Monday, December 7, 2015

Are you my mother?

There are no baby showers, gender reveal parties, or birth announcements when new hyenas enter our world. Instead, a hyena mom prefers a more private affair, seeking solitary refuge in a secluded natal den to deliver her cubs. Only when they’re about a month old will she move them to the communal den, the clan’s hangout spot, to begin interacting with other cubs and adults for the first time. In the case of our study clans, they’ll also interact with us humans for the first time. While there may not be much hoopla in the hyena world when they’re born, the Research Assistants certainly give shouts of joy when we find new little ones running around the den.

The first question we ask when we discover a new cub is, “who is the mother?” because knowing maternity provides a more complete picture of the cub and its future prospects. For instance, their rank, which is inherited from mom, tells us immediately if this cub will have ample access to resources, since high-rankers usually out-compete low-rankers for access to food. Furthermore, if the mother is inexperienced (i.e. this is her first cub), there’s a higher chance the cub won’t survive. An experienced mom is more likely to raise healthy cubs to adulthood. Once we do know the mother, we can name the cubs in their mother’s lineage (e.g. brands of syrup, pre-industrial weapons, dog breeds); all of her cubs will have names within this theme after her first litter. This naming scheme helps us to remember how the hyenas are related.

To determine maternity, we have to see nursing. While a female hyena will interact with other cubs, she will only willingly nurse her own child. Sounds simple right? Well, sometimes confirming maternity can be quick and easy, but more often than not, it can be quite a frustrating waiting game. Our North and South clans both recently welcomed some new members, and determining the mothers was a very different scenario across the two territories.

Recent rains coupled with the North den’s swampy location means that observation sessions in North have been sporadic at best. So when Spencer and Robyn managed to get to the den a while back and announced there were three new cubs, we figured confirming the moms would take a while. But the Northies threw us a bone this time when, after a few dry days, we were able to get to the den. Within ten minutes of arriving a young female, Anatolian, sacks out and starts nursing two of our mystery babies and shows us she’s a brand new mom! Almost immediately after that, Ink, an experienced mom, sacks out and nurses our remaining mystery cub. It was like we pushed the “That was easy!” button. So, we’re happy to announce the arrival of Anatolian’s cubs, Momo and Appa (her new lineage is Avatar: The Last Airbender characters), and Ink’s new baby, Hobbes.

Momo and Appa having fun with mom, Anatolian.

Meanwhile, South has been quite a different story. We discovered two cubs at the end of November, and because we could tell them apart, we gave them the cub names Winky and Dobby. These nicknames are given as a way to refer to the cubs, if we can tell them apart, before we know the mother. Until we know maternity, we have no way of knowing the correct lineage and cannot officially name them.

As for confirming maternity, the South females were not making our job any easier. Java, the matriarch, has been sitting in the den and acting like a nursing female for almost two months now. Rangsang, Firefly, Trumain, Rastapopulos, and Bellagio have all been seen multiple times, sticking their heads in the den, also acting like nursing females. We really had no good guess as to who the mothers were.

Then finally, after a few weeks of wondering, Trumain finally, finally nursed Winky! We’re still deciding on a dog breed name for the feisty little one. I personally like Newfoundland.
Winky nursing (yay!!!) and Dobby in the background. 
 As for Dobby...we still don’t know. We’ve seen him/her approach multiple females as if to nurse... and then runs away into the den. Very anticlimactic and frustrating. So I think it’ll be a few more observation sessions before we can solve this last motherhood mystery.

 As frustrating as they are sometimes, I don’t think I’ll ever get over the feeling of seeing a sweet, tiny face peering at us from the den hole. In a place as harsh as the African bush, new life is a precious thing.

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