Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ants vs. Termites

On the way back from obs in Serena Camp, we witnessed part of an epic and ancient battle: that of the termite versus the ant.  As Bert Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson wrote in their classic book The Ants (1990), “the two groups have undoubtedly been locked in struggle for the greater part of the 100 million years of their coexistence, with ants acting as the active aggressors for the most part and termites as the prey and resisters.”

Ants, as predators, represent the single greatest threat to termites and their nests.  Ants are more agile and often attack in a cooperative manner, against which individual termites have little hope.  Soldier termites, however, have enlarged heads and powerful jaws to help protect themselves against raiding ants. Termite soldiers can block a tunnel long enough for other termites to close it off, thus sacrificing themselves but saving the rest of their nest.  

Our experience with this age-old war began when we encountered an ant line moving across our driveway.  Ant lines are typically guided by an odor trail, with chemicals laid down by a scout or leader that the other ants follow.  This day's column of ants remained cohesive until it reached the termite nest, at which point the ants formed a giant swarm and poured simultaneously into every hole in the ground.  The black ants reemerged from the nest carrying brown termites, which the ants quickly subdued.  The battle was short-lived, and five minutes later the ants were carrying the termites back across the road towards their own nest for future feasting.

The ants begin to swarm upon reaching the termite nest.

The invasion begins!

Kill!

The ants subdue the soldier termites, identifiable by
their enlarged heads and powerful jaws.

The ants carry their prey home...

...a successful raid accomplished.

Living in the Mara, we are lucky enough to be surrounded by some of the most amazing megafauna alive today.  It’s easy to forget about all of the small creatures that live here as well, and are sometimes just as cool.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Meet our camp cars!



As recently hired RA, I came to the field with glorious notions of what to expect from my upcoming year of hyena research. What I didn’t expect was the extent to which life in Fisi Camp revolves around camp upkeep and maintenance of our primary research tools: the vehicles. We spend about 6 hours in the cars each day following hyenas and recording their behavior. Days where we have to go collect drinking water from a lodge or pick up camp supplies from nearby Talek Town or distant Nairobi add to that baseline. Finally, the inevitable occasions when we get stuck in some sticky black cotton soil gives us researchers even more quality bonding time with the cars.  
  
KAS 830D, one of the Talek Camp Land Cruisers, in action.
The insides of our vehicles are stripped down to the basics.
The Land Cruisers are tough enough to cross rivers…
…and gentle enough for hyena cubs.






























































As with any piece of equipment that receives heavy use, the cars in the Mara develop their own personalities. This blog post is dedicated to these vehicles that alternately delight and dismay us, but are absolutely essential to our work. So, without further adieu, the lineup:

In Serena Camp:

KAL 220V
Beverage of choice: Diesel

KAL is the oldest car in the Fisi Camp fleet. You can tell she isn’t as spritely as some of her sisters but she is more formidable. The mechanics at Serena tell us that she is “the oldest Cruiser in the Mara Triangle” and praise the superior power of the older Land Cruisers. She can be a bit grumpy however, often expressing her distaste with your driving by dropping the glove box door open onto your knees and refusing to let you latch it again.  She’s adorned with the remnants of experimental contraptions from days gone by, reminding us all of the time she’s put in with the project. You have to be careful driving her though! While she can pull the Maruti out without any trouble, there is no car in the Serena fleet that can pull KAL out if she gets stuck in the mud!
















The Peanut Gallery
Molly – “I think it's clear that Serena camp is the unloved subordinate cub of the litter and gets all of Talek's reject cars. Sometimes, when the windshield wipers don't quite work, and the headlights won't turn on, and the car doesn't start in the morning, and the rear axle falls out of the hub, I get angry at KAL. Immediately after going on obs in the Maruti, I deeply regret this anger, and feel the need to apologize to KAL, because at least in KAL I've never had to hold a goat head on a stake out the window on the drive back to camp because it didn't fit in the car.”

Heidi – “I'm optimistic about KAL...as it is the car I'm learning to drive in the Mara with! However, I do NOT enjoy jamming my thumb every time to lock the vehicle.  Shouldn't NEW door locks lock without having to pull the handle up at the same time? Bah!”

Kenna – This car was here when I was a bright-eyed and bushy tailed RA, but it was old and decrepit even then.  My scariest car adventure took place with KAL and my visiting boyfriend, Hasan. I was already nervous having him along. I wanted to avoid all the unavoidable disasters and make this the best trip he had ever and would ever go on. I told Hasan that the drive from Nairobi to the Mara "would take 6 hours, as long as nothing goes wrong."   Of course, we ended up with a flat tire and then BOTH of our spares ended up being flat as well.  Shenanigans ensued and our six hour trip turned into a sixteen hour trip.

Wilson – “My favorite old car in Fisi Camp. It acts like a lorry. I like it because it is hard to get stuck in this car.”

The Maruti
Beverage of choice: Petrol

The Maruti is the smallest car in either of the camps. Her tiny little windshield wipers leave something to be desired, the wiring to the reverse lights have been pulled out by hyena cubs many times over, and her finicky clutch can make a three point turn a harrowing experience. Still, she is small and light, making it less likely for her to get stuck in the mud and easier to push her out if she does. Unfortunately, being small has its drawbacks during the wet season when the grass can scrape your elbows if they are hanging out the car window.  Add a lack of power steering and a backseat that isn’t friendly to passengers and you get a car that both inspires love and hate. You will get some very different opinions about this car depending on who you ask.














The Peanut Gallery
Molly – “Going on obs in the Maruti makes me want to throw things. Specifically, to throw things out the window of the Maruti. Two people, recording equipment, ID books, cans of milk powder, and bags of meat, do not fit comfortably in this car. It just gets more uncomfortable the more people you have to add to this equation.”

Eli – “While it may not be the most practical car we have, I am quite the fan of the Maruti. Its refreshing to hope into this spritely little machine after driving the tank-like land cruisers. Just don’t ever try and drive this car with more than two people.”

Tracy – “I love the Maruti because it brings you to the level of the hyenas.  In the Land Cruisers you are always sitting above their heads, but in the Maruti you can look hyenas straight in the eye and really get a feel for how large and powerful they are.”

In Talek Camp:

KAS 830D
Beverage of choice: Diesel

KAS is the oldest car in the Talek fleet and the one that I’ve spent most of my time working in over the years. Like KAL, she is stronger than the newer cars. Unlike KAL, it is hard to find anything bad to say about KAS (but I’m certainly biased!). She is beginning to show her years but is still as dependable as ever.


The Peanut Gallery
Kenna – “This cruiser was also around back in my good ole days when I was an innocent RA, without a care in the world.  Kassy was the newest car we had in camp and she was always there for us, through thick (mud) and thin (mud).  Four years later, she has had some interesting struggles (like oil spewing from the radiator), but she's still going strong and no one crosses waterways better than her!”

Chase – "She drives like a dream...in that sometimes she is a total mess
and explodes oil in the middle of an obs session while other times you
fly across muddy slides called lugga crossings with grace and ease in
her powerful body. She's easy to stall but strong in a fix. Basically,
she's a fickle lady."

Tracy – “KAS served me reliably during my year as an RA, and she is still strong as ever.  My relationship with her started when her alternator broke during an evening den session during my second month here.  I had to crawl out of the car in the dark (with hyenas staring at me!) to try to figure out what was the problem, and ever since then we have had a special bond.  Now that I am back, she is my favorite car to drive around the Mara.”

Benson – “My happiness is when this car is doing alright. KAS 830D or kasi its name

KBR 223P
Beverage of choice: Diesel

KBR is the second newest of the land cruisers and runs as smooth as any car of her age should. She came outfitted with an extra awesome metal pole for attaching the tracking. Unfortunately her modifications left some spaces in the body so it leaks when the rain gets in.



The Peanut Gallery
Eli – “When I left the Mara last, KBR was a brand new pickup truck. After modification she has become the hulking twin of KAS. Together these two beastly green land cruisers get the job done!”

Wilson – “KBR is a very good car, my favorite car in Fisi Camp. But one day, I got stuck in 15 Year Crossing. First I thought KBR was strong enough not to get stuck but I’ve come to realize that it sometimes acts silly.”

KBY 665X
Beverage of choice: Diesel


KBY is the newest of all the vehicles – so new it has not even been modified yet! All Land Cruisers come originally as a pickup truck and then undergo a modification process to become a station wagon with a covered back and two sets of seats.  Although the car runs smoothly, the weight is heavily biased towards the front making for a pretty bumpy ride over the rough Mara roads. On top of all that, the new car is Kay’s baby. Extra precaution is required when driving this vehicle!!


The Peanut Gallery
Agathe – “It’s our newest car but.... For now I strongly dislike it.  It is lighter than the other two Cruisers (KAS is the best!!) meaning it is REALLY bumpy and that hurts (believe me ladies). I still have time to learn to like KBY, and I'm willing to give it another chance. Time will tell!”

Eli – “KBY is the only car in camp that can carry a stuffed lion, which means Kenna, Tracy and I have logged quite a few hours crammed into this tiny cab.”

Wilson – “I like KBY but it is the bumpiest car ever!”

KAH 325F– The Land Rover
Beverage of choice: Petrol

The Rover is the current town car. It spends most of its days in Nairobi and is super helpful for us when we need to run errands in town while the field car is being fixed. This car was originally used by Andy Gersick during his research in Serena camp. The windshield wipers and turn signals are on opposite levers from the other cars, which makes for some pretty funny accidental windshield wiper action while you are driving around town. In fact, all the dashboard functions are in different locations (Unsurprising – it’s a British make).


The Peanut Gallery
Ashlei – “Driving through Nariboi is a nerve-wracking experience for anyone. Add breaking down midway through the roundabout near Crossroads Shopping Center and you’ve created the perfect formula for a full-on panic attack. KAH is cherished by some and despised by others. For now I have a love/hate relationship with this car. It’s far easier to drive in Nairobi than our Cruisers but be prepared for all the interesting and character-building situations this car will put you in.”

Kenna – “I love/hate this car.  When it is working, it is a joy to drive (except when you have a hard time shifting in and out of 4WD).  It's also big enough to do a huge grocery shop yet still small enough to make parking somewhat easier (although the lack of power steering makes that more difficult).  Problem (one of them) is that it's completely unreliable.  My first day in Nairobi this past June, I had to have a mechanic adjust something under the hood to get it to start on my very first errand.  It is also almost always leaking some sort of unknown fluid and because it sits in Nairobi a lot, it's always difficult to know if that puddle under the car developed gradually, one tiny drip a day for the past month, or if it suddenly dropped that puddle in one fell swoop two days before we arrived.  Actually, the more I think about it, the more I hate this car.”


Finally, for all the ex-hyena researchers out there, please share your stories or opinions about the cars in the comments. We would love to hear them!






Michigan State University | College of Natural Science