Friday, February 13, 2015

Tiny, Cute and Ferocious!

On our twice-daily observation drives, as you might expect, we spend a lot of time at the dens, observing hyenas. But their territories are vast, and in our time exploring them, we often come across other mammalian carnivores that are of interest to us, and we record the number and locations of these for population estimates. Some of the more common sightings include a few of the small canids: black-backed jackals, which are often seen in groups of two, as they are monogamous,
Black-backed jackal
 and bat-eared foxes.
Bat-eared fox

Slightly more rare is a lion sighting, usually either eating or sleeping: a lion’s two favorite activities.
Lion at sunrise
Occasionally, we’re able to catch a lion-hyena interaction, usually over a carcass, where there is a fight for control over the food. Contrary to popular belief, lions steal kills from hyenas about as frequently as the reverse happens. Spotted hyenas are not the obligate scavengers that many people think they are; they actually hunt about 95% of their own food in the Mara.

            Rarely, we’re lucky enough to spot cheetahs, or a leopard. 
Cheetah with her cubs, Photo by: Eli Strauss
Both are very difficult to find; there are only about 60 adult cheetahs  in the Mara currently (as reported by the Mara Conservancy in their monthly update), and leopards are in similar scarcity and are solitary hunters. Catching a leopard at a kill is very exciting, because often to protect their kill, they will carry the carcass up a tree. At that point their dinner is pretty secure, because anything with the gumption to scare off a leopard, like a lion or a hyena, isn’t going to make it up the tree; and anything that can make it up the tree that may be interested, like a baboon or a vulture, isn’t going to mess with a leopard.

One of the most common carnivore sightings for us, and also one of my favorites, is the banded mongoose.
Banded mongoose
 Banded mongooses are very gregarious animals, so we’ll often see them in groups ranging anywhere from ten to thirty. These little guys are cute, but they’re also ferocious. Although the majority of their diet is comprised of insects and small rodents, they have been known to take down some pretty scary snakes here and there. For a king cobra, there’s nothing worse than the site of a dozen banded mongooses charging toward you.
Mongoose cuddle puddle

 One of these mornings, if I happen to be greeted by a black mamba when I step out of my tent, I hope there’s a mongoose around to save the day! 


Anonymous said...

Why are the cheetah and leopards so much rarer than lions and hyenas? Do they need more territory/get poached more/have more complex food requirements?

Stefany Freeman said...

Are the banded mongoose related to raccoons or are the bands just a coincidence? Can you bring one home to hang out with me while I garden and protect me from snakes? ;)

MSU Mara Hyena Project said...

Great question Anonymous! We know less about cheetahs and the least about leopards as compared to lions and hyenas but some of our thoughts are:

--Cheetahs and leopards live at lower densities than lions and hyenas, which simply put just means there are less in a given area.
--Cheetahs went through a population bottleneck about 10,000 years ago which decreased their genetic diversity, making them more susceptible to diseases.
--Leopards we believe tend to be more nocturnal and spend more time in the thicket or in trees, also making sighting more difficult.
--Cheetahs and leopards both rank lower than lions and hyenas in the hierarchy of carnivores in the Mara so there there is some top-down control. For instance, lions and hyenas are generally able to steal a kill from a cheetah or leopard.

We don't have a lot of information on specific poaching numbers of cheetahs and leopards in the Mara, though leopards are certainly highly sought after for their pelt.

Though less research has been done on cheetahs and leopards, there are two cheetah projects currently running the Mara if you want to check out more about them! The Mara Meru Project and Kenya Wildlife Trusts's Mara Cheetah Project:

Thanks for your question, keep asking us!

MSU Mara Hyena Project said...

Thanks for the question Stefany!

Banded mongooses and racoons are actually not closely related. They're both mammals and carnivores, but after that, they split.

Banded mongooses are part of the Viverridae family, which is actually in the 'cat-like' suborder, Feliformia. Racoons on the other hand are part of the Procyonidae family, which is part of the 'dog-like' suborder, Caniformia.

We put up a family tree showing the split between Feliformia and Caniformia on our Facebook page, you should check it out! Check out where hyenas fall in relation to them both!

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