We live exciting lives, us hyena researchers. Chasing carnivores across the African savanna, witnessing the couple-second transition of an ungulate full of life to an ungulate as an early-morning snack, and getting regular, nighttime visitors in camp (namely hippos, buffalo, and elephants). However, in my opinion, there are few events more exciting than the first glance of a brand new hyena cub.
It all started at the end of September. We had finally re-discovered the active den sites of all three (Serena) clans, and the hyenas were more social than usual. It was an exciting time, especially for me as a new(ish) RA on the project; I finally felt comfortable with a majority of the spot pattern IDs and the daily behavioral data collection. I was learning behaviors, and the hyenas were giving it to me.
Then we started noticing that certain females were acting unusually protective of their dens, typically never going more than a meter or two away from the hole unless it was to chase away other hyenas. We started seeing low-ranking females act aggressively towards higher-ranking females. Unusual, considering the strictly-followed social hierarchy of spotted hyenas.
Finally, I saw my first little black cub. Only 4 weeks old: about a tenth the size of its mother with pure black, velvety fur, bare, stretchy skin under the arms, a thin, wormy-looking tail, and fearful eyes. Who would have thought that such gnarly, tough creatures could start off looking so cute and fragile? (though I think hyenas of ALL ages are cute)
The next day we discovered that this cub had a twin. We showed up at the den and the new mama was nursing not one, but TWO cubs. By the end of the week we discovered 4 more brand new cubs in this clan (Happy Zebra). By the end of the month our other two clans also decided to hop on the baby bandwagon. 3 cubs in North, 2 cubs in South.
I was excited. I got to name some cubs and come up with lineages for new moms. It was fun to watch the cubs grow up and gain their confidence (for the first couple months most cubs will shy away from a blade of grass that blows in the wind). Slowly the cubs went from being all-black to having a dusting of white fur on their faces and foreheads. Eventually, spots started to develop on their shoulders and forelegs. Almost, just barely, enough to start differentiating between the little black fur balls.
Then came the boom. November and December yielded 22 new black cubs. January, 11. Still exciting, but now stressful. 33 more individuals to name, age, sex, and keep track of at the dens. More often than not we would find a batch of unaccounted-for cubs at a den and not learn who the mothers were until days or weeks later (when we finally saw them nursing). As soon as the cubs got old enough I was scrambling to take photos of their one or two shoulder spots just to try and figure out who everybody was. Without nursing information, or having spots to go by, there was virtually no way to confirm the identities of these young cubs.
So I've been busy. I'm trying my best to manage the influx of new hyenas while still discovering more. Just this month I've seen 5 more new cubs, and I'm waiting on at least one more subadult-now-turned-adult female whom I saw with a torn phallus recently (MSTL, for those of you in the know).
We've even had two litters of triplets, a rarity in the hyena world (and the first, for the Serena side): CLOV, the alpha female in South clan, and SILK, a low-ranking female in Happy Zebra clan. We have already, unfortunately, confirmed the death of one of CLOV's cubs, MAYO. It survived to be about 2.5 months old. I have not seen SILK or her cubs in quite a while, so their fate is unknown as of yet.
Otherwise, cub mortality seems to be low. I am only certain of one other disappearance, but I suspect there are 3 more. With the clans' best interests in mind, I hope these cubs live. We are starting to see some of the subadult males less and less, which means they're probably dispersing. I find it hard to believe that our already-small clans are at carrying capacity, so we could use the boost in numbers. With my own self-interests in mind, I REALLY hope these cubs live. I would (will) be devastated to see some of these cubs go, especially after having watched them grow up as if they're my own. They're already showing unique personalities. And they're just cute. See below.