On the night of 12 April, 2011, the alpha female of the Talek West clan, Murphy, was killed near the den, along with her constant male escort, Fozzie. Murphy had been alpha female since her mother, Bracket Shoulder, died on May 29, 1999.
At that time, Murphy was 3 years old, and the throne by rights should have passed to her younger sister, Carson; that is, spotted hyenas exhibit a monkey-like pattern of youngest ascendancy, in which the youngest offspring comes to outrank its older sibs when the mother takes its side in disputes with the older offspring. However, Carson was only 14 months old when Murphy died, and she was clearly unable to hold her own against Murphy’s greater size and strength without help from her mom. Murphy has reigned unchallenged since then. But on 12 April 2011, it appears that Murphy and Fozzie were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they paid a terrible price.
The Talek West hyenas had been denning at what we call the Plantation Den, which is situated along the north side of the Talek River, inside a small fenced tree plantation managed by local Masai. The Masai living closest to the den reported that lions had killed a zebra that night in the riverbed near the den, and the Masai heard lots of hyena vocalizations, suggesting that the lions and hyenas had engaged in a major fight. The fight might have been over the zebra carcass, or the hyenas may simply have been nervous to have so many lions so close to their den. But in any case Murphy and Fozzie were found dead inside the plantation fence the following morning, each having sustained multiple puncture and slash wounds.
Being somewhat jaded after working here for many years, I initially assumed that Murphy and Fozzie might actually have been killed by local Masai; after all, we have lost multiple other Talek hyenas to spearing by local people inside that same plantation fence over the years. However, the day after Murphy and Fozzie died, my research assistant Brian Lunardi sent our askaris to make inquiries of the Masai who lived nearest the plantation, and the askaris came away from those interviews convinced that lions were the true culprits. Furthermore the pattern of wounding on the bodies of the dead hyenas was most consistent with lion-induced mortality. It is certainly easy to imagine how lions might corner hyenas against the fence, and kill them there. As Murphy and Fozzie were inseparable in recent years, it came as no surprise to find their bodies only 30 meters apart from one another.
During the 12 years of her reign as alpha female, Murphy gave birth to many offspring, all named after gods and goddesses. Her sons (Bacchus, Hermes and many others) have all dispersed to neighboring clans. But surviving her in the Talek West clan are her adult daughters Artemis, Adonis, Morpheus, Pan, Helios, Loki and Juno. When she died, Murphy left a 3-month old cub at the den, but that cub has already vanished. One of Murphy’s youngest adult twin daughters, Loki and Juno, should now inherit the throne. As Juno was the dominant cub within that twin litter, we expect she will become the new alpha female, but we have not yet seen the two sisters interact aggressively since Murphy died, so we don’t know yet what will happen. But in any case, we hope the new queen has a long and successful reign as alpha female.