Thursday, March 26, 2015

Take a drive with Serena Camp

Monday, March 23, 2015

From the Mara to Michigan: How our field observations turn into computerized data

A year ago from the day I sat down to write this post, I was in Kenya sitting in front of a den full of rambunctious little hyena cubs. Now, my love of the hyena project and the lifelong friends I made in the Mara has brought me to Michigan to help out on the data side of our research.

As a research assistant out in the field, I honed my skills at taking field observations and translating them into a consistent code of behaviors so that I could write them up in my notes and send them back to MSU. However, I had little to no idea what actually happened to the notes after that.

My job in the lab right now is to “session” the field notes from Fig Tree. Sessioning involves taking parts of the written notes and entering them into a computer database that graduate students and other researchers can use to do larger calculations. Sessioning is the backbone for data analysis in the hyena lab; it gives a reference number for every observed event that researchers record. Using this foundation, we can calculate (for example) demographics of the various clans, how the location of the clans changes over time, observation rates in the field, and when we add in other behaviors to the sessioned notes, we can also calculate things like rate of aggressions or other social behaviors. In this way, sessioned notes become a powerful research tool.

In many ways, this transition from the page to the computer feels similar to the transition from real life hyenas to observational notes in the field. It all involves translating data from one form to another with the ultimate goal of taking the complexity and unpredictability of a natural system and turning it into patterns that we can analyze and use to understand more about behavior, ecology, and evolution in the world around us.

To get a sense of how this process works all the way from the field to the database, I thought I’d illustrate the different steps of the process.

Here’s a video from one day when Hadley, Dave, and I went on observations and saw natal female Crimson and immigrant male Juba acting strangely. This was one of Hadley’s first transcriptions, and Dave walked both of us through what was happening. Crimson was a subadult female in the clan who was approaching the age at which many hyenas start to have cubs, and Juba was clearly interested in courting her, hyena-style:


However, part of our job as RAs in the field was to take these observations and turn them into notes that someone who wasn’t there would still understand. Hadley’s transcription of the event looked like this:

She listed the time and location that the events occurred at, and then any behaviors that we observed, noting extra details or when we might have missed anything. So when Crimson (recorded as CRMS in the notes) was attacking Juba, these behaviors get translated into abbreviations like lk (look) or snap, indicating an angry glare or an attempted bite, with the t-level indicating how serious the aggression was.

Finally, at MSU, we can take these notes and session them so that the database includes which hyenas were present, where they were, and a general category of what they were doing. Other graduate students and their undergraduate student assistants will pull out the specific behaviors that they need from the notes and enter them into different tables. All of the notes get printed out and put into binders in the lab like this:

Here is how we mark up the written records to be entered into the computer:

Each hyena gets circled, and the entire interaction, or session, is given a number and a code to indicate whether it was at a den, a carcass, etc. In this case, the situation is just “o” for “other” but we could still make a note that they might have been mating.

And here is what it finally looks like in the database:

The locations, hyenas, time, date, and session number are all included.

Now this session is part of the giant hyena lab database of approximately 83861 sessions in Talek, and that doesn’t even include the other clans! As it becomes part of such a long history of data it enables us to learn more about these amazing animals.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Cross Driving

Driving through the territory is a daily adventure. You never know what to expect. Instead of paved roads and cars lined along either side of you, you get roads filled with bumps and ditches and most of the time the only other thing along side you on the road is an animal such as a zebra or giraffe. Driving through the territory during the migration has been one of my favorite experiences. The plains are lined with wildebeest and giraffe making it seem like you are driving through a parade of ungulates.

One of the key elements that makes driving throughout the territory possible is crossings. Not all crossings are created equal. While some are a breeze to drive through others must be met with extra caution and care.  Here X marks the spot. Without these crossings it would be difficult to follow our hyenas into the unknown. I have put together a list of my favorite crossings in the Talek West territory.

Suicide Crossing

Well the name pretty much says it all for this one. The first time you drive through Suicide your heart is pumping and you are praying that you don’t destroy the car in the process (at least that’s how it felt for me). Suicide is the first crossing we past through to enter the territory. It marks both the start and the end of the work day. We usually avoid using this crossing when it rains because the bottom of it fills with water making it difficult for the car to get through. 4-wheel drive can become your best friend when going through this crossing on a muddy day.


Coucal Crossing
Coucal X or as I like to call it Coo-cow X is one of our most frequently used crossings. We use this crossing to enter or leave an area of the territory we call Baboon Cul-de-sac. Coucal is not known for getting people stuck but it can be a source of “traffic jams”. Lots of animals use this crossing. Occasionally you will see a hyena loping by as you are driving through it.


Chai Tee Crossing

Nope that’s not a typo. Chai Tee X is one of the newest crossings in Talek West. We recently discovered it while following some hyenas after a carcass session. My middle name is Tee and after discovering this the guys in camp (specifically Benson and Wilson) decided to give me the nickname Chai. Chai is tea in Swahili and thanks to some clever word play by Chase this crossing was created. Chai Tee X is another crossing you would want to avoid when wet. It has lots of holes that fill with water after it rains. These water-filled holes create the perfect recipe for getting stuck. 

15 Year Crossing

Drivers beware. This crossing is not for the faint of heart. While it looks harmless it is far from easy. You should only use this crossing if you’re willing and ready to be stuck for at least 15 years. Once wet the mud within this crossing will suck you down making it impossible to escape. Make sure you have your shovel and rain boots ready. A nice snack and lots of water are also handy to have. Digging a car out of 15 year is a very tiring and demanding task (just ask Hadley and Wilson who were stuck in 15 year for over 4 hours trying to dig out one of our poor ‘ol cruisers). Make sure the gears are locked and 4-wheel drive is set before you go through this one.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

SOUNDS OF KENYA: Displaying Bustards

As an innocent, impressionable undergraduate, I worked in Gail Patricelli’s lab studying the vocal display of the male Greater Sage Grouse.  The sage grouse display is outrageous (You should check it out).  Therefore, I was surprised to find a bird in the Mara with a display even slightly reminiscent of the sage grouse’s display.  The kori bustard is huge and is rumored to be the heaviest animal capable of flight. They usually spends their time wandering through the tall grass looking like this.

A few weeks ago we were confused when we saw this one from a long way off:

It didn’t look like anything we had ever seen in the Mara, much less the usually drab kori bustard.  So, we drove up alongside him to get a good look at his strange strut display.

It took us a good five minutes of oooing and aaaahhing at his display to realize that he was also vocalizing.  If you listen to this recording with headphones or a set of speakers with good bass, you will hear a very deep drumming noise.  That is the kori bustard.

It was only a few days later that I discovered another interesting display from the Black Bellied Bustard.  I have often heard this call, seemingly to their current mate, when they are out of sight.

Their display, in contrast, is performed on a termite mound sticking up above the tall grass and sounds like this:

These bustards aren’t as flashy as the sage grouse, but it was nice to see some cool mating displays nonetheless.

With the entertainment over, I would like to personally ask a favor of all you trusty blog readers.  I am part of a crowdfunding effort to bring underrepresented groups to an international conference.  As a PhD student, an assistant professor, and a researcher from an underdeveloped country, we lack the funds to travel to and participate in international conferences. These are conferences where great scientists come together to further great science through knowledge transfer and collaboration.

If you have the means and the desire to fund exciting science on the evolution of communication and cooperation, please donate.

If you have the time but not the money, and want to support science and collaboration, please share this with you friends and followers.  If you are a twitter aficionado here is the short link:

Monday, March 16, 2015

Elephant Carcass Monday

Things in Serena have been a little quiet lately. According to Philomen, head cook and Serena camp mzee (swahili for "elder"), we are experiencing the worst draught since 1993. The hyenas have been spending their days sacked out in ditches and puddles, trying to escape the heat and stay close to water. They are too hot and lazy to even show up to the den to play or hang out, so we've had a definite lack of hyena excitement lately. This morning though, Happy Zebra clan stepped up to the challenge.

Eli and I had a great den session; a bunch of hyenas were there acting excited and fighting a little over an old piece of buffalo skin. The cub cohort in Happy Zebra is getting old enough to go on small adventures away from the den, as long as they have plenty of adult supervision. BOOM and JLYR took the youngsters for a wander, and we ended up following them to a nice watering hole where even more hyenas were hanging out and playing. We headed back from the den around 8:00am, already commenting that it was one of the best mornings we had had in a while.

On the way home, we started picking up Molly Ringwald's radio collar. We tracked her to the edge of the territory, where we could see ten hyenas sacked out across an uncrossable lugga. We drove back to the road, found a crossing, and drove back out to where we had seen the hyenas. As we neared we noticed that they were smelling considerably worse than normal, and we rounded a termite mound to find a giant elephant rump sticking out of the lugga. We had found a juvenile elephant carcass! Lions were lounging around the carcass, not feeding, but making sure the hyenas couldn't get a bite. The hyenas were biding their time, wandering and napping around the lions. We ID'd all the hyenas and headed back to camp, where we contacted the Mara Conservancy to let them know what we had found.

One brave hyena managed to snag a bite
Photo by Eli Strauss

This lioness was determined to keep the hyenas away

When elephants die of natural causes, rangers collect the ivory tusks to prevent poachers from finding  and selling them. After showing some rangers to the site of the carcass, we returned to camp to eat and get some work done. I got a call this afternoon letting me know that rangers were heading back out to the carcass to remove the tusks. We all piled into our cruiser and drove out to the carcass one more time.
How many people does it take to detusk an elephant?

Elephant tusks are modified incisor teeth, so they are embedded in a socket in the skull. In order to get them out, the ranger had to chop open the socket and pull and wiggle the tusk until it popped out.

Alfred, a Mara Conservancy ranger, pulling out a tusk
Video by Eli Strauss

The head after one tusk had been removed
Alfred, showing off his tusks
The tusks have been weighed and recorded and turned over to the Kenyan Wildlife Services, and the elephant carcass will hopefully provide us with a couple of days of hyena feeding fun!

Friday, March 13, 2015

A Day in Talek Camp

Research conducted in the field is often more chaotic then research controlled within a laboratory. With the uncertainty and variety within the field it is reassuring to have a routine.  Though there is great fluctuation in our routine, many activities are a daily staple in Talek Camp.  Below is a schedule of how are days usually go in Talek camp:

We are up before the sun for morning observations and leave camp around 5:30 AM.

Benson, Tracy and Wilson observing a carcass session during morning observation.

Occasionally we dart hyenas during morning observations.  Benson is contemplating whether or not to dart WLOW.

Ashlei and Benson collecting blood samples from MEKO.
If we dart a hyena, we prepare blood samples to be sent back to MSU.

Sometimes instead of blood, we collect poop samples.

We often run to T-Town aka Talek Town to run errands for camp.  Chase is buying some groceries from Bel-Mara.

Around 10:00 to 10:30 AM is finally breakfast time.  Joseph, Samwell, and Chief always make a delicious meal.

After breakfast we usually do various camp related task or occasionally we enjoy some free time to relax until evening observation.

Chase and Benson are reorganizing the identification books.

Sometimes we do our own laundry.

Volleyball is my means of exercise and recreation in Talek camp.

But usually transcriptions.
And Transcriptions...


Evening observations begins at 5:00 PM. 

Evening observations last until after the sun goes down, and we usually return to camp a little after 8:00 PM.
Evening obs is followed up by another delicious meal from the guys, and when dinner is finished we all head straight to bed.  This is how everyday usually goes in Talek camp, but working in the field we are always prepared for the occasional change to the routine.  As far as what Serena camp does each day, it is even a mystery to us a Talek camp...  Our fellow Serena RA, Heidi, plans to take us all on a ride along for a day in Serena camp in a future blog.  Have a great and safe Friday the 13th (knocking on some wood), and don't walk under any ladders.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science