Tuesday, September 17, 2013

At least it's just the seal...

Leaks under the car are always a place for concern. Luckily, this time, it's only the seal that needs to be replaced.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A scary reminder

A post by Kay Holekamp. Photo courtesy of David S Green.

I stayed in from afternoon obs yesterday to work on the talks I must give in India next week. At 7 pm, I realized I had been sitting at my computer non-stop since 10am, and that my back was hurting from sitting so long in my awful desk chair, so I decided to lie down on my bed to read until my students and RAs returned from obs. I had slept badly the night before, so I soon dozed off, but I awoke shortly after 8pm when I heard a car drive into camp. I worried that I might be keeping everyone waiting for dinner, so still very groggy from my nap, I got a torch, grabbed the pile of stuff I had assembled to take to the lab tent, shut up my tent, and headed down the path toward the kitchen. I was halfway there when I heard bushes rustling violently in the 5-meter wide space between my path and the river, and then heard what sounded like galloping horses right beside me. I aimed my torch down the path just as a big bull buffalo came crashing out of the bushes about 10 meters in front of me and went charging off to my right. We had seen two buffalos grazing in camp two nights earlier, so I should have been paying more attention, and proceeding down the path much more cautiously, than I did last night. Knowing there must be a second buffalo and hearing more thundering hooves beside me, I turned around and started running back to my tent, my arms still full of papers and flash drives, when the second buffalo now crashed through the bushes and crossed the path right in front of me. He was so close that I threw down all the stuff I was carrying (sure glad I wasn’t carrying my laptop!) and tried to run back toward the lab tent in case he decided to come after me, but I promptly tripped on a root and fell down. Luckily the buffalos were both as freaked out by this encounter as I was because, down on the ground like that, I would have been very easy for either or both of them to squash. Happily for me, they both ran off into the night. Our Masai night watchman, Lusingo, came racing over from the camp driveway to where I had fallen, thinking perhaps I’d been gored. He was clearly as frightened as I was!  The Masai have a VERY healthy respect for buffalos, which among all African animals, are tied only with crocodiles and hippos for killing and maiming the most humans! But after Lusingo helped me collect all my papers and flash drives from the dusty path, he scolded me for not shining my torch around laterally as I was heading down the path, and he was absolutely right. I was very foolish, and as a result, got a major scare that I won’t soon forget! I was lucky this time, but the next buffalo I encounter on my path might not be so forgiving of my stupidity. At the dinner table, I told my students what had happened, and I can only hope that they will learn from my mistake so they don’t make it themselves.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Ratchet enjoying a good back scratch...

Ratchet is the lowest ranking natal male in North clan, but he enjoys coming to the den to visit the cubs and have a good roll in the dirt of course! Emily and I were impressed with his good balance.

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!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Hyenas in a Haystack

By Emily Thorne, IRES 2013

Emily T., Emily B., and Moira with Digs.

I always figured one day I would come face to face with some large and scary carnivore, but had you asked me a few months ago I never would have thought it would be a wild adult female hyena. Moreover, I couldn’t begin to imagine that I would be in the back of a moving Land Cruiser straddling this hyena, keeping her safe as she started to wake up, while trying not to let myself get thrown around with every bump and dip in the road that threatened to send me flying. If you asked me today I would tell you I couldn’t wait to do it again.

Hyena research has its exciting and unbelievable moments, no doubt, but it also requires a lot of time and an incredible amount of patience. Some of the hyenas being studied here in the Mara have been fitted with GPS and VHF collars that provide the researchers with valuable data about where the hyenas are located, allow the hyenas to be tracked using radio telemetry equipment, and even record the temperature. Once the hyenas are wearing their new high-tech accessories they can usually be found much easier and may lead us to a few collarless hyenas they happen to be hanging around with. The difficulty lies in finding the hyena and putting the collar on in the first place.

Since we arrived in Serena, Dave has been on a mission to find and collar one particular hyena in the Serena North clan: Sauer, the lowest ranking of the high ranking females. A female spotted hyena’s rank in the social hierarchy is inherited from her mother. For this project the hierarchy was divided into equal thirds (high, medium, and low) and a few high and low ranking females from three clans were selected to receive a GPS collar. We spent several mornings driving around the entire North territory in search of a needle in a haystack. Sauer’s cubs were no longer den-dependent so she could be anywhere.  One morning we managed to stumble upon her and her two cubs. This seemed promising so we followed her. And followed her. And followed her some more. She seemed quite content to wander around in what seemed like every patch of tall grass in the Mara, almost strategically avoiding any areas that would allow for a safe and easy shot with the dart gun. Finally she settled on a nice cozy spot. Unfortunately for us that spot happened to be in a lugga, which meant tall grass, water, mud and absolutely no chance for us that day. The next time we found her she was on the move again. We followed her for over an hour through excellent areas with short grass and no thickets or luggas but she just wouldn’t stop moving. She wound up leading us back to the den, which happened to be hyena party central that morning. Our luck seemed to be turning around when she wandered away from the den to a patch of short grass and sacked out. Just as we were finally about to get a good shot along comes another female. Apparently Sauer wasn’t in the mood for company because she stood up and started to wander off again. We followed her but she gave us the slip once more. We watched her walk into a rock field, up the side of a hill and out of site into a thicket. Twice we almost had her and twice she managed to get the best of us.

It turns out however, that it was a good thing she did. To our surprise, our plans suddenly changed when we witnessed an interaction between Sauer and another female named Digs. It turned out that Digs, who had been lower ranking than Sauer, had jumped a step up on the social ladder, something that isn’t seen too frequently in a stable hyena hierarchy. She had surpassed Sauer (who was now a middle ranker) and was now the new lowest ranking of the high ranking females. This meant that Sauer was out and Digs was our new target.

Dave, Wes and I had spent several mornings driving around South in search of Marten, another female Dave wanted to put a collar on, when one morning we received a call from Lily, Moira and Julie who were driving around in North. They had spotted Digs so we headed on over.
At first we thought Digs was going to give us the run around like Sauer had. After over an hour of slowly following her around the North territory past luggas and thickets, through tall grass and around lots of puddles she finally made it to the perfect spot. We were driving slowly next to her, as close as possible trying not to spook her. In one fraction of a second she stopped right next to us, turned her head away with her back end in just the right position and Dave took a perfect shot. It only took a few minutes for her to go down and then I got to see a truly wild (but chemically immobilized) hyena up close and personal. My first thought was that she was huge, but at about 50 kilograms she was actually on the small side for a female hyena. Being that close to a wild large carnivore was surreal. Her feet looked like my dog’s feet only twice the size. Her fur was surprisingly coarse to the touch.  Her sharp carnivore teeth and huge jaw muscles left no doubt that she could do a number on a wildebeest or buffalo. We got to work immediately. We collected blood and other bodily substances (we can all now say we have “milked a hyena”, literally) and measured her head, teeth, limbs, and numerous other body parts. We measured her neck and fitted her new collar so that it was loose enough to be comfortable but tight enough that it wouldn’t fall off. After checking to make sure the collar was working properly we weighed her.

Just as we were finishing up she started to come to. Perfect timing. We carried her to the car on a stretcher and Lily, Moira and I climbed in the back with her. Since it was a rather bumpy ride and the immobilization drugs were starting to wear off (and I happened to be sitting closest to her) I made sure she didn’t get tossed around. And let me tell you, riding in the back of the car with one knee in a puddle of hyena drool, the other leg over Digs’ body (which smelled ever so slightly of dead elephant) in order to brace myself and not squish her, while leaning over to keep her eyes covered and head down was probably one of the most bizarre and coolest things I have ever done. We left Digs under some nice trees in a shady thicket, made sure she was nice and cool so she wouldn’t overheat and surrounded her with big branches to keep her safe. When we checked on her later that day she had fully recovered and was already out and about taking care of hyena business.

Digs is doing very well with her fancy new collar. We have tracked her around the territory multiple times since then and Dave has been collecting lots of GPS points for her. Her data, along with the other collared hyenas’ data, will enable researchers to answer important research questions that have never been able to be answered on such an interesting and dynamic species as the spotted hyena. I hope I get to lend a hand in more of these incredible experiences during the rest of my stay here the Mara.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science