Thursday, May 12, 2016

"Are you doing this on purpose?" - an RA's lament

I’ve spent a pretty impressive amount of time with hyenas in the last 9 months, and I’ve become convinced they secretly possess an array of superpowers. Some of these powers I admire greatly: their incredible endurance, their intelligence and problem-solving skills, and their ability to bounce back from illness and injury with ease.

However, I’ve found that hyenas have one superpower I’d give just about anything for them to lose – their uncanny and unfailing ability to prevent us from identifying them. I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying hyenas on the fly by now (if I do say so myself), and even so there are some days I think it’s miraculous we’re able to ID anyone at all.

Our hyenas have a variety of tricks and tactics they use to prevent us from getting a good look at their spots, and I’d like to share some of them with you today.

Is there even a hyena in this picture?
Darkness – it might be unfair to pin this one on the hyenas themselves. After all, they aren’t the ones that made it dark. But they ARE the ones who seem to use the darkness to their best advantage, standing just out of Maglite range in an area we can’t go offroad to see them or loping in and out of our headlights just long enough for us to take blurry, unusable photos.

"I can see... three spots. Perfect."
Palembang, don't you dare
Mud – this one is definitely a fan favorite with our study subjects, and one I will happily blame them for. There’s no worse feeling than driving towards a distant, perfectly clean hyena and watching him lower himself into a enormous mud puddle before we can ID him. You may not believe it’s possible for a hyena to look smug while rolling in gunk, but trust me, it happens.

Grass – here’s another trick that’s only partially their fault. We RAs wait anxiously for the arrival of the wildebeest every year so they’ll mow down some of the absurdly tall grass in our territories. It’s unbelievable how much a few strands of grass can obscure the spots of a hyena, and equally unbelievable how much time said hyena will choose to spend in tall grass when there’s a nice patch of bare dirt not 2 feet away.

"Are we sure this is a spotted hyena?"
Old age – it could be argued that long years of sun exposure are to blame for the fact that old hyenas’ spots fade over time, but I prefer to think it’s concentrated force of will intended only to spite us. Trying to ID ancient hyenas is a special kind of frustrating, because they might be totally clean, well-lit, and standing clear of any grass and yet still be totally un-IDable.

Well, that's helpful. Thanks. 
Sheer contrariness – “Show me a side. Please! Please show me your side. Oh come on! Just show me a few spots, that’s all I ask! Are you doing this on purpose?” That’s the mantra of an RA at wit’s end trying to get a stubborn hyena to stand at an angle displaying any spots at all. We’ve spent ridiculous amounts of time driving in slow circles around a hyena trying to see one of its sides, only to watch it rotate in time with us so we only ever get a view of its butt. 

"Okay, he's on your side of the car! No, he moved, he went around back. Quick, get a picture, get a picture! Ugh, he's around back again. Will you stand still?"
They’re also not above using our tools against us. It’s many a hyena who has spent an enjoyable 10 minutes circling the car so we never get a good solid view of its side.

With all their wily ways, it’s no wonder we all breath a sigh of relief when we come across a hyena, mud-free, in short grass and with beautifully well-defined spots. It still takes a lot of work to study spot patterns and ear damage, but at least we stand a chance against the hyenas' stubborn, magical powers.

1 comment:

Heidi Rogers said...

Its so frustrating looking at those pictures even from here in the US! Keep up the good work.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science