Monday, December 14, 2015

Playing it by ear

One of the biggest tasks any fresh-faced new RA has to learn is how to identify all our hyenas. With well over a hundred hyenas followed by each camp, that’s a lot of animals to learn. Our number one tool in the “who’s that hyena?” game is their unique spot patterns, but we do have another trick up our sleeves.

Here, Vail has his ears divided into sections, A-D. We would say Vail has a left B notch and a right C nick. 
Throughout the course of their lives, most hyenas pick up ear damage in fights with lions or other hyenas. Over the years we’ve invented a system of quantifying this ear damage for use in identification. We divide each ear into four sections, as illustrated above. Then, we can write down where and how each ear on a hyena is damaged and write it on all their identification photos. Since our hyenas are unfortunately fond of rolling in mud, laying in tall grass, sleeping in a pile of hyenas, or otherwise obscuring all their spots, ear damage can be a wonderfully useful tool.

Kneesocks is kindly displaying her very unique ears. 
Because RAs always need something to argue about, the words used to refer to certain ear damage are usually hotly debated. Is that a left C nick or a slice? Does JLP have a right B notch or a scoop? Is her ear flat or serrated? No matter the term, we can all agree that finding someone with new or unique ear damage is an event to be celebrated, especially if that hyena has fluffy, hard-to-ID fur.

It's easiest to see with binoculars, but Sparks (the black cub in the foreground) has a nice left D notch, which led to her cub nickname, LeftD ("Lefty"). 
We’re equally excited when cubs pick up ear damage very young. It often takes us a long time to be able to distinguish between siblings because hyena cubs are all black when they’re born. It may be several months before they develop their unique spots, and until that time we’re stuck referring to siblings as a unit (poor Noggin and Melon of North clan have been NOGN/MELN in our transcription notes since August). On rare occasions, however, youngsters will develop ear damage and we can use it to distinguish between littermates. On the first day we discovered Sparks and Ember of Happy Zebra clan, we noticed Sparks had a chunk missing from her left ear. Although they were tiny, black, and otherwise indistinguishable, Sparks and Ember have had the privilege of being two distinct hyenas in our notes ever since.

We always appreciate ear damage that's visible from a distance, like Istanbul's right ear scoop. 

So although spots will always be the most tried and true tool in the repertoire of an RA, every time we find a hyena sacked out in a mud puddle, or asleep deep in a den we salute ear damage. Here’s to making our lives just a bit easier!

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