Thursday, April 28, 2016


As part of the project's ongoing research of behavioral development in spotted hyenas, we perform numerous tests to determine how variation in social rank, maternal care, park management and clan stability can affect cubs as they mature. You have probably already read in previous posts about how we present eggs and powdered milk to determine how aggressive different cubs can be, as well as determining how long it takes individuals to act their rank. This helps us to understand both a cub's budding aggressive and submissive personalities, as well as variation in the speed of leaning their social rank. 

Another trait we are interested in is neopobia (the fear of new things), which can influence and individual's ability to learn through exploration of novel environments and situations, as well as being somewhat related to an individual's overall boldness. For example: in wild starlings, individuals that are quicker to approach and feed near novel stimuli are also faster at solving problems focused on foraging ability (Boogert et al. 2006), these were also typically individuals with the highest ranks. This is similar to what has been seen in captive coyotes when more dominant individuals were the only individuals willing to enter a novel environment to feed (Mettler and Shivik, 2006). However, dominant individuals are not always those willing to take the risk of exploring a novel object or environment, as seen in black-capped chickadees where the subordinate individuals were less neophobic than dominant individuals (Seok An et al, 2011). Despite seeing differences in how neophobia relates to social rank, all of these studies did observe individual differences outside of rank, which may or may not be due to the social environment they were raised in.

This is where our study comes in, as we can test all of these influences (rank, personality, etc), and where the fun begins. In order to test neophobia you need to present animals with something that they have never seen or experienced before (i.e. a novel object). What better excuse would I ever have to present hyena cubs toys!!! Therefore, over the next few years I will be running back and forth between clans, finding cubs, and giving them new objects to explore and observing their reactions.

Here is MJAG, a low ranking hyena from the South Clan, who took about 20 minutes to get just close enough to sniff the funnel. As you can see, MJAG is fairly reluctant to get too close, as he is staying as far away as possible, while still being able to sniff the funnel and touch it with his nose.

In comparison, these cubs from the North clan swarmed the funnel in about a minute, and I actually had to chase after them in the car when the ran away with it.

Finally, we have HEMI from the Talek West clan, who didn't even approach the funnel, and then took a nap after a few minutes completely ignoring it.

Of course we do repeated samples on different days with different novel objects each time to see if responses are similar, and as you can see MJAG is still curious but a bit spooky.

I had to rescue the novel object from the North cubs again.

And the Talek cubs were still too afraid to get closer than a few meters.

I still have a long way to go to begin to detect individual and rank differences in the amount of neophobia presented by those that get to interact with a novel objects, but even with just a few trials you can see how clans may vary.

Don't think I have forgotten about the individuals that have left the den. Adults and sub-adults found alone in the field are presented with novel objects are well. This include the random "toys" that we present to the cubs, as well as objects that require the hyena to perform a task to get a treat. Below is the beginning of one of these objects where hyenas can earn an award that was designed by graduate student Lily Johnson-Ulrich.

This opaque tube has a treat inside. The task is for the hyena to approach the tube, and then reach into one of the sides to grab the treat. In contrast to a single presentation of a novel object, we will continue to to present this tube to the hyena until it becomes comfortable with solving the task. Once they are comfortable with the opaque tube, we will present the hyena with a tube of the exact same dimensions that is completely clear (i.e. they can see the treat through the tube) to see if they can inhibit their response to grab at the food through the clear tube, or remember that they have to go around to the side of the tube to reach in and grab the treat. This task represents both an individual's ability to respond and approach a novel object in their environment, as well as solving a cognitive task. As you can see here we are just getting started with the opaque tube, and the hyenas are treating this as a novel object in their environment. Nali (above) never approached the tube closer than 25 meters. VOYA (below) came closer to the tube, but never touched it.

It will probably take us some time to get these individuals used to the tube, and when Lily comes out in a month we will start presenting the hyenas with the clear tube. Stay tuned until then, and don't worry there will be a post in the future with all of the bloopers resulting from crazy cubs, and annoying sub-adults, running around with toys.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Mara’s Cutest Tuckus

Mara’s Cutest Tuckus

Who will take home the prize?!
The Mara's cutest tuckus contest starts now!

Below you will find each contestant and their descriptive bio. They have chosen to answer at least 1 question within each of the below categories to prove themselves as having the cutest tuckus in the Mara. And you will be the judge!!

The competing categories are as follows:

Color: Arrangement of posterior markings. Is there a flow?
Texture: How rough is my butt? Or is it soft and cuddly to touch?
Sway: How do I work it? How well can I swing it?

Fecal water absorption strategy: Moist, Dry, Pellets, Mush
Environmentally Friendly: Do I make a mess or keep it clean?  Clean=yes, mess=no

Other uses or rear-end difficulties if applicable (species specific): 
Some examples include:
Antelope Flagging - predator deflection
Lion - Sexual signaling and receptivity

The Contestants

Mr. Erina the Eland
 I am the largest antelope in the Mara, but I am also the most skittish. 
I can jump ten feet in the air to avoid predators or just when I like to show off. 
 With all my remarkable characteristics I still believe my rump is my best asset.

My rear is broad and powerful. I tend not to flaunt my posterior. 
 My smooth caramel cappuccino rump 
is always sleek. My long tail helps keep the flies away.
 I do not like to make messes.  It's much better to keep it clean and classy. As one of the eldest antelopes it is my duty to continue our legacy of perfect rear ends.

Species: Eland (Taurotragus oryx)
Color: Caramel Cappuccino
Texture: Soft
Sway:  Classy

Fecal Water Absorption Strategy: Pellets
Environmentally friendly: Of course!
Other Uses: Fat stores

Big Mama Granten
Most people get me confused with my cousin, the Thompson's Gazelle. 
But I actually have much more mature and elegant features then he, which includes my butt. 
"Grants wear pants; tommies wear diapers".
 I do not mean to sound harsh, but it's true. I'm much more 
mature-looking than my close cousins the Thompson's. 
My white coloring starts up past the base of my tail 
and then perfectly falls in the roof of my hooves. 
My black outlining markings can assist in 
deflecting the predators that try to eat me. My tuckus is tight! 

Species: Grant's Gazelle (Nanger granti)
Color: Warrior white
Texture: Soft.

Fecal Water Absorption Strategy: Pellets.
Environmentally friendly: Yes
Other Uses: Predator Deflection!

Timothy Thompson
Timothy Thompson is my name and the cutest butt award I have to claim. Regardless of what you have heard about me from my cousins I still have the confidence to win this competition. We may be small but we have a lot of heart. I can move much faster than a Grant's and I am much more agile. I give predators a run for their money.

Species: Thompson's Gazelle (Eudorcas thomsonii)
Color: PikiPiki Pearl
Texture: Soft
Sway: Twitchy

Fecal Water Absorption Strategy: Pellets.
Environmentally friendly: Yes.
Other Uses: Predator deflection

The Felix Family
We are the Fearless Fisi! We have a lot of great characteristics that no other mammals possess. Our vocalization repertoire is incredible. We hunt 90% of our prey. Our matriarchal, hierarchical social organization is impressive and definitely more complex than any other carnivore in the Mara. But the things we can do with our tuckus are what truly makes us special. 

We have special anal gland sacs that we use for scent marking.  We call this pasting. This has similar motor movements to your dog when she wants to wipe her butt all over your nice white carpet, but fortunately we have the entire backyard of the Mara to do so. Our paste is filled with microbes that help us identify who is who and if other clan hyenas have been invading our space.

We believe that we should win this award not because we have the cutest tuckus, 
but because its function actually has an important meaning within our society. 

Species: Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta)
Color: Polkadot Pleasure
Texture: Fluffy Blotched Behind
Sway: Sassy Sashay
Environmentally friendly: Yes! Nugget Buckets.
Other Uses: Pasting

Mrs. Zirabi and Mr. Mufasa Lion
We are the privileged carnivores. The elite of the Mara. We take pride in everything we do! So it's only obvious that we win this award because we deserve it. Without us being on top of the food chain, the Mara would not be the beautiful place it has become. Vote for us, because our butts deserve it.

Species: African Lion (Panthera leo)
Color: Golden and Grand!
Texture: Perky

Fecal Water Absorption Strategy: Moist/ Mush, Nugget-like
Environmentally friendly:  Heck no!

Other Uses: Sexual signaling and receptivity

Ilza Chester 
We are elegant and sweet, the poised antelope of the Mara. We have a sleek reddish-brown color with smooth soft hair. The coloring of our rump is important for predator deflection and signaling to others in our group. 

Species: Impala (Aepyceros melampus)
Color: Red Rump
Texture: Soft.

Fecal Water Absorption Strategy: Pellets.
Environmentally friendly: Yes
Other Uses: Signaling and Predator Deflection

Oscar's Brigade
Birds rule because we do not have an anus or butts like those weird mammals. We have cloacas. The structure is similar, but we can mate, excrete uric waste, and lay eggs all through our one opening. We did not waste our energy on extra body parts. We are far more advanced than other species, especially those pesky mammals.

Species: Ostrich (Struthio camelus)
Color: Feather Fluff Grey
Texture: Smooth
Environmentally friendly: No, Bird Poop.

I’m famous for my butt. We hippos tend to wallow in our pools minding our own.
 We are not the cleanest bunches of blubber, but we sure use it wisely. 
We need to constantly regulate our body temperatures since we wade most of the day in our water pools. Our fat stores help with our thermoregulation among other functions.

Because we wade in water our poop is rather, how should I state it, runny. We do not need to reabsorb water from our poop to keep us hydrated like Thompson's Gazelles or Giraffes. We are quite alright spreading it wildly. But at least we try to keep it clean by pooing in our pools.

Species: Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius)
Color: Gallant Grey
Texture: Blubber Butt
Sway: Juicy Booty
Environmentally friendly: Unfortunately no.
Other Uses: Fat stores.

Tanya Ellie Endovu
We are the kings and queens of Africa. We have an amazing digestive system. We constantly need to be eating to keep us going and traveling long distances.  As elephants we digest 40 percent of what we eat.  We eat approximately 5 percent of our body weight per day and drink about 30 to 50 gallons of water. We eat an extremely varied vegetarian diet, including grass, leaves, twigs, bark, fruit, and seed pods. The fibrous content of our food and the great quantities consumed makes for large volumes of dung. This allows other creatures to survive off the nutrients in our dung.

 Our texture and color speaks for itself. Our wrinkles are unique and flattering! Grey is beautiful. We are so large yet can hide in a brilliant green bush and not be heard or seen.  That’s impressive!!

Species: African Elephant (Loxodonta africana)
Color: Graceful Grey
Texture: Rough Wrinkle.
Sway:  Classy.
Environmentally friendly: Yes.
Other Uses: Fat stores.
Rear End Difficulties:  TOO DANG BIG!

Sexy legs is our middle name honey! We can’t complain. We embrace our rumpious rear ends. 
We are big and voluptuous animals and we like it that way baby, mmmmhhmm! 
Our gluts are strong and we can gear up and give a big hind kick to any predator that comes our way.

Our accent colors and high hip bones say it all. We are the models of the Mara. Do Not Forget It!

Species: Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis)
Color: Patches of Plenty
Texture: Scratchy Satin
Sway: Sexy

Fecal Water Absorption Strategy: Pellets.
Environmentally friendly: Yes, Dear!
Rear End Difficulties:  Hard to scratch down there!

Jeremy Jackal
I am a sight for sore eyes. Everyone knows that Jackals have the cutest tuckus. It's only obvious from our fluffed tail and our multicolored rump. We are quite similar to your dog at home.  We use our anal glands (which are similar to your dog's) to mark our scent. We may also use our rump to show we are ready to mate.

Species: Black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas)
Color: Calico Fusion
Texture: Fluff ball
Sway: Spunky
Other Uses: Signaling and Identification

William Beasty
I am said to be the mush-pot of the species. “When God created the earth and all the animals in it, I was created by using all the spare parts that were left over from the other creatures.”
Keep that image in mind because that means that I am not the same, or even similar, to any other creature in the Mara.  Therefore my argument for having the most unique and authentic tuckus is warranted by default—I am the Wild Beast!

Species: Black Wildebeest (Connochaetes gnou)
Color: Bold Black
Texture: Soft Velvet
Sway: Trot-about

The Fisi Campers
We wanted to compete in the contest even though our booties may or may not have a chance against the rest. We know how to shake it, rattle and roll it when we need to and move the canopy when we all get together to celebrate. We are the life of the party. Fisi campers know how it goes down!
Species: Human (Homo sapiens)
Color: Brilliant Booty Blast
Texture: Cuddly and cushy
Sway: Jungle Swag
Other Uses: Dancing until the sun comes up!

The Ontogeny of Pasting Behavior in Free-living Spotted Hyenas, Crocuta crocuta

  • Kevin R. Theis
  • Anna L. Heckla
  • Joseph R. Verge
  • Kay E. Holekamp
  • Monday, April 25, 2016

    SOUNDS OF KENYA: Hyena Play, Whoops, and Aggressions

    Out here in the Mara, much of our time is spent (you guessed it!) watching hyenas. But while we are watching hyenas, we are also listening to them, and sometimes they make some very interesting noises.

    For your listening pleasure, I give you young cubs in South clan playing and running through tall grass:

    This next track is a tiny cub in Happy Zebra territory named Mandrake making a long-distance call termed a "whoop":

    Now, Mandrake did try really very hard to whoop, but he hasn't quite learned to do it properly. Here is a sample of an adult male named Bodinayakanur (Bodi, for short) whooping properly in South territory:

    Hyenas reinforce their linear hierarchy with aggressions and submissions, and these displays can often get rather noisy. In the following track, listen to Boffin, Mirage, and Pixie (3 young cubs) giggle as they aggress on a much bigger and older (but lower-ranking) adult female named Palazzo, who squeals and growls in response to their aggressions:

    Hope you enjoyed listening in on the life of a hyena! Be on the lookout for more Sounds of Kenya posts if you want to hear more hyena audio!

    Monday, April 18, 2016

    Just call me Ishmael

    It all started 8 months ago, when I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young RA, new to the Mara and her wiles. I was alone at the lab table, struggling through one of my early transcriptions, when I looked up and spotted something on a tree just beyond the tarp. A bird was seated there, perhaps a foot in length, decked out in spectacular blues and greens with a crest fringed in white. I think I actually gasped out loud. I couldn’t believe it was right there in front of me. I was used to seeing such magnificent birds in books or zoos, not perched casually in my front yard like a common sparrow.

    As is always the case with these things, my camera was nowhere nearby, so I edged slowly to my tent, keeping an eye on the bird and begging it not to fly away. With a flash of red underwings, it hopped to a new branch. “PLEASE stay there!” I said as I ducked into my tent. But by the time I’d retrieved my camera and hurried back, it was gone. I grabbed our camp bird book and flipped through it until I found my new friend: Schalow’s Turaco. “Look!” I told everyone in camp later that day, “look what I saw!” “…Riiiight” everyone replied.

    Months passed. I took pictures of dozens of amazing animals, birds included, but I never forgot the turaco. If I could just get one picture of it, I could convince myself that what I had seen was real. But the Mara had given me one tantalizing look at this beautiful creature, and now it seemed I would never see one again.

    One day, I was once again seated at the lab table, this time with Robyn and Emily working nearby. My gaze wandered away from my computer to the trees that edged our camp. Something moved in the high branches of a tree, silhouetted against the sky. As it fluttered to a new perch, I caught a glimpse of red underwings. “TURACO!” I shouted, diving for my camera. “What? What???” Robyn and Emily said, as I sprinted towards the tree where I’d seen my quarry. I snapped picture after picture, but the bird remained elusive. The photos came out backlit, blurry, or blocked by leaves. With one final flap, the turaco vanished and I was left with a handful of lousy pictures and a new goal in life: take one beautiful picture of a turaco. I was Ahab, and that bird was my Moby Dick.

    Close, but not quite!
    This song and dance was repeated several times. Every few days the turaco would appear in camp, flitting between trees and somehow choosing the perfect spot to sit that made it impossible for me to grab a good photo. I kept my camera next to me at all times. I’d memorized the turaco’s call, a raucous repeated “kaw!” that seemed all out of whack with its beautiful plumage. I was beginning to contemplate climbing trees just to get this one stupid picture. During one of these brief visits, I noticed the turaco had something in its beak. It was gathering twigs, and flying to a tree that leaned over my tent. I realized it was building its nest directly above the spot I slept. “I think it’s mocking me,” I told Robyn and Emily. “…Riiiight” they said.

    Getting better, but still not what I wanted. Note the twig in its beak!
    Mocking me with its nest was the turaco’s final mistake. It had picked a permanent location to sit, and now it was only a matter of time. The turaco perched itself in a beautiful sunlit spot and I took the opportunity that was handed to me. “I got the photo!” I crowed, marching back over to the lab table with camera in hand. I smugly put my memory card in my computer, pulled up that triumphant picture and… it was out of focus. The leaves in the foreground were perfectly crisp, while the turaco remained vaguely blurry in the back. Even so, I couldn’t bring myself to care. The iridescent blue of its wings, the sunny green of its body, the glowing red of its mask – all this was captured in the photo and that’s what I had wanted. I may not have gotten a perfect picture, but I had something to remember it by.
    At last!
    We still see turacos in camp from time to time. After I got my photo, the nest-builder seemed to lose interest and didn’t return to lay eggs above my tent. Perhaps it was only doing it to laugh at me after all. Since then, I have gotten one more way to remember my beautiful, mocking friend, a way I can be sure it will never fly away from me.

    Thursday, April 14, 2016

    Faces of Talek Town

                On our side of the Maasai Mara, we have the convenience and blessing of having a town nearby. Talek town is relatively small (especially in comparison to larger Kenyan cities such as Narok or Nairobi) but ever expanding in size and influence. Talek is home to a primary school, secondary school, medical clinics, multiple gas stations, hotels, restaurants, a bank, numerous clothing, grocery, and general shops, as well as open-air automotive garages and repair centers. Talek is situated just outside of the reserve and within a 20-minute drive from our camp. Bringing together a mixture of tribal and religious affiliates, Talek is a melting pot of cultural diversity and a hub of entertainment and resources for not only the local people but also tourists and us fisi-campers.
                Becoming familiarized with the ins-and-outs of Talek is a process that doesn’t take too long. Weekly, we frequent the town every Wednesday for “Market Day”, where we stock up on groceries, camp supplies, gasoline for our Land Cruisers, butane for our oven, phone credit, and all too routine tire puncture and vehicle repairs. But aside from the weekly visit, we stop by Talek every once in a while to enjoy the local restaurants, hotels, bars, and to run any errands that spontaneously arise.
                Talek wouldn’t be all that it is without the people that inhabit its seemingly fluid limits. I’ve been here for nearly ten months now and have made lasting relationships with shop owners, mechanics, tailors, and many other residents that have undoubtedly permeated and enhanced my experiences. The people of Talek are welcoming, understanding, trusting, kind, insightful, and overwhelmingly engaging. Through these relationships my eyes have been opened to lifestyles seemingly much different than my own, but in reality what I’ve come to learn is that we are all just people, doing what we can, with what we have, where we are. Here in the Mara and in Talek, life is just simpler. The value of genuine interaction, looking into another’s eyes and actually taking the time to listen and respond appropriately has been instilled in me whilst living here. In anybody’s life there is always much happening, much to think about and much to be done, but what I’ve learned through my interactions with the people of Talek is that there is always time to be taken to connect with another. For my post this month I wanted to share some of these influential persons, those that have not only greatly impacted my year but significantly and continually impact the town of Talek as a whole.
    Here's Anne (top left) in all of her glory - she is such a caring individual. Beneath her we have one of her tailors who is a mastermind of innovative clothing creations, and to the right you can see Anne's shop, known as Vision General. 
                 Anne is a one-of-a-kind woman. Each week for Market Day she helps us out by gathering half our list of produce items, most of which she grows from her own garden (green peppers, cilantro, potatoes, sweet potatoes, zucchini, tomatoes, butternut squash…). She owns a tailor/grocery/general shop and fashions the local school children with their uniforms as well as providing the people of Talek with unique and personalized clothing items.  A woman in charge, she manages multiple properties all while doing so with a contagious sense of optimism and tranquility.
    In all its splendor, Bel-Mara Green Grocers. To the top right, Mama Christy tries to hold in a smile after I slaughter some simple Swahili phrases... and beneath her one of her daughters Diana relaxes outside the shop peeling some sugar snap peas. 
                Bel-Mara: the shop we visit for any and all of our produce needs and desires (bananas, watermelon, avocados, mangos, pineapples, kale, cabbage…). Mama Christi owns the place and her daughters help her with the workload when they’re in town from university. These women provide ample amounts of fresh vegetables, fruit, and various sweets to the town, having made a name for themselves through their unmatched customer service and charm. They’re constantly giving me lessons in Swahili and often treat me to a fresh ungumu (like a scrumptious doughnut hole) whenever I’m passing by. Bel-Mara is also our source of sugar, tea, kerosene, matches, wicks, scouring pads and steel-wire, and other random camp supplies. They’re much like family to all that live and work in camp.

    Ali! Don't let this picture fool you, he's always joshin' around! 
                 Ali is the man. Always sporting an ear-to-ear grin, he owns Tawfiq, one of the gas stations in town, and has been a friend to Talek camp researchers ever since he opened the place. Trustworthy and full of energy and life, Ali never fails to make me chuckle. Providing us with reliable diesel for our vehicles and butane for our stove, we wouldn’t be able to get around or cook without him.
    This is Siyat, one of the Mubarak workers. Soft spoken, he always knows exactly what we need and even carries it out to our cruisers to load up the supplies for us. 
              The guys of Mubarak have been friends to me from my first Market Day back in July of last year. Mubarak is a popular general store and always crowded with people looking for a cold soda or juice, grocery or household item - you name it, they probably have it. We get our boxed milk, flours, and phone credit from the store. They’re always relaxed, despite their constant flux of customers, and have taught me a thing or two about taking it easy throughout the rush of a daily schedule. They even give me a free soda every now and then!
    Meet Maina, Talek's live-in mechanic.
                Our go-to mechanic in Talek, Maina, owns his own open-air automotive shop known as Rafiki Auto Garage and just recently opened up a top-notch spare parts shop, Rafiki Auto Spares. For those Disney-lovers out there, remember Rafiki from “The Lion King”? In Swahili, ‘rafiki’ means ‘friend’, and Maina certainly has been a great friend to the project. If we’re ever out on observation sessions and need the rescue of a mechanic, Maina doesn’t hesitate to travel wherever we are in the territory to save us. He and his team are always blasting some catchy tunes and busting a move while they work on vehicles at their garage. Maina and his guys are reliable and they never fail to put you in a good mood. His services have helped us out of many pickles and he not only aids fisi camp but the entire community too, including residents’ personal vehicles and lodge vehicles as well. So in a way, the tourists (or us!) wouldn’t be getting around without the expertise of Maina and his team of mechanics. He truly is a heck of a guy, and beneath his solemn exterior he is a softy at heart, having listened to many of my ramblings about vehicle problems and providing me with soothing assurance that all is well – "hakuna matata" you could say.
                Talek, as with any place, is full of surprises if you just take the time to look for and appreciate them. Between busy observation sessions, hectic research responsibilities, and near constant camp management duties, I’ve found myself balancing the ‘work’ of this position with (of course) the grandeur of the Massai Mara and bush living, but also the unexpected, revealing wonders of Talek town itself. It possesses a character all its own, one that can be attributed to the people who call it home. Talek is more than a town - it is truly a community, where friendship, family, and love are abounding from the walls of every shop, where you need only spend five minutes in the town center to experience the surge of energy that is unique to this space and place.

                Talek town will forever be a part of me and I owe that entirely to the relationships I have been blessed enough to have formed. I am a behavioral ecologist, yes, but I first am just a person like any other. In Talek, this could not hold more true. In supplement to the guys in our camp, these wondrous friends of Talek have taught me that we are all living in the moment, that we all only have the current moment. We have this saying in camp: “Today is today. Whoever says tomorrow, is a liar.” Through my experiences in camp, Talek, and my ventures around Kenya, I think it is wise for all of us to remember that life in unpredictable, that yes we are all “too busy” far too often, but there is always time to pause and absorb.

    Michigan State University | College of Natural Science