Each morning at 0530 and every evening at 1700 we fisi campers venture out into the splendor that is the Masai Mara to conduct obs, or observation sessions, within our study territories. In a nutshell, we roam the grassy lands in search of hyenas for roughly three hours in order to collect different types of data. Half of an obs session is spent exploring the entire territory with the hopes of locating some of our study hyenas to see where they are, who they are with, and what they are doing, and the other half is spent at a communal den observing den-dwelling cubs, their mothers, and any other hyenas within the clan that are present at these social hotspots.
A communal den is where young cubs first begin to learn their ranks through early aggressive and submissive interactions beginning even before they emerge their natal dens, as well as through near constant socialization with other cubs, sub-adults, and adult mothers. When I say a communal den is a ‘social hotspot’ what I mean is that during these portions of an obs session you really get to observe the complexities of spotted hyena social structure by witnessing nursing aggressions, play behavior, interactions between pesky sub-adults and defensive mothers, less frequently seen hyenas who drop in to say hello and greet others, and immigrant males who remain at a distance or make their boldness known by approaching the dens. Side note: A greeting is a common interaction we observe between hyenas where two hyenas will each lift their legs and sniff the other’s genitalia in order to facilitate social associations and connections with other clan members.
Communal dens often consist of multiple den holes, which lead to complications when attempting to observe behavior. These dens are then referred to as den complexes, which consist of the multiple den holes and what we’ve dubbed in the field as the den’s ‘stage’. This is where we are able to most easily and clearly observe what is happening during a communal den session. Here in Talek West, our study hyenas experience near daily experiences with tourist vehicles and have overtime taken to denning deeper and deeper within dense shrubbery. As you can imagine, this makes observations challenging, as the hyenas will wander in and out of sight amongst the ever difficult to navigate orange-leaf croton bushes. As frustrating as this can be, the stage is where all the magic happens.
|The stage of Resurrection Main Den with some of the cubs wandering and stand looking at the car.|
As a thespian I’ve always appreciated the performing arts, so when I learned that the field researchers had colloquially been referring to spotted hyena behavior as a soap opera, I was eager to see why. Having subsequently learned that the den stage existed, I quickly learned why the stage was called that – oh, the hyena dramatics never cease. For me, it has been the cubs that have taken starring roles in these daily productions of the Talek West soap. In one of my former posts I blogged about the egg and milk trials I’d begun to conduct for one of our graduate students, Eli Strauss. Further investigating the process by which cubs learn their ranks, Eli is researching when and how young cubs do so through egg and milk trials provoking agonistic (aggressive and submissive) interactions. It has been quite the pleasure to take an active role in this data collection for Eli.
|Meet Hemingways. |
Here he was one lucky cub, having a powdered milk source and trial all to himself - a solo, you could say.
The stars of my trials have been one group of young cubs of the same cohort. A mix of high and low-rankers, these cubs have heightened my interest as I’ve conducted trials throughout the early months of their lives to nowadays as they each approach graduation age, which is when they will slowly begin to explore further and further away from the communal den with their mother, taking graduation walks and learning the ropes of surviving in the territory. Witnessing the development of their individuality has been an absolute dream as I’m personally consumed by ponderings of individual behavior within social populations. In particular, three pairs of litter mates have captivated my research interests, undoubtedly, but have also found a special place in my heart as I’ve watched them develop from tiny black cubs to now older cubs on the verge of graduating.
|Catching some z's before a trial, it didn't take long after I deployed the egg source to arouse |
Kerri Strug and Tamika Catchings from their ever-so-adorable lackadaisical state.
The ‘cast members’ of the trials (in order from highest to lowest ranking) are Joule (JOUL), Kilometer (KILO), Hilton (HITO), Hemingways (HEMI), Tamika Catchings (TAMI), and Kerri Strug (SRG). Each has displayed individual differences in behavior throughout the trials. JOUL, the now youngest daughter of the matriarch of the clan, Buenos Aires (BUAR), is not only the highest-ranking cub but is also the second highest-ranking hyena of the entire clan and she undeniably knows this is her place within the hierarchy. She is the scrappiest of the bunch, asserting her rank in every trial and making it known that she is not to be messed with, especially when it comes to the milk!
|Here we have Joule glaring at the car during a milk trial. |
Shortly after this she aggresses on the two cubs beside her for a better feeding position.
Her subordinate littermate, KILO, has a bit of a different profile. He too, seemingly, knows where he stands in the clan, but spends more time by himself, wandering the perimeter of a trial watching the others battle it out for an eggshell or a lick of the powdered milk. Together though, the two of them are a forced to be reckoned with! They’ve asserted their rank through what are known as coalitions, aggressing together onto all of the other cubs, sub-adults, and even adult mothers through breathtaking duets of lunges, snaps, and bites.
|During an early morning egg trial, Kilometer seemed more content basking in the |
sun's rays and watching the other cubs duke it out than taking part in the action.
Next, HEMI and HITO are actually the niece and nephew of JOUL and KILO. These two stick together. They’re always joining and leaving a trial together, feeding together, and aggressing together through coalitions when necessary. A lover of eggs, HEMI doesn’t let another cub or even sub-adult near his egg during a trial. Being the smallest of the group, HEMI was formerly known as “tiny” before we knew who his mother was, and has never let his size get in the way.
|Hemingways is a bold little one, approaching our car close enough to reach out and touch him (which we don't do of course). This makes snapping irresistible head shots of him just too easy! What's not to love?|
|Hilton was in control of this egg trial, consuming nearly all of the egg source before the other cubs could snatch some.|
Near the bottom of the clan, TAMI and SRG are actually the oldest of these cubs and seem to tolerate the aggressive behavior of their younger, significantly higher-ranking cub counterparts, to a certain degree of course. It seems they know their place is beneath the others but still successfully counterattack when they need to. Both feisty in their own right, they’ve seemed to be far more aggressive during milk trials and certainly defend themselves often.
As the egg and milk trials ‘productions’ continue, it has been beyond entertaining and inspiring to witness these cubs’ behavior and I am constantly yearning to observe them.
Here’s to you cubs, the stage is all yours!
|An unidentified black cub (meaning we don't know who her/his mother is) stand and looks at the car.|
Perhaps we have some future 'talent' for more egg and milk trials?
Have any questions about cubs in particular, or about hyenas in general? How about a question you’ve been itching to ask about Kenya or the Mara? Post your question(s) below and I’ll make sure to respond to them as soon as possible. Asante sana and take care!
-- Jared P. Grimmer --
All Photos Property of Jared P. Grimmer