Wednesday, May 15, 2019

A poppin' hyena den

Currently our Happy Zebra clan is, for lack of a better phrase, poppin’ off the rocks. There are currently two active communal dens in the territory, but it’s one in particular that is exceptionally hectic.
Lugga D2 in all its glory. 
Right next to a deep lugga, a gorgeous den site sits. Open and far away from where tour cars stray, we share many private moments with these hyenas. Currently, we know of 13 cubs that are using this site: HWK cubs (WMEN PPL), SGL cubs (RBG NSH), MUON cub (RPSD), RUMG cubs (ARGO NAUT), EREM cub (MSHU), PIKE cub (SHOT) and Slash, Infinity, and Tim, whose mothers we have not yet confirmed. See the end of this post for their full names. We also, VERY excitingly, saw LANC carry a tiny baby to the den (video below) and suspect she has another stashed away. AKA there is a LOT going on.

Managed to take this short clip in the excitement!
When we roll up on this den, it’s never just the 13 cubs present, but usually five or so moms, a few subadults, and maybe a male or two ambling around in the distance.

I’ll paint you a picture of the den session on the morning of May 13th.

At 0602 we arrive. Instantly, we are greeted by RPSD NAUT NSH Infinity and Tim. They know our vehicle well. EREM (a mom) is sacked out by the den. PIKE, the matriarch, isn’t present, but we see her three highest ranking kids, FEMI, MUNG and BARD, running around trying to play with the cubs. Lila and I laugh as we see an adult hyena emerge from a den hole. Our laughs quickly turn into shock as we realize this is LANC...another of PIKE’s cubs. Her being in the den hole was a total shock, as we did not think she had cubs. MUNG and BARD run over to LANC, who submissively open mouth appeases and goes ears back before retreating back into the den.

Cubs nervously grooming FEMI.
Over the next 10 minutes, the rest of the cubs emerge from the many den holes at this site. We watch as the cubs groom one another, play, whoop, and engage in nervous greets with the higher ranking subadults. The best part of these den sessions is watching the aggressions/submissions and how the cubs grow in confidence over time. Tim, originally a timid cub when we first met, now freely aggresses onto the other cubs, and cubs approach him with their ears back. SHOT, PIKE’s baby, is the youngest cub present but has the confidence of a much older cub – exactly what we would expect from a baby of a high-ranking mother. WMEN and PPL act as they usually do, nervous and suspecting of the car, just like their mother.

We see RUMG, a mother, lurking in the distance. We hypothesize she is keeping space to avoid being aggressed on by FEMI MUNG and BARD. As if to confirm our hypothesis, MUON, a low-ranking mother, suddenly arrives and is met by FEMI MUNG and three cubs who all attack her into submission with bristle tail points, stand overs, and bite shakes. RPSD, her baby tries to nurse on hoof for a few seconds. Sadly, MUON leaves as quickly as she arrived L Poor MUON and RPSD.

We spent an hour and a half at the den this morning and there was never a lapse in excitement. We saw a gorgeous sunrise, were able to collect many saliva samples for DNA/hormone analysis, discovered that LANC likely has two cubs, saw many many examples of the dominance hierarchy being learned/implemented, and shared many laughs over hyenas being the silly animals that they are. It was also the first time Serena camp’s newest RA, Lila, transcribed at this crazy den and she did an amazing job. These mornings are never dull and always memorable J

Full names: Hawk (Women's Health and People), Shangri-La (Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Diane Nash), Muon (Bohemian Rhapsody), Why is the Rum Gone? (Argo and Nautilus), Eremet (Mushu), and Pike (Sling shot). Lance, Feminine Wiles, Hunga Munga, and Bardiche also mentioned above.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Story from the field: Hyenas vs warthogs!

One of the best things about working in the field as an RA, is that each day is different and you never know what surprise the Mara will bring to you every day. Sometimes, we sit at a den and only few hyenas are there and they are just sleeping and no interaction is going on. But sometimes, the dens are very busy and very entertaining things happen. So today, let me tell you the story between hyenas and warthogs that happened at one of our dens a few weeks ago.

So, this den is a big complex with many holes communicating with each other’s. Both hyenas and warthogs were using those holes and they were very close neighbors. This night, many hyenas including cubs were at the den when warthogs arrived and wanted to go inside these holes. However, AQUA (the matriarch of Pond clan) wasn’t happy about that and started to chase the warthogs away. The warthogs were very determined to reach their holes and kept on coming back, but AQUA was also very determined to not let that happen. She chased them away several times and they kept on coming back, the warthogs were also chasing her away! After a while, we noticed that AQUA has a wound on her hip and that she is bleeding, she got speared by one of them!! When this happened, other hyenas (especially hyena mums) got excited and joined AQUA to chase these warthogs away. At the same time, they were also social sniffing the warthog’s holes, joined by some of the cubs.

At some point, a mom warthog and her baby manage to go through the hyena’s defense and reach their hole! When the hyenas noticed that, they all started to dig into that hole to reach them. The mama warthog got scared and managed to get away from the hole and escape the hyenas, but she left her baby behind… AQUA went right into that hole and digged in there for a good 15mins, being helped by three other hyenas. After some time, we hear some screams coming from inside the hole and we see AQUA coming out… with the baby warthog! She managed to get him inside the hole and she ran away with it to have a well-deserved snack for herself, she was not willing to share! AQUA was really not happy with these warthogs wounding her, so she took her revenge by killing one of their babies. Well done AQUA!

AQUA, the matriarch of Pond clan. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Final farewell

It’s difficult to eloquently sum up the experiences one has after spending a year in a place as magical as the Maasai Mara, and it’s even more difficult to put the feelings one has upon leaving into words. I have many memories I could choose from to answer the question “what was your favorite thing about the past year?”. I could choose between seeing a cheetah tackle an impala at full speed 15 feet from our car, knowing I was one of the first humans Ygritte and Margaery ever saw as they wearily emerged from their natal den for the first time in our presence, driving through herds of thousands of wildebeest and being immersed in their weirdly necrotic smell, having a month long stand-off with a hyena adamant on stealing the socks I used to seal the hole in my tent zippers, the smell of mandazi in the early morning coming from the lodges along the Talek river, the list goes on and on. But if I had to choose, I think I would say my favorite memory from this year would be how the Mara said goodbye to me.
            The morning of my last day in the Mara I was on solo obs, sitting with a group of some of my favorite hyenas; Epic, Gothic, Pisces, Tiramisu, and Baked Alaska. I spent about 10 minutes with them as they came up and investigated the car, chewed the mud flaps, aggressed on each other, and gazed at me curiously with their big, brown eyes. They were so close that I could see my reflection in Pisces’s eyes. The lighting was perfect, each hyena was slightly backlit, the edges of their fur seeming to glow in the morning sun. After they had all simultaneously lost interest in me they started to wander into the nearby bushes. I called out to Epic, hoping to get them to turn around one last time so that I could get a photograph of their face. Epic ignored me, as did everyone else. It was almost like I didn’t exist to them. I watched them with a bit of a heavy heart, their tails swishing to ward off flies, as one by one they got further away from me until they all disappeared into the bushes. And just like they there were gone – the last group of hyenas I would see that morning.
            Initially I was really hurt; being blatantly ignored by some of your favorite animals on your last morning isn’t an easy thing to stomach. I wanted to leave them on my own accord, not the other way around. I sat there alone for about a minute, my voice cracking as I recorded their location into my DVR. After I stopped the track I was hit with a totally different feeling, a feeling of thankfulness, appreciation, and deep humility. How lovely is it that in the end, I mean nothing to the animals I’ve come to care about and love so much? How lovely is it that my presence, or lack thereof, has absolutely zero impact on how they conduct their daily lives? These animals, while they are habituated to our presence, are wonderfully wild, and have every right in the world to remain that way – and nothing I do should change that. While we are all supposed to be researchers emotionally removed from the animals we study, I know it’s difficult for all of us to not become emotionally attached and begin to view these animals as a little less than wild as a result. It happens to all of us whether we want to admit it or not. I think we all want to believe that they begin to see us as more than a weird, hairless, ape (if it even goes that far) attached to a loud metal tank that routinely comes to hang out uninvited at their house.
            But the reality of it is, while my leaving the Mara will mean so much to me and be a defining moment of my life, my leaving the Mara will mean absolutely nothing to her or her inhabitants. Life there will go on unchanged. The hyenas will not miss me, and while I’ll remember them for years to come, the chances they’ll even remember me in a month are slim to none. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m so thankful to the Mara for the final lesson she taught me and the way she decided to bid me farewell. Without this project, and the last five years I’ve spent with it, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to experience that, and for that I’m extremely grateful. I couldn’t have asked to spend my last five years with a more intelligent, wonderful, and determined group of people and wouldn’t be who I am now without everything they've taught me. Saying that leaving the Mara and leaving the project has been a bittersweet emotional roller-coaster would be a dramatic understatement. While I have absolutely zero clue what I’m doing next, whatever ends up happening, I’ll be taking everything I’ve learned in the past five years with me to wherever I end up.

Thank you to everyone, human and hyena alike, for everything.

I love you all.

Atacama, Epic, and Gothic. While Atacama wasn't there my last morning, she's too important to leave out. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Who cares about hyenas? Aren't you bored of them?

Anyone out there enjoy people watching? Me too (Disney World is the best place for this FYI). I’m now an avid hyena watcher as well.

A bunch of cubs...people watching.
This morning I was hanging out with five hyenas, SAMI, SLIM, TOBA, HONR, and PALA, and had a moment (or ten) of complete and utter gratitude.

All the time people ask me, why hyenas? Don’t you get so bored watching them day after day?

It was 6:15am when I stumbled upon this group of five. SAMI (a hyena who I feel knows me personally) immediately came up to investigate the car. TOBA joined her for the car investigation. I watched as TOBA acted submissive to SAMI, pulling her ears back and grinning as she approached. TOBA used to be one of the highest rankers in the clan until her mother, the matriarch, died. SAMI then walked over to her mother, PALA, to engage in a traditional hyena greet. The two of them, joined by TOBA, then aggressed onto HONR, the lowest ranking female of the bunch, who squealed and backed off. SLIM, an immigrant male, ran away after that...probably scared he’d be next. I recorded all of this into my DVR. They then all sacked out...besides SAMI who tried to chew on the car. We sat together and watched the sunrise. I felt so grateful.

A coalition bristle tail stand-over onto an individual who
ears back grins and carpal crawls in submission.
It’s an incredible thing to witness a hyena mother step in to assist her cub who is getting beaten up by a lower ranking hyena and show him his rank. It’s really neat to watch 12-week old babies, who have learned their rank, beat up on 8-year-old moms. Just the other day an adult female, MDRK, blissfully walked up to the den only to be instantly attacked by five tiny cubs. These babies didn't hesitate for a second before they were on her with bristle tail points, lunges, snaps, and even a few bite shakes. I smiled because I knew their mothers taught them they could and should act in this way.

But it’s not all so black and white. There are some hyenas I rarely see aggress onto anyone. The old matriarch of North clan, WAFL, was one of the most peaceful ever. Contrast her with PIKE, matriarch of Happy Zebra clan, who is a stone-cold b****, to be frank. Some cubs are the same size, like SGL’s babies, RBG and NSH, indicating they nurse pretty equally, while baby NAUT is about half the size of ARGO, indicating ARGO beats up NAUT pretty good when it comes time to nurse. SAMI and ROUG are some of the most curious hyenas I’ve come across -- always running up to the car to look me in the eye before nibbling on the front bumper. LOBI, my absolute favorite hyena, has taken it upon herself to be the guard of North den. Whenever someone new arrives she walks over and rustles them up a bit before escorting them to the den. I always feel a little bad for the immigrant males who try to come around because LOBI scares them off before they get anywhere near.
KRAB (a north clan cub) is very aggressive to her sibling RNTN.
When I first came out here, I wasn’t already head over heels for spotted hyenas (a reason I came was because it is an opportunity to return to the African savanna and study a large carnivore—a very rare opportunity). Now, I’m 100% here for these bizarre matriarchal creatures that exhibit amazingly complex social networks and intelligence, not to mention their remarkable immune resistance. In how many species do you have a female who has evolved to be more aggressive/larger than her male counterpart while also being a completely devoted mother to cubs that require intense care? I watch mothers that just single handedly took down a large antelope get on her back and roll around with a six-week-old cub.
It is a miraculous thing to be let into the world of another species. So the easy answer is, no, I’m never bored when I’m hanging out with hyenas. Over the past eight months I’ve built such a relationship with these weirdos. Hyena culture is so rich and multifaceted – always something going on, something changing.

So, I sat this morning with a full heart, feeling so small in the world with the thoughts swirling in my mind of all the complex societies that exist all around us, and thankful to those five silly hyenas for the reminder.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Over and Out

It's been just about one month since I've left the Mara and my heart is heavy. But it's also full. I've had time to reflect on what this last year has brought me and to say that I'm overwhelmed is an understatement. I've met countless awe-inspiring people that have motivated me to aim high and work hard, taught me that it's never too late to try new things and start new hobbies, challenged me with thoughtful, engaging, and wonderfully complex conversations, and most of all provided me with lifetime friendships. Two such people are my co-research assistants for the year, Jessica and Erin (pictured below). I can't imagine this experience without them.

Enjoying the views from a popular picnic location in the Mara Triangle Conservancy (Pictured from left: Erin Weingarten, Katherine Steinfield, Jessica Gunson)
At Kichwa Tembo Lodge to give a presentation on spotted hyenas (Pictured from left: Katherine Steinfield, Jessica Gunson, Erin Weingarten)

Before moving to the remote Serena camp, I was preparing for the level of social isolation that usually goes hand in hand with living in a camp of six people. But in fact, I was welcomed with open arms into the Mara Triangle community where I had the privilege of meeting my amazing Fisi Camp family, fellow researchers, rangers and park management, local lodge staff, safari guides, photographers, film crews, and even tourists, all from different backgrounds but sharing one thing in common: our love for wildlife. Through these friendships, I honed my photography skills, I practiced Swahili at the conversational level, I learned so much about the various cultures and ethnic groups that call Kenya home, I became an amateur birder, and I had the pleasure of accompanying several of these individuals at their places of work to learn more about how a wildlife conservancy functions. For all of these "once in a lifetime experiences," I am eternally grateful.

However, nothing fills me with more gratitude for my year than the time I spent with the hyenas. When we tell people what we do, it's usually met with disbelief that we could be studying such an unpopular species, and generally we get made fun of a lot for our outspoken and undying love of hyenas... but holy cow! They. Are. Cool. Not every researcher can say they get to see their study species up close and personal not once, but TWICE daily. If you follow this blog, I'm sure you're aware of many spectacular hyena facts. But let me list a couple of my favorites. Hyenas are so incredibly intelligent! They can understand each clan member's rank in a strict linear hierarchy sometimes reaching over a hundred individuals. As Emily recently shared, mothers will go through hell to raise their cubs (giving birth through their pseudo phallus, painstakingly nursing their young all day, carefully teaching them the entirety of their territory, guarding their cub's place at the carcass while they eat, all the while keeping them out of harms way). And last but not least, they can eat virtually anything (so jealous). My last morning spent at the North clan den was bittersweet but it's time for the next round of research assistants to have the most amazing year!

While leaving the Hyena Project is hard, I'm looking forward to the future. I managed to avoid the polar vortex for another year and have happily accepted a position continuing work in a Savannah ecosystem in central Kenya. Cheers to an unforgettable year, and another fantastic one to come! I'll leave you with some of my favorite photos of the famous "Ugly Five" because if we're being honest, these guys are the cutest.
Common warthog (Phacochoerus africanus)
Blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus)
Marabou stork (Leptoptilos crumenifer)
Rüppell's griffon vulture (Gyps rueppelli) and African white-backed vulture  (Gyps africanus)
Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta)

Friday, March 29, 2019

Search and Rescue

In the past two months, Serena’s North clan has fallen prey to a string of bad luck in the form of snares. An animal that has been snared is usually very distressed, and in no small amount of danger, until the snare has been removed. We treat these instances very seriously. Warning – some of the photos below might be disturbing to sensitive readers.

The first snaring event was in February. A friend from home was visiting, and on her last game drive in the Mara we noticed 4 tour cars and a ranger near one of our hyenas. Hoping for a carcass or lion-hyena interaction, we rushed over only to find our dear Zimu – only 16 months old – with a snare deeply embedded in his neck. Wire snares of this sort are set by poachers in the hopes of catching an animal to eat, and Zimu was an unfortunate byproduct of this. After a quick meeting with the rangers, we all agreed that we needed to call the Mara vet, Dr. Limu, immediately. He was at Sekenani Gate, several hours away, so we set up to watch over Zimu until the rescue could begin.

Zimu's snare dragged 3m behind him as he walked.
And then he went missing.

We looked away for only a moment when suddenly Zimu was gone. With the vet team on their way, and the potential for Zimu to pull the snare tighter and risk further injury growing with every minute, we called camp for reinforcements and started a frantic search party. Three cars, 4 hyena researchers, 2 rangers, and 1 hour later we found Zimu resting under the exact same bush we had last seen him.
Zimu was left with a lovely green/yellow collar of antibiotic spray
The vet team arrived shortly thereafter and Zimu was quickly darted and his snare removed. It appears that the snare had been embedded in his neck for days, and the wound was severe. After a quick shot of antibiotics and a spray of antibiotic solution (the green spray pictured below), Zimu was up and running! We checked on him periodically for the rest of the week, and can happily say that Zimu is fully healed and healthy once more. Hyenas are incredibly resilient to injuries, and we’re all so thrilled that this dramatic event ended happily.
Zimu healing nicely after his rescue. Photo courtesy of Katherine Steinfield.

Only a few weeks later, we got another call. Katana, son of the Happy Zebra matriarch and now an immigrant male of North clan, was spotted with a snare around his neck. I raced out to search for him, alerting the rangers that we might have another rescue on our hands. Several hours later there was no sign of Katana, and although we continued to search this area for weeks, we couldn’t find him. Just as we were beginning to lose hope – Katana reappeared happy, healthy, and completely snare-free! It seems that the snare on Katana was thinner than the typical snare. This could be a snare meant for a bushbuck or hare. Luckily, this meant Katana was able to break free all on his own.

It's great when we get a reminder of how truly resilient our hyenas are.

Hyena mothers

After nearly a year in the field, I’ve been asked plenty of questions about why on earth I chose spotted hyenas to study (and love). While the reasons why spotted hyenas are absolutely wonderful in every sense of the word are aplenty, my go to answer is always “I love spotted hyenas because spotted hyenas are intense mothers.” I have yet to find a person who isn’t surprised by that answer or that fun tidbit about hyena behavior – and it’s true, spotted hyenas are intense mothers!

Hyena cubs, while they’re born coming into the world fully armed and ready to fight, are heavily dependent on their mothers for the first few years of their life. Their mothers are of course their first food source, but they’re also responsible for introducing them into hyena society, stepping in (and acting as a security blanket) for them when cub play gets too aggressive, showing them the lay of the clan territory, and securing a spot for them at carcasses as the cub(s) begin to enter their den graduation period. This long period of heavy maternal intervention (compared to other mammals) is hypothesized to exist in spotted hyenas because of their feeding ecology and the time it takes for the skull of young hyenas to fully develop. Without a fully developed skull – and without help from mother – it would likely be next to impossible for a young hyena to survive past it’s weaning. Thus, if a mother wants her offspring to survive and in turn increasing her own fitness, it’s pertinent that she’s a good mother.

Meet some of our wonderful mothers from the Talek study clans!

This is LYCO carrying one of her newest cubs, PAFU from her natal den to the Pond clan communal den. Since their arrival at the busy den LYCO has been seen guarding the entrance to the den hole from any pesky older cubs who may want to harass her tiny little beans. During den sessions LYCO never moves further than 3 meters from the entrance to the den and is always there to lovingly greet her cubs when they decide to come out to say hi to the rest of the world.

This is PCES and her daughter LSKA. PCES is a caring mother through and through, and is often seen still spending quality time with her nearly adult daughter MISU. Whenever we stumble upon PCES and LSKA together, PCES is almost always nursing – and unlike many other mothers, won’t get up and disrupt her cub’s nursing upon our arrival. PCES encourages her daughter's curiosity and always makes sure she says hello to us when we pull up to a den session.  
Here is AQUA nursing her newest litter of cubs, ALBA and VELA, at her natal den. Being offspring of the Pond matriarch, these cubs have a privileged upbringing. AQUA is one of our most successful mothers and very rarely loses cubs. AQUA allows her cubs to investigate the world by themselves, she is very far from a helicopter mother. But she’ll always intervene if she feels things are escalating too quickly, whatever they may be, and being the matriarch, everyone around makes sure to listen.


HEL is a Talek legend. An old matriarch, overtaken by her daughter, and now likely acting as “queen grandmother” to the new matriarch. In addition, she’s successfully raised over 10 offspring to adulthood, and is still mothering new cubs. PITU and YUNI are her newest litter and growing up quick and strong. HEL is always around to make sure they know their ways around their territory, provides them with their own juvenile Thomson's gazelles to munch on, and ensures that at a crazy carcass session that there is more than plenty of room for her two youngest to feed. 

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science