Sunday, June 19, 2016

Return of the lost!

Every year the Masai Mara National reserve experiences a low season in respect to tourist activity. This usually extends from late January to June, during which time the Masai Mara experiences intense long rains around April with dry periods before and after. This also results in later tall dry grasses, which makes game viewing quite difficult, and many prey species disperse to better grazing farther south, or break into smaller groups. While this year it appeared that the Mara would experience rains from December through May without much dry, tourism and prey counts were still low, and the grass has grown very high.

Hyena walking in the tall grass. 
Low season is also very slow for the Mara Hyena project. While we typically experience a cub boom earlier in the season, many of the sub-adults and adults without den dependent cubs travel further to look for game or cooling sack out spots. Many of the older cubs will also graduate at this time prior to the beginning of the great migration, some of which will not survive the graduation phase due to run ins with lions and herders. This can make things quite difficult for research assistants and graduate students that come to the field during the low season in respect to learning and remembering IDs when they first arrive. Nearly a third of the clan members may not be seen for months at a time, and spot patterns on very young cubs have a tendency to look quite different when they grow, especially when they hit what we call the shaggy stage when graduating from cub to sub-adult.

Distinct spot patterns turn into lines and smears when their fur gets long
However, this all changes when the great migration comes to the Masai Mara, bringing with it huge herds of wildebeest and zebra, as well as droves of tourists. The Mara is famous for this annual event, and people will come from all over the world to watch the wildebeest and zebra cross at the Mara River, and to watch the great predators of Africa hunt their prey.

This crossing actually started in the Mara River Clan's territory and ended in the South Clan's territory in 2013. 
Cheetah from last week walking among some Thompson's gazelles in the Talek West Hyena Clan territory.
Photo credit Lily Johnson-Ulrich  
Large male lion posing on an old termite mount in the South Hyena Clan territory.
With the return of the large number of prey to the Mara ecosystem, the Mara hyena project also sees a return of many of their hyenas that have not been seen in months, and this year has been no different. The early arriving herds of wildebeest and zebra, that usually proceed the great migration of the massive herds by a few weeks to a month, have already arrived in our Talek West clan territory.

Zebras gathering on Lone Tree plain in Talek West territory
Members of the Talek West clan devouring a wildebeest
Photo credit Lily Johnson-Ulrich
The return of high density prey is also resulting in numerous hunts and carcass sessions where many of our rarely seen hyenas show up after we thought they may have been dead or missing, including cubs that graduated during low season. Needless to say this is both very exciting and very confusing, even for those that know the clan well. Favorite cubs you watched grow up and then disappear during their graduation phase of den independence return looking so big and shaggy with sub-adult fur that they barely match their ID photos, and many of the sub-adults not seen for ages will also begin appearing at den sessions making pests of themselves attempting to play with small cubs that are trying to nurse or sleep.

Top Left: "Cinnamon", now correctly named Miguel Cabrera, is now finally showing up at the communal den
Top Right: Tinder, thought dead earlier this year, is now a star in Lily Johnson-Ulrich's cognition box trials
Bottom: Pisces, a low ranking sub, attempting to pick up Urchin, a high ranking cub, when he just wants to cuddle with ARES
While we rejoice in seeing some of our favorite hyenas again, the beginning of the high season also requires a mental reset regarding which spots on which hyenas we are likely to see on any given day, and the full migration is still to come. Soon the plains will be black with the huge herds of wildebeest, and the grass will be mowed down by the voracious herbivores, bringing in even more predators and tourists. Stay tuned for the excitement!

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