs.  The end result is that this August, we have been stuck in camp A LOT.  Instead of recording hyenas I have been listening to and recording the rain.  This is what a 55ml downpour sounds like when you live in a tent with a tarp above it:

Monday, August 18, 2014

Mom, Cubs, and Fur Answers

Hello Fisi readers!

I hope that you all have been working hard on aging the cubs from my last post. It’s finally answer time!

This hyena cub was named CHOBANI at the time this picture was taken. CHOBANI was the cub name given since we did not know who this cub’s mother was when he/she emerged the den (We’re still working on the sex of this cub). However, we were all pretty sure that this cub’s mom was YOGURT.  I’m sure that most of my yogurt lovers who read this can understand why we chose to name the cub CHOBANI. Once YOGURT was confirmed to be the mother, the cub was officially named LAZER. Now onto the aging!

LAZER has a fully black body but there are also white patches present around his eyes. These white patches are not the rings around the eyebrows characteristic of cubs 4-5 weeks old but larger. The patches are also beginning to spread to the other sections of his face. These features put LAZER in the latter part of the second stage giving him an age of 5-6 weeks.

The next hyena cub is BULMA. BULMA has what we call here at Fisi camp GREAT or AMAZING spots. His spots are very distinctive compared to the other cubs around the den. This makes him very easy to spot and identify.

The spots on BULMA’s shoulder and sides have appeared and are easily visible. He is not fluffy and the spots on his legs are not completely visible. The legs are mostly black. The short non- fluffy fur in addition to the black legs puts BULMA in the stage of 4-7 months. Since the spots along his sides and shoulders are completely visible and dark I would give him an age of 6-7 months. 

Last but not least is XENA. XENA is one of our interesting cases. When she was a cub she nursed from two different adult female hyenas; leaving us researchers with even more of a mystery to solve when it came to her age and maternal line.

XENA has long and fluffy fur. She is also pretty large in body size compared to the previous cubs. XENA’s features place her in the last stage. Her den graduation fur would give her an age of 8-9 months. 

How did you do? Do you think you would make it in the life of a Fisi researcher?!

Keep coming back to the blog for updates on your favorite hyenas and life at Fisi camp.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science