As I near the end of sessioning Fig Tree notes, I’ve gotten a perspective than I never could have in the field. While I lived in Kenya for a year following the hyenas, I witnessed the everyday drama of our clans in what I now realize was a very short moment of time. In sessioning, I get a broader picture over many years.
It’s been fun to watch the individuals that I knew as adults in the field grow up in the early notes. In the field, I knew Lucky Luciano (Lu, for short) as a tough mom and confident female in the clan. With the notes I get to see how she started out as an aggressive little cub, went through a loner phase, started getting courted by various males, and became a badass hunter, but still lost her first several litters. Another example is Einstein, who was a shy subadult who started getting courted as soon as she left the den. She then had a rocky start to motherhood before she became the steady mom I knew in the field. One of the biggest surprises for me was Juba, an immigrant Talek West male that I hadn’t even known was originally from Fig Tree, where he was affectionately known as Pumpkin.
|Lu, with her cubs Akiba and Starehe|
|Juba, as an adult in Talek West|
From my desk in Michigan, I am cataloguing an entire life history for the animals we’ve all cared about in the field. I always love watching cubs playing at the den, but I am sobered by going through the notes and realizing how very few actually survive the first year of life. It takes so long for the moms to get the hang of rearing their young, and almost all of the young mothers lose at least one litter of cubs before any survive. Even with experienced mothers nothing is certain either. So much of the hyenas’ success seems to be left up to chance. A good example of this is Medusa, a high-ranking female with a small posse of aggressive young offspring poised to have an incredible success biologically speaking—plenty of high-ranking females to swell her lineage. Suddenly Medusa died, no one knows how, and I watched as one by one her children disappeared as well without their strong leader to help protect and provide for them. One random event and an entire lineage goes away.
Another thing I’ve realized is that on the other hand, just because some hyenas die young doesn’t mean their stories aren’t still meaningful. Bella barely managed to rear one surviving offspring before she went missing, yet that cub has been relatively successful for a lower-ranking hyena. And all of these animals, no matter if they only lived a month or are still around, still add to a valuable dataset. When I think about the poisoning that killed so many hyenas when I was in Kenya, it’s comforting to realize how each one of them still gave us important scientific insights.
This broader view helps me realize how important these large, long-term research projects are. It takes an incredible amount of time to see rare events happen in these clans. For instance, in the eight years I have sessioned of Fig Tree, observers only witnessed one actual mating. We have documented only a handful of lion-hyena interactions of any kind, and even fewer successful hyena kills. This doesn’t mean these data aren’t useful, but rather that it takes a long time to collect enough information to make these rare events numerous enough to quantify or analyze.