Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Greatest Scape

Near the Mara River, thirteen hyenas feed on a fresh hippo carcass.

While Michiganders spent December sliding across slushy and icy roads and bundling up against the cold, life in the Masai Mara was a completely different story. I'm not just referring to the temperature, either; December brought a great drought to the Mara. Over the course of two weeks, we received only 2 millimeters of rain. Although the Mara River snakes past our camp, running the length of North Clan's and South Clan's territories, there is still hardship. Without rain, the grass cannot grow, and without the grass, many herbivores went hungry. The wind whipped up dry dust. The plains faded from green to tan. Even the blubbery hippos grew weak from hunger.

This drought didn't hold back everyone, though. The ever-cunning, opportunistic hyenas narrowed their focus in on the hippos, picking them off as they traveled to and from the Mara River under the cover of darkness, seeking grass.

Driving back at the end of observations, I was reflecting on what a calm morning it had been. We had hardly even seen any hyenas! As we neared the "Hippo Pool" on the river, we then realized why the morning had been so quiet: half of North Clan was piled on top of a fresh hippo carcass.

While scrambling to identify the twenty-seven bloody hyenas whirling around the carcass, we saw some incredible aggressions.

The Greatest Scape: Being a clever girl wasn't enough to keep this hyena off the hook. Shoot Her teamed up with Hey Jude and Soup Nazi against his own sister, Clever Girl. Clever Girl is the lowest ranking of her siblings, and soon her other sibling, Where's The Goat? joined in against her too. It wasn't long before six hyenas were all ganging up on Clever Girl, despite her many, exaggerated submissive behaviors: squealing, giggling, grinning, pinning her ears back, submissive posturing, and even crawling across the ground. Frustrated, Clever Girl took off to find herself a scapegoat. Shockingly, she actually scapegoated -- or "scaped" -- onto a higher ranking hyena, Billie Jean! Rather than escalating the fight with Clever Girl, who, let's face it, was having a rough day, Billie Jean took off after Leprechaun, in immigrant male. I'm pretty sure "scape-chain" isn't in the ethogram, but it sure looks like one to me! See the video below.

The Greatest Scape

Hyena Politics: Hyenas' lives truly are ruled by their clan's linear dominance hierarchy. Leprechaun, an adult male, circles the carcass for half an hour before finally finding an opportunity to make off with a little scrap for himself. However, this low-ranking male just doesn't catch a break; within seconds, a small subadult hyena, Where's The Goat, puts Leprechaun in his place, snatching the scrap back. See first video below. A mid-ranking female (Gummy), on the other hand, walks off with a whole hippo leg to herself, no questions asked! See second video below.

Hyena Politics: Leprechaun is thwarted

Hyena Politics: it's good to be Gummy

Vocalizations: Over the course of the morning, we also heard the whole array of hyena vocalizations. In the video below, a tractor pulls a hot air balloon basket past the carcass, sending the hunters into a bout of whoops and alarm rumbles!


In addition to identifying twenty-seven bloody hyenas, we faced several other obstacles as we watched the Northies feast.

First, when you study some of the most adorable animals in the world, it's hard not to get distracted!

Will you just look at those wittle feet?

There are also the inevitable aggressions that take place almost within sight.

The most inconveniently-positioned bush

Lastly, some of the bolder Northies like to come and say "hello" to us. Below, Gummy investigates my camera. I love getting close to hyenas, but not this close!

When you're faced with one of nature's fiercest creatures,
and your only defense is to blow air in her face.

All-in-all, this was a great day to be observing in North Territory... and an even better day to be a North Clan hyena!

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