Saturday, November 5, 2016

Larger than Life: Sherman

Since the dawn of time -- well, the dawn of Serena Camp, at least, in 2008 -- Sherman has been a favorite among MSU hyena researchers. Since fitting her with a radio collar, we have been able to follow her, as well as her drama. If we have learned one thing about Sherman over the past eight years, it is that she is a force to be reckoned with.

Sherman: forever a classic.

Sherman vs. Cobra
Hyenas are incredibly resilient. We have seen them survive broken bones, emaciation, and even lion attacks. But Sherman faced, and lived to tell about, something most hyenas couldn't: a cobra bite.

In 2010, hyena researchers Dee and Camille saw a cobra bite Sherman. Sherman staggered about, shaking, drooling, and eventually collapsing. Eventually, Sherman dragged her shaking body out of sight into the tall grass. Dee was sure that she had seen the last of Sherman, who was one of her favorite hyenas.

Five days later, Dee and Camille watched the North Clan hyenas fight over a carcass. I can't imagine their surprise when they noticed Sherman holding her own against her clan-mates to claim her share!

Big Mama
As tough as Sherman is, she has a soft spot for her little trouble-makers.

Sherman rests patiently while cubs Rocket Scientist and Astronaut chew on their mom's radio collar.
(Photo credit to Lily Johnson-Ulrich.)
Sherman's soft spot is big enough for her grand-trouble-makers, too. One day, her grandcub Billie Jean was playing and romping with the other cubs at the den. The matriarch, Waffles, and her formidable daughter, Log Cabin, slept nearby. In her excitement, Billie Jean stumbled across the fearsome mother-daughter duo one too many times and found herself in their jaws, being shaken.

Sherman heard her grandcub squealing and bolted to the rescue. Although the rules of hyena high society clearly state, "The matriarch's will shall be done," Sherman threw herself between Billie Jean and the mother-daughter duo. Sherman took the heat as Waffles and Log Cabin attacked her. Meanwhile, her little Billie Jean escaped.

Vote for Sherman!
The drama between Waffles and Sherman was far from over. With Sherman's tough-as-nails personality, it was inevitable that she would one day campaign for matriarch. During her run for matriarch, Sherman received her share of beat-downs from the incumbent and her daughter, Log Cabin. (To see the battle, click here!) However, Sherman's exceptional mothering paid off when her equally fearless daughter, Hook, joined her mother on the campaign trail. Together, this mother-daughter duo gave the competing duo, Waffles and Log Cabin, a run for their money! After the dust had settled, however, Waffles retained her rank.

Table for One

We scanned the grassy plains, but saw nothing. The beeps from Sherman's radio collar were coming in loud and clear, but we couldn't seem to find her. That's when she poked her head up out of the tall grass. Sherman was sacked out, fat and happy, behind [what had been] an ostrich nest. The only remainders were dozens of little bits of eggshell. Suddenly, the content look on Sherman's face made sense.

We gave Sherman some inhibition trials, in which she was challenged to figure out how to extract meat from a tube. She passed with flying colors, and when we left her, she was even fatter and happier than when we found her.

We had no idea that this would be our last encounter with Sherman.

The End of an Era
The moon was falling as we tracked Sherman, and the rays of morning sunlight just beginning to reach over the horizon.

One particularly beautiful morning, we set out to track Sherman. We followed the beeps emitted by her collar to a hill near our campsite. We drove around the hill for half an hour, terribly confused as to why we couldn't find her. The beeps got louder and softer again as we passed by each time, but we couldn't see her. Finally, we saw it: an old carcass laid out across the ground, wearing a radio collar. My heart sunk.

Our hearts sunk as soon as we comprehended what we were seeing.
(Photo credit to Mike Kowalski.)

We are used to seeing the carcasses of wildebeest, zebra, and impala all the time, but seeing one of our hyenas like this felt so wrong. They don't know who we are, but we know who they are. We know their stories. Here in Kenya, they're our life. However, they're still a part of the ecosystem. And like everything else, they have a beginning and an end.

I sat next to Sherman as the sun came up, illuminating her beautiful fur in hues of red. The wind whispered quietly. Sherman wasn't there to see the sunrise, but there was peace.

A Legacy Larger than Life
Sherman was a gift that kept on giving. Her children and grandchildren live on in Serena. Here's to many more generations of mischievous, tough, and unforgettable hyenas.
Lily realizes that her backpack strap is caught in the door, but it's too late! Sherman's eldest son, Lunch Lady, isn't about to miss the opportunity to get into trouble. (Photo credit to Lily Johnson-Ulrich.)

Lunch Lady is grown up now, but still as mischievious as ever. Recently, he has been been exploring our camp by the cover of night. He recently stole a trash can, which we found a quarter of a mile away. But he wasn't quite sly enough -- our camera trap caught evidence!

At nighttime, lying in bed in Serena Camp, I hear hyenas whooping from up the hill where we found Sherman for the last time and wonder if they are Sherman's cubs or grandcubs -- the hyenas that learned everything from a Serena classic.

1 comment:

Tony Stark said...

A heartbreakingly sweet post. Thank you for sharing her memories!

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