Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Serena Matriarchs

Now that I've been out here in the Mara at Serena Camp for over four months I’ve started to get a feel for the personality of each clan’s matriarch. Disclaimer: I talk about the hyenas attitudes and feelings in this post which obviously I can only guess at. Though all the events that I talk about in this post are accurate accounts I can't stand by how the hyenas really felt about things. 

From the outside it seems that each matriarch has a very different style of ruling and each clan has their own unique social dynamics. On this side of the park we study three hyena clans: North, South, and Happy Zebra. The camp is located in North territory and we often get North cubs wandering through our camp. Unfortunately they’ve become rather desensitized to us yelling at them (to stop chewing on the car) and they can sometimes get a little too close for comfort.

North is home to the Syrup Rebellion that ended with Waffles as matriarch. Waffles cubs are all named after syrups, hence the name. As a formerly low ranking animal Waffles is (mostly) a very forgiving alpha. I’ve seen her be very friendly with animals of every rank in this clan. Waffles made it to the top with the help of two other low rankers. Unfortunately they have both since disappeared and are presumed dead leaving Waffles alone at the top. RBC, the overthrown matriarch, has also been missing since before I arrived in the Mara. 

Waffles is unusually sweet to the low ranking animals in the clan and we think she remembers that she used to be one of them not too long ago. LCS is the second lowest ranking animal in North clan but she and Waffles maintain a good relationship. Late one evening we spied the matriarch and this low-ranker bristle-tailed, parallel walking together followed by the two of them laying down together and grooming each other’s faces. Bristle-tail parallel walking is a social behavior where two hyenas walk next to each other in step, often sniffing the ground, and is a common sight during border patrols and lion-hyena interactions. It seems to serve to strength the social bond between two hyenas.

South clan’s matriarch is quite the opposite of Waffles. Where Waffles is friendly and forgiving Clovis is old, grouchy, and irritable. We don’t know if Clovis’ mother was the alpha before her but as far as we can tell Clovis is not closely related to the other adult females in the clan. If she were they would be ranked directly below her and her offspring but Clovis is anything but friendly with the second ranker, Slinky, in this clan. (Perhaps it is common for the greatest conflict to take place between closely ranked animals). Last year RAs documented Clovis killing Slinky’s cubs and feeding them to her own cubs.  

Clovis is growing old now and the matriarchy should pass to her daughter Cheese Whiz. Oddly (for hyena society) in addition to hating Slinky, Clovis also hates her daughter. The other RA here, Wes, has told me of Clovis’ frequent and unprovoked aggressions against Whiz. She seems quite determined to prevent either Whiz or Slinky from taking the throne as she grows older. All the other hyenas in the three mara clans seem to have very close mother-daughter relationship and we have no way of knowing what went wrong between Clovis and Whiz. In the months that I’ve been here Clovis has stepped down and seemingly retired her rank as alpha not to Whiz, not to Slinky, but to Java. 

Java was the fourth hyena in line for the matriarchy (behind Whiz, Slinky, and Slinky’s daughter Rasta) but with Clovis taking Java’s side during aggressions Java has risen in rank and is now the new alpha of South clan. Clovis has never been friendly to Java but perhaps her hatred for Slinky is simply greater than her dislike of Java. We have yet to see what kind of leader Java will be, but from what I have seen of her she is a strong and smart hyena and a good mother to her two offspring Sula and Komo.
Happy Zebra clan, named for the lush green grass the zebras so love, is ruled by Pike, a hyena in a very large royal family of fishes. Her mother, the former alpha, was named Koi, and following theme all of her cubs were also given fish names. Pike did have a younger sister (hyena society follows youngest ascendency, all new cubs outrank their older siblings) named Coelacanth but Coelacanth was too young to take over the clan when their mother Koi was killed by lions. Pike also has a litter-mate named Snapper, but the dominance relationship between litter mates is established at a very young age, leaving Pike the clear choice for the matriarchy. 

Pike, though not an old hyena, has already had five cubs and two grandcubs (in addition to one niece). And all but two are female. Since female hyenas will stay in the same clan for their entire life, Happy Zebra clan has a very large royal family that is here to stay. Pike’s sisters, daughters, and niece will support Pike’s matriarchy and make her position at the top extremely secure. Perhaps due to this security Pike is probably the most relaxed of the three Serena alphas. 

Hyenas have a greeting behavior where two hyenas will stand side by side, head to tail, each lift a back leg, and sniff each other’s phallus. This behavior typically happens standing up but when Pike shows up to the den (the focal point of social interactions) she often will lay down, lazily lift up one leg, and let three or more hyenas all sniff her at once. This can be frustrating for us RAs to record because there will sometimes be a ring of animals lifting leg for one hyena while sniffing another hyena (therefore not a greet) with a few cubs thrown into the mix performing submissive behaviors to everyone and no one in particular while Pike basks in the middle. Pike usually arrives with her entourage of sisters and daughters all at once and we will announce to our DVRs that at 06:15 (for example) the royal family has arrived.

Pike sacked out nursing Clay

Pike’s youngest daughter Claymore is my favorite hyena cub. She has a faintly orangish coat color making her easy to identify and she is much larger than the other cubs her age. Clay is extremely spunky and always game for rough housing with her older sisters (and anyone else she cares to play bite regardless of their feelings on the matter). 

Some of the RAs and grad students call her lazy and spoiled (in jest) because she is also the last cub to emerge from the den in the evening but I prefer to think that she is simply tired from all of her play romping. (In this way she has managed to avoid several behavioral trials that a graduate student conducted with the cubs). Clay is getting older now and the other Serena RAs recently saw her mother mating with one of the immigrant males in Happy Zebra clan and we are all looking forward to a new addition or additions to the royal family!


dee said...

Lily that is a wonderful post! i am entering Serena data and it is VERY helpful to me to see photos of the animals I spend so much computer time with. Please post as many pictures as you can! Thanks

dee said...

I just remembered the "best Mom" contest Camille ran three years ago. Check out the post by Camillle 10/6/2010, there are picts of younger Waffles, Pike, and smelly mean old Clovis and some others!

Nora said...

GREAT post! Thanks!

Nora said...

Great post!! The differences between those clans are extremely fascinating and really emphasize the personalities of these matriarchs! I love it! Thank you!!!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science