Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Learning about spots

As a new research assistant, I have been given the very overwhelming task of learning all the hyenas. This definitely takes some time! The trick is to find some distinctive spots on each side of every hyena. This is definitely easier said than done. And, of course, some days the hyena is fat or skinny or muddy or just having a really pale day, and then everything you think you know goes out the window (or at least that is how the new RA feels!).
This is Gummy who is one of Saur's cubs.
This is Tula. Her mom is Arba, a member of Pike's army.
My favorite hyenas to learn are the cubs, and they are probably the easiest to learn because we spend so much time at the dens. Meet Gummy (Gummy Bear). She has awesome spots. Now what I mean by “awesome spots” is that she has lots of unique spots that I can pick from and use to id her. On her left side she has a candy cane shape with three short lines to the right of it. The bottom two lines are each composed of two dots. This is what I use to id her when I see her left side though other people might see something slightly different. Now you see a bit of an 8 shape on her shoulder? Solely using that would be a bit of a rookie mistake. Lots of hyenas have that pattern or something similar to it. Learning what is unique and what is not is part of what takes time.

Tula is another cub with great spots. Her name is short for tarantula. If you look at her shoulder you may see an X shape, but what I see is a spider shape which fits her name perfectly! With so many patterns to match to names this connection is amazing! (Also note the 8 shape on her shoulder...)

Mim (Man in the Mirror) is a young cub who has just lost his black. When this happens, the first clear spots that show up are shoulder spots. I was really excited to see this great star shape on his shoulder!
This is Thriller at 2.5 months with his shoulder spots.

Mim's brother, Thriller, also has great spots. He has some widely spaced shoulder arches.

Now that he has lost all his black you can see a squiggle on his lower shoulder a dark sideways V shape on his side. Perfect!!
This is Thriller at 3.5 months after he has lost his black.

Unfortunately youngsters hit a fluffy stage… During this time, it becomes really hard to see the separate spots because things just mush together.

Gummy has already started to get fluffier… The candy cane now looks more like a heart or part of a circle…

A recent picture of Gummy at 5.5 months old.
This is Star. He is a fluffy 1.5 year old sub-adult. 
Star is so spotty, but with all the fluff his spots just disappear. Fortunately he is always hanging out with his mom Taj!

This is Euchar who is just a bit over a year old.
Thankfully, they eventually out grow this phase and their spots reappear! Then they are no longer the bane of the new RA's existence. These sub-adults and young adults tend to have the brightest, most beautiful spots. However, as the hyenas age their spots fade. Our oldest ladies have very faded spots which can make them hard to id. Fortunately, these old ladies have plenty of other characteristics including leg spots which become very important. Leg spots are more important than I ever would have imagined and are super helpful in id-ing any hyena particularly old, muddy, fluffy, or sacked out hyenas.

This is Arrow. She is a North hyena. 
Arrow's spots are somewhat faded, but you see that curve of dots on her upper right front leg with another curve to the right of them? I have used this so many times to id her.

This is Big Bad Wolf. (Photo credit: Hyena ID Folder)
As you can see, most of Big Bad Wolf's side spots are faded, but her leg spots are nice and clear! 

Meet Kneesocks! (Photo credit: Hyena Id Folder)
One pattern I use is the sideways V on Kneesocks's right hind leg. She has an eye shape on her other side.

So hyenas go from black with invisible spots to having great clear spots to fluffy with hard to see spots to amazing spots. These amazing spots gradually fade. However, there is so much individual variation. Some hyenas just have really pale spots or have spot patterns that are not unique.

I could fill so many more posts discussing spots! I pretty much eat, sleep, dream hyena spots! While, I still have a ways to go, over the last few months, I have really enjoyed learning everybody's spots and getting to know them as individuals. It is very satisfying to just look at a hyena and know who it is!

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