Thursday, September 28, 2017

War, What is it Good For?

Saw my first clan war on the 17th of September! When we arrived at the scene, it looked like the hyena version of a World War I battlefield. Both Main Doc and KCM were out in force with at least 35 individuals on each side, with a 150-200m "no mans land" almost always separating the two forces.

 Main Doc clan contingent.

Part of KCM clan contingent

I was surprised at how ritulized the fighting was between the clans. Before every charge, each side out huddle up and social sniff and great each other as though to psych each other up and reaffirm their social bonds. Once they felt sufficiently bolstered they would charge en mass toward the other clan, who would run away far enough for a new "no man's land" to be established. Then the other side would begin their counterattack. 

Main Doc (top photo) and KCM (bottom photo) stalking en mass before the charge.

 Example of the back and forth nature of the battle. Main Doc is on the left and KCM is on the right. Note the "no man's land in between".

Adonis (KCM clan) literally drooling from excitement during the fight.

So who won? Honestly we don't know, both sides looked evenly matched, any ground one clan would gain would be immediately lost in the other's counter charge. Though it would break down into a confusing melee occasionally, there was almost no blood shed, and most injuries seemed to have been from tripping or twisting while running around.

Major melee during the war.

Initially it looked like a draw as both sides slowly dispersed due to boredom.However after about 10 minutes, KCM then returned to border and made a final push, soundly routing the five Main Doc hyenas left, and capturing Maji Fisi (a water hole). Though they frolicked in the watering hole in victory, one has to ask the philosophical question, if one comes back to a fight after both sides leave out of boredom, is it truly a victory?

KCM leaving the fight.

Psych! Counterattack! Sorta...

KCM clan playing in Maji Fisi.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Recent hyena-cheetah shenanigans...

As we've seen from earlier blogposts (see "South hyenas are feeling rowdy" and "Interspecies Encounters") hyenas, as well as being skilled hunters, really like to "mess around" with other species. Even when they're not hungry, their curiosity can still get the best of them and they love to investigate just what their neighboring Mara animals are up to. 

This morning started out like any other, just a bunch of sleepy hyenas at the Main Doc clan's den.
I was just getting ready to put some of my cognition testing apparatus with the hyenas when they all jumped to their feet and bolted to the east. This usually indicates they've heard something exciting going on so we dropped everything and accelerated after them.  

We found five pissed off cheetahs.
These are two hyenas out of the "Five Musketeers": a coalition of five cheetah siblings that have been hanging out in Main Doc Territory. 

The five musketeers had accidentally stumbled into a high density of hyenas less than half a kilometer from the den.

This cheetah did not reciprocate the hyenas' desire for playmates.

These poor guys were just trying to relax as the morning sun came up.

The commotion kept attracting more hyenas who wanted to come check out the cheetahs.

This cheetah did not want any hyenas in its personal space.

The cheetahs attempted to hold their ground and ignore the excited hyenas, but enough was enough.

Cheetahs can run really fast and jump quite gracefully.

The cheetahs eventually found refuge in the lugga.

Pissed off cheetah.

Two hyenas chasing a cheetah into the lugga.

Once the cheetahs had fled uphill into the thicket around the lugga the hyenas were apparently satisfied. 
I'm not totally sure if the hyenas felt like they needed to defend their hunting grounds near the den, if they just wanted to assert their superiority over the cheetahs, or if their high curiosity just led them to investigate, but it didn't take long for the cheetahs to get the message and find a different place for their morning nap. 

Overall, hyena-cheetah conflict is limited; reports suggest that hyenas steal only 9% of cheetah kills. While spotted hyenas are a threat to cheetah cubs, lions are actually the biggest competitor of both species. In areas with less lions, both hyena and cheetah numbers increase, partly due to an increase in juvenile survivorship. Cheetahs also hunt more often during the daytime when other large predators like hyenas and lions are less active which helps minimize conflict. 

Further reading:
Caro, T. (1994). Cheetahs of the Serengeti Plains: group living in an asocial species. University of Chicago Press.

Sarah M. Durant. (2000). Living with the enemy: avoidance of hyenas and lions by cheetahs in the Serengeti, Behavioral Ecology, 11(6), 624–632.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Mara Marathoners

I am no newbie when it comes to long distance running. I ran my first marathon my junior year of high school, my second just last year, and a handful of half marathons between the two full ones. Yet I am also a Massachusetts native, and have almost exclusively run at or around sea level, so one of the biggest adjustments to life in Kenya for me has been training my body to run at over 5,000 feet in elevation. Needless to say, it has been a struggle.

That being said, my jealousy for the hyenas is very real. Hyenas are the marathoners of the Mara. Once they have selected their prey, spotted hyenas can chase them for several kilometers, potentially reaching speeds around 60km/h. They have a number of physiological advantages that allow them to be such superb runners. Their claws are non-retractable, giving them good traction and allowing them to make sharp turns. Compared to their body size, they have a very large heart, giving them incredible stamina. They also have a long snout filled with blood vessels. As they breath, the exposed air vessels help to cool their body temperature, allowing them to run farther without overheating than many other runners in the Mara.

While the Mara holds these amazing distance runners, Kenya itself is also famed for producing some of the best distance runners in the world. Particularly, the Kalenjin tribe is famed, with one member, Wilson Kipsang (pictured below), setting the record for the fastest marathon time ever recorded—26.2 miles run in 2 hours 3 minutes, which averages to 4 minutes 42 seconds per mile. Diet and a lifetime of living at a high altitude certainly help explain why people from the Kalenjin are such phenomenal runners, but they, like the hyenas, have physiological adaptations that appear to give them an advantage. They have remarkably thin ankles and calves. When running, the leg acts as a pendulum, and having as little weight as possible at the bottom makes it easier to swing, which could make a runner faster. For more information on Kalenjin runners follow this link:

 Wilson Kipsang has the fastest marathon time ever recorded, running at roughly 13 miles per hour for 26.2 miles straight. But even he would be outstripped easily by the hyena. So in my own personal opinion, spotted hyenas are some of the best marathoners in the world.  

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science