Saturday, November 3, 2012
The month of October consisted of a healthy amount of rain. There were quite a few times where we couldn't go out due to the rain, but nothing like this. I think in the last 3 days, we've gone out for a total of 45 minutes. I never thought I would get bored of sleeping in, but it has happened. So what have we been doing to pass the time? Lots of reading, and I know Dave and Julia have been doing work on their own research, but I think that I speak on behalf of the group here when I say that the climax of the days events is when we put aside all personal endeavors and break out the game of games - Settlers of Catan. Its a board game consisting of building roads and cities, trading resources, and teaming up against the person who is winning (aka Dave). They told me it was addicting when they taught me how to play... and they were right. Even now, as I'm sitting here writing this blog, I'm praying that Dave and Julia put aside their real people work for an hour and so that I can get my fix.
Its all made worse by the fact that I haven't even won a game yet. Hopefully that changes soon, or the month of November is going to be overcast in more than one way.
Sunday, September 23, 2012
Look, I get it. You're huge. So huge in fact, that you can stop traffic and prevent cars like my own from going a certain way.
That's OK, I'm familiar with your ways. In fact when training new researchers on driving through roundabouts in Nairobi, I always say, "cars in the roundabout always have the right of way, unless they're bigger than you." Same rules must apply in the Mara too, I guess.
At any rate, I'm glad to see you're back in the Mara after your exodus to avoid the migration.
Thursday, August 2, 2012
In memory of Target, Dee sent me a picture of Target dressed in MSU hyena research swag, and Kay’s jacket. Thank you, Target, for braving all the crazy hyenas who try to attack your face.
But now we have Junior, who is in much better shape.
Unfortunately, recently the hyenas have been pretty quiet, so I haven’t had many opportunities to throw Junior out into the wild. This is the nature of field work; the animals don’t always do what you want them to.
Since Junior has arrived, he has seen some action, but luckily nothing like what Target saw. This morning, I had a near heart attack though, when Artemis bolted at Junior. Flashing through my head was, “Oh my gosh, how do I rescue Junior?!? Artemis is running so fast! AAAAH!” Luckily for Junior and me, she stopped abruptly about 10m away from Junior.
Since I am about to leave for the summer, this is probably one of Junior’s last outings until I am back next year or someone else has a good idea for Junior to do.
Friday, July 20, 2012
But the road from watching a hyena poop to having usable data is a long one. This spring, before heading out to the Mara for my two-year field season, fellow grad student Sarah Jones and I packed up about 550 hyena fecal samples and headed to the University of Nebraska to see what our hyenas’ various bowel movements over the past six years or so could tell us. Sarah was analyzing samples for androgen levels (a class of hormones including testosterone). I analyzed samples for corticosterone – a main mammalian stress hormone.
After our precious cargo made it safely to Omaha (driving around with a back seat full of coolers of valuable poop is a bit unnerving), we learned from endocrine god Dr. Jeff French how to transform our stinky poop samples into PhD gold. Dr. French normally spends his time exploring the connections between hormones and behavior in marmoset monkeys and humans but takes a break every few years to help us process these more exotic poops transported all the way from the wilds of Africa.
Before even doing hormone assays to determine the concentrations of hormones in our samples, we first had to extract the hormone from the feces. This proved the most labor-intensive part of the whole process and amounted to about five days of thawing poop, weighing poop, heating poop, drying poop, grinding poop with a mortar and pestle, picking hairs out of poop, and…weighing it again. The goal is to get a pure sample of dried feces that, when combined in a known mass with a known volume of liquid, will give us a homogenous solution of hormones. Here are some of the steps we went through to turn hyena diarrhea into some pretty science-y looking tubes of extracted hormone…
In the beginning, this process was super cool to me. Five years after some hyena ate a zebra, here I was sitting in Nebraska seeing all those tiny black and white hairs in its poop and picking them out with the attention of a surgeon. But after doing this for more or less 12 hours a day, Sarah and I were starting to think our morning coffee grounds looked like poop (and wow, so perfectly mortared-and-pesteled!) and had the urge to weigh out a perfect .2 grams of that pepper before adding it our pasta. We were ready to reach the end of the extracting phase….
Voila! We do some chemistry and centrifuging magic with those dried samples and here’s that solution of hormones on the left. The rest of the stuff in our sample – all the stuff we don’t want – remains in the tube on the right.
After using some more fancy science tools that us field biologists don’t usually lay our hands on, like this multi-channel pipetter on the left, we are left with our final extracted product on the right. I swear, these little holders filled with just the precise quantity of yellowish sample, perfectly in solution, looked more beautiful than liquid gold. Now, on to the exciting part…finding out the concentration of corticosterone in each of those little tubes. This will help us determine how a hyena’s stress level is shaped by ecological, social, and physiological factors, as well as conservation management decisions.
And for this, us field folk get to feel even more like real, honest-to-god scientists by utilizing the properties of radioactive substances. We add an antibody to our extracted hormone as well as corticosterone tagged with a radioactive Iodine tracer. What this amounts to in the lab is adding various brightly-colored radioactive liquids to our precious tubes of extracted hormone in specific timed succession, giving us pretty test-tube racks like this…
Then, the hormone in our sample and this radioactive antigen compete for binding sights on the antibody. This is one of the highlights of the process because as the magic of “competitive binding” occurs within each of these tubes, you get to take a 2-hr break from pipetting and go grab some lunch. When you return, chemistry magic has happened… and I have never been this excited about basic chemistry principles in my life. We can then add another brightly colored liquid to our tubes to separate the radioactive-labeled hormone that has bound to the antibody from the hormone that has not. After adding this precipitant and centrifuging our tubes, we’ve successfully completed this separation.
And finally comes the most nerve-wracking step of the entire procedure…decanting. Imagine, after spending days extracting the hormones, and then many hours carefully pipetting small amounts of somewhat dangerous substances in and out of small containers, you manage to get each of these precious tubes safely in and out of the massive centrifuge. You’ve also managed to not spill anything and are trying not to think about just how much each of these little tubes actually costs if you were to sum up the price of all the different liquids you’ve added. Now comes the time when you put these tubes in a special holder, turn them upside down, and literally pour all the fancy chemicals you’ve added down the drain. For me, this was the most stressful step in the process. I always had a mental flash of all those valuable tubes crashing into the sink and having to start the whole thing over again!
...but not everything goes down the drain. What we are left with is a small pellet in each tube that can be read in a Gamma Counter to measure the amount of radioactivity. The higher the radioactivity, the more the radioactive hormone won out in our competitive binding battle and the less corticosterone there actually is in our fecal sample. By comparing our samples with various solutions of known standard concentration, we can determine precisely the amount of stress hormone in each of our samples.
In the coming months, we will be using these new data to address several questions in addition to the hypothesis that spotted hyenas can serve as an "indicator species" for the Mara ecosystem. For example, I will be asking whether hyenas living in areas within the Mara with different management strategies show different stress profiles. I will also be looking at the behavioral, physiological, and demographic consequences of maternal stress for mother-offspring relations and cub development. As these questions form the heart of my PhD research, you'll hear more about them in future blog posts...
My first foray into endocrine lab work would not have been possible without the help of the French Lab. Thanks to Dr. French for opening his doors to smelly hyena poop samples and all his guidance. Also, thanks to undergrad Benjamin Hochfelder in the French lab. Can you believe Ben came in on a weekend to help us grind and weigh poop!? Finally, Sarah and I want to give a huge thank you to Drew Bernie. Drew’s title is “lab tech” but his endless help and trouble-shooting abilities during our stay in Omaha quickly earned him the nickname “Superman.” Drew turned me from a pipette-naïve hyena watcher into an assay-machine and seemed to be able to put out any fire that Sarah and I started. Thanks, Drew!
Left: undergrad-extraordinaire Ben Hochfelder
Right: Drew didn’t want a commemorative photograph taken, but this picture pretty much sums him up.
Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Like REALLY tall. Upwards of six feet in some places.
Luckily, The Mara Conservancy has cut the grass on tracks in preparation for the high season and flood of tourists. Unfortunately in a small car like the Maruti, our car wanted to bring some back from the bush as a souvenir for camp!
Wednesday, July 4, 2012
Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Alfredo and Target
Most hyenas who have seen Target will notice it, try to get downwind of it to smell it, maybe head bob to it, and leave. There are a few variations to this pattern, but we think that the hyenas eventually realize that Target is not a hyena as they get closer.
A couple days ago, I saw the two most extreme responses yet.
In the morning, we showed Target to Blue, an adult female. She is relatively high ranking. Blue was very upset by Target. We had placed Target in the road she was going down, and once she saw Target, she stopped dead. Slowly, Blue got a little closer to Target. By the time she was barely 30m away from Target, she turned around, walked over 100m away, walked around Target putting our car between her and Target, then continued down the road. Blue didn’t really even bother to try to sniff out what it was; she just avoided it.
In the evening, we were lucky enough to find another test subject. It was Morpheus, a higher ranking female than Blue. Morpheus saw Target, stopped briefly to stare at it, then walked straight up to it. She was the first hyena I have seen to touch Target. If someone goes close, they’re still usually about 5m away. Morpheus was walking circles around Target, sniffing and licking it. All the sudden, she stopped abruptly and walked off, and we realized that her younger sister, Pan, was coming straight at Target with another older sister, Adonis, hanging back about 80m. For the second time ever, we watched a hyena walk straight up to Target and start sniffing and licking her. Next thing we knew, Pan had grabbed Target’s tail, dragged her a couple meters, and knocked her off her stand. Adonis started to approach from where she was hanging back with her daughter, Grape Escape, at this time, and Pan started to drag Target into the grass. This series of events all happened very quickly, and once Pan started taking Target into the grass, we stopped the session immediately to go save Target.
Unfortunately, we were a bit too late. Within the 30 seconds it took to drive to where they were, Pan had bitten a few bites out of Target’s rump, detached its head (which is meant to slide off), and bitten off about half of her nose. Poor Target. One of the weird things is that the parts that were bitten are the exact places hyenas would attack an intruder. So maybe they think Target is a hyena, or at least enough hyena-like, longer than we had thought. Or this could just be the case for these high ranking and bold sisters.
Target’s injuries, with Jenna looking shocked and worried in the background
Ian (one of the IRES students) and me with Target in the beautiful Hilux
Thursday, June 28, 2012
Take a look at these fine researchers and staff sporting the new t-shirts!
Saturday, June 9, 2012
Here's Jenna babysitting an immobilized hyena en route to our "recovery bush."
Wednesday, May 2, 2012
|As a reference, the lion front paw is as big as a female hand with the fingers stretched out!|
Friday, April 27, 2012
Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Friday, April 20, 2012
|Impending doom over camp as I left Happy Zebra den|
My first week alone also included not only my first, but also my second time watching a bunch of hyenas on a kill! Obviously I was quite overwhelmed, especially since the second kill ended up being a different hyena clan than the ones we study, which explained my complete lack of recognition of any hyena! During the first kill, I witnessed Clovis (she seems to be a recurring them in my posts) drag an impala carcass into a mostly dry riverbed (called a lugga in Kenya, after many frustrating attempts to discover the meaning of this word) and then remove it a few minutes later. Intrigued by this behavior I did a little research. Apparently, the intelligent hyenas have discovered that if they cache their food in water, terrestrial predators cannot smell it, nor would they even think to search for it in water. Hyenas also seem to only cache food in small water bodies, not in crocodile-infested waters where they would quickly lose their meal. In March, after seeing a hyena swim across the low-level Mara River, we also discovered that not only can they swim, but they can dive and catch fish as well! These hyenas never cease to amaze us!
|Clovis with an impala (dead, obviously)|
Lastly, if any former Fisi campers or blog followers recognize this snake and can confirm that it's not dangerous, that would be very much appreciated considering it is climbing my tent pole in the photo! It was between 1-1.5m long, green scales with black skin underneath, yellow belly, excellent tree climber (slithered straight up the trunk!), and occasionally puffed up its neck like a long balloon, when threatened.
Even during the rainy season, the Mara still manages to entertain!
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
It’s been awhile so I’ll start with an update on our hyenas here at Serena Camp. First, both here and at Talek Camp, we witnessed a rare event of hyena infanticide! In our South Clan, the dominant female, Clovis (CLOV), had recently had only 1 new cub, Nali. Clovis’ second-ranked sister, Slinky, had just had 2 cubs, Rastapopulos (RAST) and Makuta (MAKU). Well this did not sit well with Clovis, who waited until a day when Slinky had left her cubs unattended at the den, and then she killed Makuta as he/she was playing with Rastapopulos and Nali! Nothing goes to waste among hyenas though, and Clovis fed the dead cub to her older subadult cubs, Ranch and Cheese Whiz. Within 10 minutes, there was nothing left of poor Makuta, but Clovis fulfilled her role as dominant female and loving mother quite well! They have since moved their den and are split between 2 new dens, making our jobs very difficult. One den is surrounded by bushes and a semi-dry riverbed. The other is on the opposite side of the riverbed and surrounded by a field of various-sized rocks, making it impossible to get closer than 100 meters and aptly named by Noémie as Nightmare Den.
In Happy Zebra clan, we have an overwhelming amount of cuteness at their den, with 13 cubs (theoretically, although 2 have not been seen in at least a month) play romping around and occasionally forming an indistinguishable pile of fur on chilly mornings. As exasperating as it can get, trying to ID and keep track of all the interactions between these cubs and other hyenas at the den, they make up for it in adorable moments.
In North clan, we have had some interesting interactions, indicative of a rank reversal. Three rough-looking lower-ranking females (Peepers, Waffles, and Eleanor) banded together and chased away the dominant female (RBC). In subsequent observations, RBC has displayed submissive behaviors (ears back, giggling, presenting her rear for inspection, being chased) to most of the other hyenas and their cubs, as though she has fallen from the top to near the bottom of the hierarchy. Many of the North hyenas are in pretty bad shape right now after an alleged bout with lions over a hippo carcass. Hooker is slowly regaining use of her left eye and has gained weight after looking frighteningly anorexic. Many hyenas had open gashes, bad limps, and puncture wounds, but they are healing quickly by human standards!
We were also fortunate enough to see 3 cheetah cubs at 8 weeks old with their mother and hear the famous cheetah chirp! However, the following week, the Mara Conservancy manager, Brian Heath, alerted us that the cubs’ mother was missing (probably killed by lions). We were privileged enough to accompany him and the rangers as they captured the 3 cubs. They are currently residing in an enclosure in Brian’s camp. The Mara has had bad luck with cheetahs since 2008, when the wildebeest migration brought a bad case of mange here that reduced the cheetah population by almost half. The Mara has not had a litter of cheetah cubs survive to adulthood in over 2 years, which makes these 3 cubs’ lives very important to the future of cheetahs here! Thankfully they will be guaranteed food and safety until they reach adulthood and can be released back into the reserve.
I am a bit of a cheetah fanatic so I apologize in advance if I become more focused on cheetahs than hyenas in the future, but I will try my best!
Noémie and I are also inadvertently becoming learned mechanics. We have yet to go a week without some sort of issue arising with either of our vehicles and have had to employ a hydraulic jack on several occasions, even before leaving Nairobi to come to the Mara! We have also spent some of our free time attempting to learn Swahili from the Masai men who help keep camp in order: Moses, Philimon, and George. It’s more impressive coming from Noémie, who is from Switzerland so she translates between French, English, and Swahili! As they say in Swahili, tuna jifunza pole pole (we are learning slowly, slowly).
Among the more memorable of our many nightly adventures, Noémie had a giraffe trip over a guy line of her tent one night and almost take the whole thing with it. We have had hippo and buffalo wars waged in the bush surrounding camp, elephants grumbling their disapproval of our campfire one night, lions mating on the plains in front of camp (and keeping us awake all night!) and rabbits racing for their lives from hyenas and genets but not succeeding as evidenced by clumps of rabbit fur the next morning.
We’ll try to keep contributing updates to the blog! Thank you for your patience, it was a steep learning curve in the beginning but we’re finally getting into as nice a routine as Africa will let us!