Jambo! Jina langu ni Olivia.
(Swahili for, “Hello! My name is Olivia.”)
This week, I joined the other fisi (hyena) researchers at one of our two field sites.
Upon entering college and selecting a major, many young adults are forced to hastily make one of the biggest decisions of their life: “What do I want to do for the rest of my life?” I am very lucky that I never had to make this decision. For me, studying animal behavior was never a choice; it has always simply been a part of who I am. I still remember the day I decided to become a zoologist. I was only four or five, and (as per usual) I was telling my mom about all the different animals I wanted to see or touch. She said, “Okay, so you want to be a zoologist.” I sounded it out – “Zo-…-ol-…-ogist. Yeah, I wanna be that!” I would spend the rest of my childhood playing in the woods, looking for animal tracks as I pretended to be a zoologist.
A career center course at Potter Park Zoo (Lansing, Michigan) allowed me my first up-close experience with exotic animals. Later, as a zoology student at Michigan State University, I worked, volunteered, and interned at Potter Park Zoo for four years, and worked in research labs for two years. Then, I did something that my Spartan friends may never forgive me for – I became a “Wolverine.”
As a graduate student at the University of Michigan, I had the privilege of working with Dr. Holekamp on my master’s thesis. We worked together to investigate a very mysterious animal: the striped hyena.
Many people that live alongside hyenas may not even recognize that there are different species. (Maybe you didn’t even know there were different hyena species until just now!) The family Hyaenidae is small, but incredibly diverse.
The first species of the family Hyaenidae is the aardwolf (Proteles cristata). Aardwolves are small and eat only insects. A male and female share a territory that they fiercely defend against would-be intruders.
The second species is the well-known spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta). Although they get a bad reputation for being scavengers, these intelligent and powerful animals actually hunt 65% of their own food, on average (95% in the Maasai Mara!). They also have the largest social groups of any land carnivore. (Step aside, lions, there’s a new kid in town!)
The third Hyaenidae species is the brown hyena (Parahyaena brunnea). These beautiful hyenas are a little smaller than a spotted hyena and have a long mane down their back. These hairs will stand on end when the brown hyena feels threatened, making it appear larger! Brown hyenas feed on scraps and carcasses (carrion), and they forage for these scraps alone. However, they meet up with their other group mates at communal dens. Groups average about ten brown hyenas.
The fourth and final member of the family Hyaenidae is the mysterious striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena). They are very difficult to study, because they are rare and travel alone at nighttime over rough terrain. Like its closest relative, the brown hyena, striped hyenas have a mane and forage for carrion alone. They are traditionally described as solitary, but in a 2006 study, Aaron Wagner observed up to four striped hyenas resting together!
For my master’s thesis, we sought to shed light on the social behavior of the striped hyena. We focused on “pasting,” a scent-marking behavior in which a hyena squats, turns its anal sac inside out, and does a charming little dance to smear "paste" (white goo) onto a stalk of grass:
Image captured by one of our sneaky camera traps!
The reason we chose to investigate pasting is that even though we may not see two hyenas interact with our eyes or hear it with our ears, they could still be communicating.
What did we find? Although striped hyenas appear to be solitary and territorial in some locations, our results suggested that in other locations, they may actually “tolerate” each other’s presence in other areas. This is the first step in the evolution of social groups!
What else did we find? We found a mother and her adult daughter raising their cubs at the same den! Three generations under one “roof.”
At a den site, an adult striped hyena licks the muzzle of a nursing mother.
With school behind me, I couldn’t be happier to join the other fantastic fisi researchers in the Maasai Mara. As I type this, the air is electric with the sounds of dozens of birds and insects. The branches outside my tent crackle under the weight of passing ungulates and a lion roars in the distance, advertising his presence. I cannot wait to get to know the hyenas here in one of the most beautiful places in the world.