Friday, January 30, 2015

Fig Tree Flashback

Seeing Ashlei’s recent blog post, with the photo of Potter and Kibera brought on a powerful Fig Tree flashback…

Let me set the stage:

February 2014: We’d had 12 weeks of observing the Fig Tree communal den scene as they moved from Pallet Town Den, to Passion Fanta Den, to Tempest Den, and finally settling in at Nancy Drew Den. Much like the den Ashlei described for Fig Tree, all these dens were in the middle of an open plain. We would arrive early evening, park the car, and watch the comings, the goings, the interactions, and the cubs’ social behavior (read: unbelievable cuteness) for hours.
Nancy Drew Den, January 2014 (All photos from H. Couraud)
Jean Grey, perched on her mom Potter, with Wolverine nursing 
Thus was our pattern, one we looked forward to greatly each time we went out. Fig Tree has historically posed a challenge for researchers – the territory is farther from our camp and the conditions of the roads during rainy seasons make it very difficult to get to the clan regularly. We had a firm handle on who each of the cubs were, and were gathering very specific behavior data.

And then came February 23rd.
The excerpt from our notes read...

1758   @Nancy Drew D
            No hyenas visible

So began the search. A lot of stunning grasses…and not a lot of hyenas.

Though we were sad they were no longer at such a great den for viewing, moving communal dens is a normal part of hyena biology. Boydston et al found that the hyenas in the Talek clan move communal dens about once a month on average, though the length of time at any one den and the timing of the moves was highly variable (2006). Reasons for moving could range from human disturbance, lion presence, or parasite buildup at the site; it is a facet of hyena biology still poorly understood (Boydston et al, 2006). Higher-ranking females appear to lead more of the den moves (Holekamp et al., 2000) and the lower-ranking females then move as well – this keeps their cubs with their peers and able to benefit from the socialization and association with higher-rankers and their cubs (Holekamp et al., 1997). But I digress…

So, when you can’t find the communal den, a carcass session, or even lone hyenas, what do you do? We started with the GPS collars. 

February 26th we travelled to where Rohan’s (an adult female with cubs) points had been congregating. Why was she so far away? Had the clan moved a significant distance, or was this travel just a trip for ROH? Thanks to the individual personality of each hyena, it was impossible to tell. We didn’t find ROH, but we did see Wanugu! Our excitement at seeing one of the clan couldn’t extend much further however – seeing a male of dispersing age doesn’t necessarily give you many hints of where the rest of the clan is.

Then we decided to ‘den hop’. Twenty-two known communal dens later, we hadn’t found any new signs of occupation. Curiously, we did see three female sub-adults. Did that mean the clan was still in the area?

Then we took the follow-an-individual route, hoping to be led to the den. Fifty-five minutes of following later, night set in and we could not longer maintain a visual in the thicket on the hyena we were staying with.

By April 17th, we hadn’t had any luck, even after driving systematic transects across the plains. On our way home, we saw three large forms in the distance….hardly daring to hope, we drove up and confirmed we were seeing three adult female hyenas! The flicker of hope that ignited was quickly extinguished however when we identified them as females from the neighboring clan. That confirmed our growing suspicion – if adult females from another clan were meandering lackadaisically, the Fig Tree clan has certainly moved to another region entirely. 

Brazil, a Mara River clan hyena, on April 17th
April 23rd – Dave and I set out, heading into the northern region of the Mara where we had been searching recently. We were cautiously excited when we saw Donatello, one of the clan’s sub-adult females. A great sign, but one we had been fooled with before. Then we saw Wanugu – another good sign, but let me remind you of the dispersing male characteristic. And then I heard a slight, ‘Beep. Beep. Beep’. Our tracking was picking up one of our collared females! Now that was a good sign. We switched the headphones so Dave could drive and track, gradually picking up a stronger and stronger signal.

And then, at 1757….(hint: no impending dashed hopes here…) we found not just Fig Tree hyenas but 16 of them, cubs included! Our excitement was palpable and my joy was hard to contain to the professional research mode. (For the record, I did manage it, though with great effort)

If that wasn’t enough, nine of the hyenas began loping very purposely to the east. 
Red Rover, loping to the East
We drove off in pursuit, crested a hill, were afforded a stunning view of the landscape laid in front of us in the softening colors of dusk, and then rested our eyes on the two adult male lions, surrounded by 23 of the Fig Tree hyenas.

We hadn’t just found the clan, we had found their communal den, were witnessing a lion-hyena interaction, and had more Fig Tree hyenas in one place than I had seen in my entire time in the Mara to date.

After two months to the day of searching for and wanting to observe behaviors (read: ‘missing them’, in less scientific terms), this was a night I still beam at when remembering.


Boydston, E.E., Kapheim, K.M. & Holekamp, K.E. (2006) Patterns of den occupation by the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta). Afr. J. Ecol. 44, 77-86.
Holekamp, K.E., Cooper, S.M., Katona, C.I., Berry, N.A., Frank, L.G. & Smale, L. (1997) Patterns of association among female spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta). J. Mammal. 78, 55–64.
Holekamp, K.E., Boydston, E.E. & Smale, L. (2000) p. 587–627 Group travel in social carnivores. In: On the Move: How and Why Animals Travel in Groups (Eds S. Boinski and P. A. Garber). University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois.

1 comment:

Lily J-U said...

Wow what a stunning photo of the lions and hyenas at sunset!!!!

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