Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Connect the Dots

Hello from Fisi Camp!

My name is Rebecca LaFleur, and I’ll be your new RA joining our dear Talek West hyenas for the next year. A little about me to start off… I grew up in Traverse City, Michigan, and I just recently graduated with a degree in zoology from Michigan State University. At the university, I was an undergraduate research assistant for the Mara Project for 2 years, but working with conservation and behavioral studies of carnivores is something I’d been fascinated by long before that. I joined the project coding behavior during Julie Turner’s Target trials project. This gave me a head start in the department of recognizing specific behaviors and interactions in my time on the Mara; however, individual identification (despite being at least half of the whole equation) is an entirely different story.

It’s an exciting time for Talek! Shortly before my arrival at Fisi Camp, an entirely new group of cubs was found! Unfortunately for those of us who were almost entirely new to the ID process, this meant more individuals to memorize, but I was not daunted. In addition to the den, the clan seems to be in the process of fissioning into three distinct groups which we’re now calling KCM, Main Doc, and Pond. While it may seem to shorten the list of who to expect where, two problems arise. First of all, the separation is not complete, and some hyenas like to bounce between groups, so it’s important to always be prepared for the unexpected. Secondly, for someone new to large parts of the almost 200-member clan, memorizing who goes where is a task in and of itself!

 With these two facts in mind, I often find myself practicing by taking the best side photo of a hyena’s unique spot pattern whenever I can find it, and flipping through our large folder of hyena pictures (hopefully in a smaller section if I manage to age and sex them correctly) to try to ID them as best I can. While some photos like the one above of TAMI turn out beautifully, most at first turn up more like one of the ones shown below.

And that’s hoping that the hyena you see isn’t wet or covered in mud!

When I first see a hyena (and manage to get a recognizable picture), I look for unique patterns and shapes in the spots. Several people here have likened the process to a Rorschach test, and they’re not wrong. It’s entirely possible that everyone could see something different! I’ll share my process with the example below. My first “landmark” to identify this individual was a dark line of 4 spots on her left hind leg (1).

           Once I found someone (or several someones) in our ID book with a matching pattern, I looked for the next best landmark I could find. For me, that was what we here in camp often call an “eyeball” on her back: a circular pattern of spots with one or multiple in the middle (2). From there, I moved to her shoulder. If you look closely, you can see a swooping semi-circle with a dot in the middle starting at the spot I indicated and extending up and around towards her back (3).
The consensus? Our mystery hyena is none other than Twister!

Tips to keep in mind:

1. Count the spots! A lot of hyenas may have similar patterns, but the number of spots in the pattern must match exactly. Remember that they may look different at first glance as the hyena grows up or if it is muddy, but the number and pattern of spots will not change.

2. Look for other clues. You can often ID an individual by other characteristic landmarks on their body. Fur coloration or length (for example the black paws and faces we often see on cubs and subadults) may work for a time, but will change as the hyena matures. Ear damage is another permanent landmark that we often use. Little notches and nicks which develop are easily seen and can be used in addition to spots if you’re having trouble ID-ing someone.

3. Spots are not always as they appear! Juvenile hyenas have longer coats of fur than adults, and spots may appear to change in size or mold together. Remember to always look closely at patterns to make sure the pattern you’re seeing matches the ID in the book.

Happy spotting!


chris lafleur said...

Hope you're having the time of your life becca. So proud of you love you bunches dad.

Lily J-U said...

Wow we should save these tips in camp for future RAs! These are great. I actually don't know Twister yet but now I think I'll remember her based on that excellent characterization of her spots.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science