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.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

SOUNDS OF KENYA: Vulture Scramble

In this line of work we see a lot of hyenas on carcasses.  If you stick around long enough, this leads to seeing a TON of vultures on carcasses.  Vultures here have amazing eyesight and are quickly clued in to a carcass by feeding carnivores, loping hyenas, and other vultures.  I have seen over thirty vultures arrive at a hyena den where there is only a small, meatless scrap.  They seemed to appear from out of nowhere, seemingly because they happened to sight other vultures swooping in.  They all waddled around very disappointed in the lack of available meat, but that didn't stop the bravest ones from approaching the den hole and trying to scare the cubs off of their carcass scrap toy.

At most kills, the vultures will fly in and wait patiently on the outskirts for the hyenas to finish.  Once enough hyenas move away from the kill though, they begin sneaking in to grab mouthfuls of meat.  A lone hyena on a kill will futilely attempt to chase the vultures off now and then, but its never long before they are sneaking back in.  Once the last hyena decides they've had their fill (either of meat or chasing vultures) and abandons the carcass, the vultures swarm over it, stripping every last bit of edible meat, tendon, and connective tissue from the carcass bones.

It looks a lot like this, but more frenetic:

And it sounds exactly like this:

Monday, August 11, 2014

Den Woes

Dens are my favorite places to sit at and do observations. I get to watch the cubs play, grow up, and learn. They start out as small funny looking but adorable black cubs who come out of the den so nervously and bob their heads up and down, smelling the air. Over the course of months, these cubs grow into bold, confident, fluffy cubs who strut up to the den and then leave the den whenever they want. They look so full of themselves (like any teenager). Don’t need mom! My favorite stage is when the cubs are still small but are very playful and are no longer worried about coming out of the den. Mom becomes their favorite jungle gym, and the moms are always so patient with them.
Jungle gym!! Hooker with her cubs Thriller and Mim (Man in the Mirror) and a smaller black cub. I couldn't resist putting these two pictures in. 
Thriller sitting on his mom!
But lately we have been having trouble getting to some of our dens… Our North clan has been denning in a cave! This is really cool but impossible to get to. The cave is near the top of a very steep, rocky hill. We can get within about 350m of the cave, and then there are just too many rocks. Our hyenas appear as distant specs, if you can even see them. When we look through our binoculars, we can see multiple adults and cubs of a variety of ages up there but that is about it. We have not seen the small den cubs in over a month. These include Deni (Dennis the Menace), Kath (Kathleen Hanna), Jett (Joan Jett), and Remi (Remington). I cannot wait for them to move dens. Last time we saw those four, Kath was the only one with spots. They are going to be so big and spotty!!! I hope they move soon!
Can you spot the black cub? The cub is just under the entrance to the den. (Photo credits: Emily Thomas)
Since February, our Happy Zebra clan had been at a very large den complex called Tigris Den. About a week and a half ago we showed up in the morning and nobody was there. That had never happened. We knew they must have moved dens, so we started driving the territory looking for a den or any hyenas. We did not see any hyenas anywhere except for one place. We were on one track and we could see them in the distance on a hill frolicking. The problem was we were separated by a large rock field and a lugga, a swampy area that was impassable. We have since been working on finding a track that might lead to this area and then figuring out the best areas to off-road drive in order to get to this particular hill and valley. We did it!! Unfortunately, we have still not been able to find the den. The four foot tall grass has been a major issue… , but we are happy that we are seeing hyenas.
We have seen them on the hill to the left and right and in the valley between the two hills. 
South clan is being the good clan at the moment and we are very thankful to them! They are all at this one lovely den called Artemis Den. Well, until a few weeks ago, I might not have called it lovely. It is surrounded by tall grass which the hyenas can easily slip into and become hard to find, but we can get to it!! And the wildebeest have been helpful in shortening the grass. It is wonderful to go to the den and see all the cubs. South has a large range of cubs of different ages. There are small cubs who we have not even seen yet. We just know they are there because their mom, Marten, is guarding this one den hole. Slinky’s cub has just started coming out of the den hole and is completely black. There are cubs that are just getting their spots (Gnug and Snug) and are starting to get really curious about the car. There are larger cubs (Reina and Four Eyes) who still live at the den and the largest cubs who we barely see at the den any more. It is a busy den!

Hopefully, our Northies move to a more accessible den soon and we will find the Happy Zebra den, so we can go to a den every time we go out!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Aardwolf Adventures!

Hello! My name is Molly and, as one of the new RAs, I will be spending the next year in Serena camp. Like most recent college graduates, until now my attention span has been kept quite short by semesters and summer jobs; I’ve never spent a whole year in one place doing one thing before! It’s become very clear, however, that field research in the Mara is not going to get boring anytime soon!

My first night driving on obs, we were waved down by a car and told that there was a dead hyena in a tree off the road. When we arrived at the tree we realized it was not a spotted hyena, but an aardwolf. Aardwolves are the smallest, and only insectivorous, member of the hyena family. They are nocturnal and are solitary foragers; sightings of them far rarer than sightings of our spotted hyenas. (You can read about Julie’s latest encounter and see pictures of a live aardwolf here!). A leopard probably made the kill and then stashed the aardwolf in the tree for a snack later.

The aardwolf in its tree
            After locating the aardwolf and tree we had a bigger challenge; figuring out how get it down. This involved driving the car under the tree and trying to poke the aardwolf down with branches.

Emily trying to get the aardwolf down!
              When Emily and Dave finally succeeded, we collected the head and brought it back to camp with us. Because aardwolves almost exclusively eat harvester termites, their teeth and skulls are adapted to a completely different diet than those of spotted hyenas and are an interesting comparison. Of course, as we started to drive home the headlights on our Land Cruiser decided to stop working, and we drove back to camp holding flashlights out the window to light the way. 

             In camp we took a several tissue sample from the ears and from the temporalis muscle, deep in the cheek, for DNA analysis. We wrapped the head up in a plastic bag, put it in the lab tent, and went to bed, tired after a long obs session. 

Maggie, Dave, and I removing the skin from the skull to get a tissue sample
Maggie preparing to take a sample from the temporalis muscle

Maggie getting the sample!

              The next day, however, our carefully secured head was totally gone! We think a genet (a nocturnal animal related to cats) that hangs out around camp managed to sneak into the lab tent and steal it from us, so we were hoping the skull would turn up around camp once the genet was done with it. Unfortunately we haven’t found it yet, but at least we got some samples before it disappeared!

Thanks to Yabanci TV from Turkey for telling us about the aardwolf! They will be releasing an episode about spotted hyenas, featuring our Happy Zebra hyenas and several Serena Camp researchers, this fall­­!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Cubs, Moms, and Fur

An obs session that starts with two little black figures poking out from the den usually means new cubs spotted in the Talek West clan! With new cubs come new tasks for the researchers here at Fisi camp. Not only do we have to identify the mother of the cubs; we also are presented with the task of aging them. The pattern and visibility of spots on a hyena is not only helpful when it comes to identifying an individual but it’s also a great tool for estimating age. With each new cub comes a puzzle, and as researchers we must put the pieces together in order to solve the mysteries of motherhood and age.

Determining the mother of a cub can be a more tedious process than one would think. Since we do not observe the adult females giving birth we use the act of nursing as a “maternity test”. When we see a cub nursing from a female, we can usually conclude that that female is the mother. Although there have been instances of a cub nursing from two different females it has not been observed very often.  This situation however can make this process even more daunting. When a cub is first seen above ground we aim to see the cub nursing a couple of times from the same female to have some certainty of the identity of the mother.

Now onto the subject of aging, when hyenas are first born they are all black and no spots are visible. The age at which we first see a new hyena cub however ranges. Some adult females, especially those who are lower ranking will not bring their cubs to the communal den until they are a couple of months old. The features of a hyena’s fur change significantly within the first few months. In order to age cubs we use a few key characteristics found on their bodies.

Here are a few stages:

A cub that is all black and seen above ground near the den can be 3 to 4 weeks old.

In the next stage, the cubs begin to develop white rings around their eyes, which eventually leads to the development of white eyebrows and faces. The white rings begin to appear at about 4 to 5 weeks old and white eyebrows and faces at 5-6 weeks.

Another section of the body that we use to denote age is the shoulder. Spots begin to emerge on the shoulders at 3- 3 ½ months. The white face is also still present at this stage.

As the hyena cub gets older more spots begin to appear. Instead of just seeing spots on the shoulder there are also spots along its sides and back. The legs of the cubs however may remain black. The fur is also short. If a cub has these characteristics it would be put in the age range of 4-7 months.

At around 8-9 months, the cub’s fur becomes fluffy and long also known as den graduation fur.  The cub begins to molt (the transition from short fur to long fluffy fur). These are some of the last characteristics we use to determine age.  

After determining what stage the hyena is in, we count backwards to determine its birthdate. For example, if it was December 10th and we saw a hyena for the first time with a white face and spots on the shoulder we would count back three months and give it a birthday of October 10th.  Age is not only important in determining the birthdate of a hyena but it also gives us clues as to when a hyena should be graduating the den, dispersing, or having a litter of their own. While new cubs at the den create a new mystery for the researchers solve it also brings excitement and cuteness to the den.

Try and age the hyenas below! Come back to the blog for my next post to see if your estimates were correct.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Less than glorious introduction of a grad student who finally escaped the lab

Hello all,

My name is Sarah, and I’m a graduate student who will be in the field this summer and fall. I am usually in the lab working with all the lovely poop and blood samples that come from the hyenas out here in the Masaai Mara, but I have escaped the flourescent lighting and pipettes to spend some quality time with my study animals! 

My research focuses on the biological basis of individual and sex differences in aggressive behavior. (In other words: what is going on in your body that makes you want to fight your friends and family to the death for that last cupcake...or last piece of wildebeest flesh, if you’re a hyena?  And why might one sex resolve the situation with some well placed glares while the other draws blood?) You might already know female hyenas are more aggressive than male hyenas, which is unusual for mammals. We also see a wide variation in aggressive behavior between individual hyenas, with some generally being brattier than others. I’m trying to understand which processes in the body and brain cause some individuals to be more aggressive than others.

(Eg. What is going on in this girl's brain that makes her such a punk??? Photo by Kate Shaw)

       As hyenas get older, their social rank (which is inherited from mom) primarily determines how much aggression they exhibit. Low ranking animals risk injury if they attack a higher ranking animal because other hyenas will side with the higher ranking hyena in the dispute. 

(Two higher ranking hyenas gang up against a bigger, but subordinate hyena. Photo by Kate Shaw)

I want to measure aggression before the hyenas know any better, so I will be observing cubs that haven’t learned their ranks completely. This way I’ll be looking at behavior that is reflective of biological (ie. innate/natural) differences in aggressiveness and competitive ability. Later, I can go back to the lab and measure chemicals (such as hormones like testosterone) in their blood and poop to see if it correlates to their aggression levels.

(Cub fights are exciting because they show how aggressive cubs are before their rank influences their behavior too much. Photo by Kate Shaw)

While I’m in Kenya, I will set up situations in which the cub’s competitive sides can shine. This should be easy. All I have to do is present them with something they find tasty. Then, I sit back and watch adorable hyena cubs tussle over the treat.

Disclaimer: The sort of fighting we’ll see with the cubs is normal, and most of the aggression consists of threats (like a human glare) and chasing. The worst thing that happens is a cub gets scared enough that it will stop trying to get powdered milk. They won’t be competing more than they would normally. They’ll just be competing in front of me!

The set up for my experiment is as follows:
Step 1: Turn cubs into snack junkies

This one was easy. Cubs looooove powdered milk, so I’ve been merrily dumping it out of the car at dens where they can lick it up to their heart’s content. We want every animal to recognize and be excited about the powdered milk, so when we start the real science, they all want to fight over some milk.

(Cub with powdered milk)

(Cubs waiting for delicious milk to start falling out of the car)

Step 2: Find a good situation for the experiment

I’m going to need multiple cubs present to fight over the milk, and none of their mothers. A cub might be braver and more aggressive if they know their mamma is there to back them up.

Seems simple enough right?

Nope! This is usually what I find when I go to dens in search of motherless cubs:


Or everyone’s mom is here (the big furry blobs are moms)...

(So unhelpful)

Curse hyenas and their excellent mothering skills!

But still, with enough patience we finally found the perfect situation - lots of cubs hanging around the communal den without a mamma in sight! Perfection.
So, onto step 3.

Step 3: Put out the milk near the den.

Here I put the milk in an area the size of a medium suitcase. This is a small enough area that an ambitious cub will think it’s possible to hog all the milk, but large enough to make guarding the food a very difficult task. I can then watch the fights that ensue between the little junkies and test how well they compete for a valued resource.

Success! (The powdered milk is in the white stuff in the front center.)

Step 4: Sit back and watch the cubs compete over the milk

So now its simple, right? I put out the milk powder, it’s a great situation, and I have a bunch of little junkies. Well, apparently not because I sat at the den for 2 hours watching cubs run in and out of the den hole, romp around with each other and nap, and not ONE of them noticed the milk powder which was RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEM.


(Get your act together and find the milk, you darn cub)

In the words of my surprisingly-wise-at-times older sister (also a scientist), “If it was supposed to work the first time, they wouldn’t call it REsearch. They would call it search.” With that comforting thought in mind, I will keep toting powdered milk around in the hope that the hyenas start to feel more accommodating.

In the meantime, I had lots of time to take absurdly cute photos of the little punks ignoring the milk. Enjoy! 

P.S. Since I wrote this out, I've gotten a couple trials. Yay! Soon I will tell you all about it.)

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science