Friday, July 31, 2009

NSS Episode Three: Moving Day

In a land where Elf (the dominant female) is queen, and clashes with lions are the norm, we bring you a clan. Located between the beautiful Oz Valley and the famous Mara River, this is where the drama unfolds. Known to many as “fisi,” we just call them “North.”

This is the North Side Story.

Episode 3: “Moving Day”

All of the fan mail, post cards, and requests for autographs have really gotten to our cast members of the North Side Story. Just the other day, they decided that the current den they were living in was not receiving the spotlight as well as it should have.

Abandoned den with new resident mongoose.

Thus, they moved to a den that would garner just a little more attention.

Ok, they moved to a den that would encourage a whole new fan base. They moved to a den that is right off the main road near Serena Lodge. Now every tourist, visitor, and guest of the Mara Conservancy can’t go a single day without acknowledging our new blog-stars.

New den just off the main road.

My guess is next week we’ll see them on MTV-cribs. Hopefully they’ll make sure to clean up nicely before the film crews arrive.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Courtship -- hyena style

Although it is perfectly clear that adult male spotted hyenas are sexually interested in adult females who might be getting ready to mate, it is equally clear that males experience rather dramatic emotional conflicts during courtship.

On the one hand, a male hyena wants to mate with the female, and for this he obviously needs to remain in close proximity to her, but on the other hand he clearly fears biting attacks by the female, and this appears to make him want to keep a safe distance from her. Thus courtship interactions in this species are therefore characterized by extreme male ambivalence. They are also characterized by apparent indifference on the part of the female, who generally seems to ignore the male’s courtship gestures altogether.

The other day I watched the male (standing) in the pictures at right expressing very strong sexual interest in a female dozing near the den. He would repeatedly tiptoe up to her while she napped, but as soon as she lifted her head (even if she was not even orienting toward him), he would dash out of range of her jaws. You can see from his posture, with his front foot elevated, that he was always ready to flee even as he approached the female.

You can also see how aroused he was, because he was sporting a phallic erection that actually flipped up against his belly. He engaged over and over in this sequence of behaviors, in what we call an “approach-avoid” display. Obviously male spotted hyenas must overcome a very unusual set of motivational challenges in order to court large, aggressive, well-armed females.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Hyena watching in the western Mara

Just over one year ago, we set up a new carnivore monitoring station and research camp in the western part of the Masai Mara National Reserve. Here are some shots I took this week of the camp as it is now (complete with resident wart hogs foraging among our tents), and one of Dave and Jeff out on morning "Obs" parked (in our one good car!) at the den of the Serena North clan.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Car woes

Here's a dilemma: as two of our 4-wheel drive bush vehicles are REALLY on their last legs these days, awhile back I asked our program officer at the National Science Foundation, the federal agency that supports most of our hyena work, whether we might be able to get a supplement to our current grant large enough to allow us to replace one of our ancient decrepit cars with a new one. The program officer wrote back today to say that they can give us some money toward a new car, but that all they have available right now is $15,000. Well, that's problematic because we need about three times that much to purchase a car that can hold up under bush conditions. And since our university, like most universities these days, is in the midst of a financial crisis, I figured I might as well ask the readers of this blog whether they have any ideas how we might raise the funds to supplement those NSF is offering us right now. The rub is that, if we don't figure out how to supplement the NSF offer by 15 July, we are likely to lose even the $15,000 they are offering us right now. Unfortunately at this point, that's probably the likeliest scenario.

Why do we need a new car so badly? Well, because once you leave the major cities, most roads here are pitted with ruts and potholes so deep that driving into one at any speed higher than about 10 mph can break your axle. And those roads beat cars up pretty badly over time. Two of our current cars (see photo) are so old that they now cost us a fortune to keep running. I bought one of them in 1995 and the other in 1999. That means parts for those cars are not only expensive, but also hard to find. Although we do weekly maintenance and small repairs on all our vehicles, these old cars keep breaking down with problems so severe that we can't fix them ourselves. To get your car towed from the remote Kenyan bush back to Nairobi costs us $500 each time it happens. And these cars are so old that this is happening a lot these days. The other day we broke down near our striped hyena study site in Shompole and had to be towed all the way back to the capital. That took all day and cost 29,000 Kenya shillings! Most importantly, because we study larege carnivores that would find any of us to be a delicious suppertime treat, we need to monitor them from inside cars, and those cars really need to work well!

So, if you miraculously happen to have some cash lying around that you want to donate to a good cause, please consider giving it to us (and soon!) so we can avoid losing the NSF funds and get ourselves a car that will allow us to do our work without having to spend endless hours diagnosing car problems every day.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Giving birth though a soda straw: ouch!!

One of the most mysterious and bizarre characteristics of the spotted hyena is the heavily masculinized genitalia of the female. Here you can see adult female Gucchi (wearing the radio collar) investigating the genitalia of adult female Carter (who has her butt toward the camera and her tail raised) during a greeting ceremony at the den (that's Gucchi's cub, Alfredo, scratching himself while his mom greets). Notice that Carter has a male-like pseudoscrotum and a male-like phallus. It is not known why female spotted hyenas sport such unusual genitalia. However, one of the most amazing things about all this, in my opinion, is that the female is obliged to give birth through that narrow tube. Cubs weigh just over two pounds at birth, so imagine introducing a baby that size to the world via that route. It has GOT to hurt! In fact, the female's pseudopenis tears when she bears her first litter, and this natural episiotomy leaves a neat strip of pink scar tissue on the posterior surface (see blow-up). Thus, even if her first cubs die before we can ever see them, we can tell that a young adult female has given birth based on the presence of that scar tissue.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science