Friday, September 14, 2018

No work and all play

While on our morning observation yesterday, Benson and I had the joy of finding 5 hyenas on top of a very dead, very putrid vulture. While looking through our binoculars to ensure no subtle behaviors were missed, we were simultaneously trying (and failing) to cover our noses from the horrible smell. However, the hyenas didn’t seem to mind the smell, in fact they seemed to enjoy it. At first, it was difficult to tell if the hyenas had acquired the bird with intent to eat it, or if they were merely playing with it. Behaviors that we would typically classify as aggressions (e.g. snaps, bites, chases, and lunges) appeared to be being exhibited, but the recipient of the behavior never exhibited the submissive behaviors typically seen after an aggression (e.g. laying ears against the head, grinning, giggling, defensive parrying). With hyenas with ranks all across the board, it was quite odd at first to not see any submissive behaviors being displayed from the lower ranking individuals. In fact, it appeared that all five individuals (Arby’s, Athi, Complex, Eowyn, and Richard Hatch) were all excitedly vying for their turn to roll in the carcass and cover themselves in the smell of dead bird. After witnessing a few interactions that we initially thought were aggressive in nature, we were able to discern that these hyenas were indeed playing with not only each other but also the vulture carcass.

Play behavior is commonly seen during the development of mammalian species and is typically seen in juveniles. Adult social play has been observed in multiple mammalian species, including spotted hyenas (Estes, 2012). Play behaviors are often high energy – e.g. running or chasing, and overall result in a net loss of energy for the individual(s) involved. So why waste the energy, especially in this case where there was a seemingly perfect energy source present? Since it’s so initially costly, it’s thought that play behaviors function to fine tune animals to situations they will experience later in life (Nunes et al. 2002). In a gregarious animal like the spotted hyena, social play, like we saw yesterday, probably functions to establish relationships with other individuals in the social group (Holmes 1994, 1995). It’s also thought that certain play behaviors allow the players to strengthen their motor skills (Nunes et al. 2002) so that they’re better equipped to deal with situations in which those behaviors could help the individual defend themselves, territory, or a kill (in the case of hyenas). As for the function of rolling in a dead bird, it’s possible we’ll ever know. Maybe the smell is just as enticing to hyenas as it is revolting to us!

Complex and Richard Hatch appear to lunge at Arby's, who leaps away from their playful advance. 

Everyone (not so patiently) waits for their turn to roll in the dead vulture.

Athi and Richard Hatch chase Arby's in circles around the dead vulture.

Hyena play pile!

Arby's playfully lunges at Athi while Richard Hatch sticks sticks his nose under Arbys' tail.

It's hard to be upset about the smell of the dead vulture when this is providing the lighting for the whole scene. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

For all your awkward nursing photo needs

Yep, you guessed it! Today's post is an ode to hyena mothers all around the globe! Let's face it, we don't give our moms enough credit for putting up with all of our shenanigans. Hyena moms are no different... except that each of their cubs is born with a full set of razor sharp teeth (as though motherhood wasn't difficult enough). So today, I've gathered together my favorite collection of nursing photos to demonstrate the plight of a spotted hyena mom. Shall we begin?

Here we have the classic "mom is a jungle gym, but also, I'm hungry!"

Although, sometimes you're in the middle of playing with mom and you realize you're exhausted. So you use her as a body pillow while she stares woefully off into the distance, wondering if she'll know the meaning of a peaceful nap ever again.

Let's take a minute to enjoy our beloved mom, Smooth Criminal. She's nursing Esio Trot and BFG (our Roald Dahl books lineage).

Typical nursing photo, am I right?

Now, juxtaposition that with Anatolian and her two cubs, Toph Beifong and Naga. While Spotted Hyena cubs will nurse until they're roughly a year and a half old, at a certain age it begins to look a little silly. These two are almost the size of their mother!

Clearly she's ready for them to "leave the nest"

We've made it to my personal favorite, Clever Girl with her cub PUDD (short for The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, an Agatha Christie novel).

After spending hours of your day nursing in various awkward scenarios, sometimes all you want to do is curl up in a nice patch of grass away from it all.

But then you look over...

And remember that it's worth sore nipples.

And you can't help but crawl in close for a good snuggle and a nap. After all, sometimes it's the little one's turn to be the pillow.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Morning Commute in the Maasai Mara

Here in the Mara, my fellow researchers and I wake up in the dark and head out to catch our hyenas at their most active time – dawn. As such, we see a very different side of the Mara compared to what many tourists see. In the early light of golden hour, we see the animals just as they begin to stir from sleep or head home from an adventurous night. Whether they’re coming or going, we see our favorite Mara animals on their morning commute.

First we have the infamous Serena Camp leopard, slinking home from an evening out on the town. Regardless of how wild his evening was, he never has a spot out of place.

Of course in any commute, there are those who oversleep. Here we have the bat-eared fox still in its fluffy pajamas, sound asleep at home.

Next up is the lioness, stopping quickly at the local coffee shop to refresh herself after a long evening of hunting and bonding with her sisters.

Here come the Topi mothers eager to drop the little ones off at daycare.

The Guineafowl, always running late, aren’t afraid to fly their way through morning traffic in the fast lane. Watch out!

Not ones to complain, the wildebeest are experts at this commute. They travel along in seemingly endless groups and lines, happily munching on a breakfast of grass, grass, and more grass.

No morning commute would be complete without at least one aggressive driver. This hint of road rage is provided eagerly by lions the each morning.

Last, but not least, we find the hyenas. Quick to rise and get a start on their day, the cubs bound and play to wake up their tired muscles for their morning lessons in hunting, fighting, and mating behavior.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Power Struggle Continues

If you read the blog regularly, you know that a couple months ago BUAR, our Talek West matriarch, was declared dead. Since then we’ve been watching the hyenas as they figure out who the new matriarch is, which has involved a lot of injuries for our Talek West females.

As I previously mentioned, the most likely candidate for new matriarch would be one of BUAR’s daughters. The line of ascension should naturally fall to BUAR’s youngest daughter of age, NANO. However, the other females won’t let NANO take over so easily. NANO’s older sisters might also want to become matriarch, and it’s also possible that someone not even related to BUAR might make their play.

We’ve seen a lot of evidence of the power struggle going on in the weeks since BUAR’s passing, mostly in the form of wounds. The females will decide the new matriarch by fighting it out, and we’ve seen many physical results from those battles. KNOT, a BUAR kid, has been limping on one of her back legs almost every time we’ve seen her lately, possibly indicating she’s been going for the crown. DECM, KNOT’s older sister and a popular contender for the throne, has also had her fair share of damage. At times we’ve seen DECM not even putting weight on one of her legs. Even middle ranking members of the clan, like MAA and MGTA have battle scars. MAA is totally missing the top half of her ear now, and MGTA has a new ear slit that comes in very handy when IDing her. Whether they’re supporting someone for matriarch or trying to ascend themselves we aren’t sure, but hopefully we’ll see who the victor is soon.
KNOT, the future matriarch?
Will it be KNOT or DECM, continuing the dynasty of their mother?
DECM, our new queen?
Or will a new queen rule the clan, like MAA or MGTA?
MAA, the dark horse
Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Primates of Zanzibar

While one never gets tired of the majesty they see in the Mara, it can be nice to have a change of scenery. One of the amazing things about East Africa is that one does not need to travel far to experience a whole new ecological world. While the island of Unguja in the Zanzibar archipelago off the coast of Tanzania is a mere 3 hour flight from the Maasai Mara – it’s wildlife makes it seem a world away. Being an island, Unguja is home to many unique animal (and plant) species not found on the mainland. Perhaps some of the most unique species are found in Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park in the center of the island.
            The Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park is a 19 sq mile park on the island of Unguja and is the only national park in Zanzibar. It’s also one of the last strongholds for the endangered Zanzibar Red Colobus monkey. Between 1,600 and 3,000 individuals survive, and despite having Jozani as a stronghold, approximately 50% of the population lives outside of protected areas. The species is also found on Uzi and Vundwe islands in the archipelago. The main threat to these monkeys is habitat loss, but they are also sold in the exotic pet trade and are hunted for their meat.

A mother Zanzibar Red Colobus monkey and her infant. The Jozani primates are very habituated to humans and she continued to nurse her infant despite our presence. 

It’s thought that the monkey has been isolated on the island since the end of the Pleistocene, making it unique from other colobus species found on the mainland. The monkeys’ coloration ranges from dark red to black with a pale underside. While the monkey has a long tail much like that of New World primates, the tail of the Zanzibar Red Colobus is not prehensile and is instead used only for balance. Unlike other primates, the Zanzibar Red Colobus monkeys lack an opposable thumb. To make up for this lack of a digit they have four long fingers on each hand that allow them to clasp firmly to branches as they travel through the forest.  
Another Red Colobus mother and infant. The Zanzibar Red Colobus monkeys are known for their smaller head and hunched body shape - both exhibited well here. 

 The monkey is primarily arboreal and tend to feed on fresh young leaves and are one of the only monkey species to not feed on ripe fruit. However, in agricultural areas the monkeys have been known to spend more time on the ground. Certain populations of red colobus monkeys have been observed feeding on charcoal, which has been shown to be passed on from mother to offspring and may aid in the digestion of exotic plants.

Juvenile Zanzibar Red Colobus playing in the canopy. 

            In addition to Zanzibar Red Colubus, Syke’s monkeys are also found within the national park. While not endangered or vulnerable, the survival of the Syke’s monkey is threatened by habitat destruction and are susceptible to human retaliation due to their tendency to feed on crops or exotic trees. Unlike the Zanzibar Red Colobus, the diet of these monkeys consists mainly of fruits. They have also been observed consuming invertebrates such as slugs and worms. Unlike the Red Colobus Syke’s monkeys exhibit sexual dimorphism with the males being larger than the females.

A Syke's monkey munching on some old leaves and fruit. 

Being able to walk in the forest and see some of its most charismatic species was definitely one of the most memorable parts of the holiday. Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park was and continues to be a stronghold for both species of primate as well as tree hyrax, bush-baby, dik-dik, and a wide variety of marine species. The park currently partners with the local people in efforts to raise awareness about the forest and its inhabitants to work towards its current and future conservation. 

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science