Wednesday, October 16, 2019

MVPs of the Month!

Here in Serena Camp, we love all of the hyenas equally. Whether it’s a little cub who is gradually learning its place in the dominance hierarchy, or a full-grown male who is scared out of his mind while slowly approaching a female, every hyena we observe contributes important data to this project. Nonetheless, there a couple of hyenas that have gone above and beyond this month!

Happy Zebra Clan: Lizzo aka LZZO!
At only ~8 weeks old, LZZO is one of the newest additions to the Happy Zebra clan!

Last week, we’ve had not one, but two, film crews out here with our hyenas. We’re always happy to accommodate these film crews because, let’s face it, our hyenas don’t necessarily have the best reputation out there. The hyenas, on the other hand, don’t always play along. Film crews usually approach us with their client’s shot list (which is exactly what it sounds like: a list of all of the things that the client wants to have video footage of). We usually refer to it as a wish list: these shots range from very feasible (grass blowing in the wind), to pretty manageable (two hyenas aggressing onto a third one), to “yeah, okay… good luck with that one!” (a leopard approaching the communal den underneath the full moon).

As most of these film crews have rather limited time frames to get all of these shots, I often encourage the hyenas to participate. While the film crew and I are driving towards the communal den, I will silently urge them to have a fresh carcass waiting for us, and maybe they could also be fighting over said carcass with two lions? And perhaps the neighboring hyena clan could also show up to this carcass? Would that be too much to ask for? The answer? Yes, absolutely. 

The reality? We show up to the communal den, three moms are sacked out, nursing their cubs. Two other cubs may be playing with each other. Personally, I actually appreciate these slower den sessions, as I can enjoy the little things that I may not notice when I’m busy transcribing all of the aggressions/appeasements/greets happening during a busy session. One of my favorite behaviors that I’ve witnessed so far went a little something like this: a young cub, standing next to the den hole, lifts one of its hind legs to scratch an itch near its ear, loses its balance, and falls straight into the den hole. Too cute! 

Unfortunately, watching all of our hyena cubs sleeping against each other does not make for very good television, so I continue to pray for a fresh carcass. Enter LZZO! While everyone else has been sacked out during most of the filming sessions, LZZO has been very eager to please the audience. LZZO has been incredibly busy trying to play with all of the other cubs at the den (which usually ignore it as they continue snoozing). LZZO even aggressed onto one of the adult males who stopped by the communal den one night. Yes, that’s right, with the dominance hierarchy in place, a little cub like LZZO can easily aggress onto full-grown hyenas, and win. Hollywood, watch out: LZZO is truly a shining star.

South Clan: Jojo McDodd aka JOJO!
Originally known as "confusing cub," JOJO nursed from three (!) different mothers when we first met all of the new South cubs, leaving us thoroughly confused as to who its actual mother is.
As you know by now, all of our South cubs are technically MVPs at the moment. Because we didn’t know the location of the communal den for South clan for quite some time, we are currently in the process of habituating these cubs to us, our car, and our data collection process. When we first found them back in July, all of the cubs startled whenever we turned on the car, accidentally knocked our water bottles against the dashboard, or coughed too loudly. Since then, however, their curiosity has won: the cubs will walk right up to our car and investigate it as soon as we drive up to their den. 

Now that they’re comfortable with the car, it’s officially time to introduce them to something much, much scarier: the saliva stick. Saliva sticks are basically plastic tubes with a bit of rope attached at the end that we can use to safely collect saliva samples from the cubs.*** These samples are crucial back in the lab as they contain DNA! Getting these samples, however, can be tougher than expected – hyenas hate things that are above them, so holding these saliva sticks out of the car can be quite scary for them. Nonetheless, this month’s true South MVP, JOJO, has been a very eager participant. While the other cubs carefully investigated the saliva stick, quickly backing away as soon as their noses accidentally touched the stick, JOJO walked straight up and started chewing on the rope! Truly a hero we don’t deserve.

North Clan: Aang aka AANG!
Part of North's premier sibling power duo, AANG, along with her sister TARA (Katara), is officially old enough to no longer hang out at the communal den. Nonetheless, both of them somehow magically appear whenever there is food available at the den. 
I like to think that being confident is a good thing. Unfortunately, every once in a while, I’m objectively, unequivocally, 100% dead wrong. Earlier this month, the Northies treated me to a carcass while on solo obs. A lot of hyenas usually hang around fresh carcasses, so these moments are always a great opportunity to see lots of cool behaviors. Even better, I saw some of our cubs that are slowly becoming independent of the communal den as I was driving closer to this carcass – very cool! The only problem? The carcass was on the other side of a flooded track. “No problem, this is easy! I can totally get there!”, I thought to myself while confidently shifting our Cruiser into 4-wheel drive. WRONG!

Halfway across the track, my speed slowly, but surely, reached 0kmh. If you’re not very experienced with mud driving, that’s the one thing you don’t want to happen while driving through mud (okay, maybe not the only thing, but it’s definitely up there on the list). Needless to say, I did not make it to the carcass. In fact, I did not make it anywhere for the next two hours while I waited for help to arrive. Luckily, I was not stranded by myself! AANG, one of the older cubs in North clan, was wandering the territory by herself when she spotted me in the distance. Rather than continuing on with her morning walk, she actually turned and loped towards the car – very cute! She spent a good 20 minutes investigating the car and keeping me company before resuming her morning routine. Truly an adorable MVP.

***We use saliva sticks for scientific purposes only. Hyenas are wild animals, and it is important to remember that even these cute little cubs are predators with very sharp teeth. We do not condone any behaviors that put us or the hyenas at risk, and will always hide the saliva stick from tourists to prevent them from attempting similar things with the hyenas. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

If You Want to See a Cheetah Hunt...

As manager of Dr. Kay Holekamp’s laboratory in Michigan, the Mara is not normally where you find me. Our research assistants (or “RAs”) are the ones in the field and the usual contributors on the blog. Logging hundreds of hours with our hyenas, they collect data that later finds its way to my desk in Michigan. Having never been an RA, it’s been a priority for me to see how ours live and work day-to-day by visiting the Maasai Mara myself – and I was fortunate enough to be offered the opportunity to do just that!

“The field” (a catch-all term for anywhere biologists gather their data) doesn't have to be across the world. Depending on the project, a field site might even be the bird feeder in a scientist’s backyard. At the Mara Hyena Project, we’re lucky enough to call the sprawling, scenic grasslands of the Maasai Mara our study site – a place easy to imagine as packed with nonstop action. After all, TV depicts the Mara as a place of constant, thrilling hunts, shot from every angle and in great lighting.

While everyone here has to eat, actually witnessing a hunt isn’t easy as television might make it seem. It’s tough to be a predator, and some of the most popular – cats, like lions and leopards – miss their catch far more often than they succeed. To see a hunt in action, even an unsuccessful one, you have to be in the right place at exactly the right time.

But it’s not all serendipity. There’s a price that every observer, from film crew to researcher, has to pay: Watching gorgeous animals, who could wow you with any number of exciting behaviors, do absolutely nothing but sleep. A lot.

By now you know that we don't study cheetahs, but they do share the Mara with our spotted hyenas. And who passes up the chance to see a cheetah?

The scene is this: We’re on a morning drive, watching a few hyenas at the den. Sacked out in the grass, moms are suckling their cubs. One of our RAs, Jana, is quizzing me on hyena IDs. She takes photos, passes them to me, and I practice recognizing individuals by their spots. It’s shaping up to be a pleasant but routine morning.

We drive on and come across a group of tourist trucks, clustered around something tucked in the grass. It’s a cheetah. There’s no space to squeeze in for a good look, and then an “alien” male – a hyena who isn’t part of our study clans – wanders into view. It’s back to work and we take off after him, following until he’s gone beyond the boundaries of our study groups.

By the time we get back, the cheetah is alone and asleep. Her audience has moved on, searching for a more exciting way to spend their vacation time. We break for a few minutes and hope she’ll do something.

It doesn't look promising. 

We whisper hopeful instructions, encouraging her to notice the nearby antelope or call for a pair of (imaginary) cubs. She gets up and wanders along the roadside, pausing on a mound of dirt. It’s the perfect place to survey the landscape for prey. Is that what she’s doing?

Nope. After this photo she lays back down.

I’m someone who could watch a cheetah sleep all day. When it comes to wildlife viewing, patience is part of the deal – if we wait, who knows what might happen? But we have other work to do. There are no hyenas here now, and we're stalling. A cheetah is still a cat, and she could spend hours napping, relaxing, or just deciding which direction to walk in.

Just a few more minutes, we decide.

Then, there’s the rapid drum of footsteps. I look toward Jana’s window. Outside it, everything is happening at once.


The cheetah swings around the back of the car, kicking up dust across the dirt road. She and her target come into full view. 

An African hare!
I swivel the lens and keep shooting. A sprinting cheetah is so fast, you will miss it if you blink.

It all takes just a few seconds. The cheetah gives up the chase, and the hare disappears into the grass. What might have been a brief moment with a sleeping cheetah turned out to be action-packed after all – especially for the hare.

Photos © Sabrina S. Salome

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Camera trapping in Talek camp, episode 3.

Hello everyone, I'm sure you've all been wondering what new visitors we had in Talek camp this time. Here is a selection of our best photos from the last weeks. Enjoy!

Baboons are always around and keep on wondering what this weird little camera is.

Dik-diks are also a very common animal in our camp. They love sleeping by our tents and posing for the photos.

Many animals are still intrigued by the camera trap, even big ones!

Even bigger ones!

Animals also really enjoy showing their bottom to the camera, so here's a little compilation of the most beautiful ones... starting with a hippo.

Eland, they also love to step on our rain gauges and break them...



... and elephant!

We have a lot of cute and lovely encounters, like this very pretty female bushbuck.

This baby baboon is enjoying the ride on mama's back.

Banded mongooses are fun, until they start digging under your tent when you're trying to nap...

We have a lot of giraffes coming too, unfortunately their heads never fit in the photo...

A young zebra.

Baby elephant following its mom!

Some of the encounters are a little more scary, like having big elephants traveling in camp during the day.

Sometimes they are even caught making a mess and breaking trees!

Some hyena friends are also paying us a visit.

This hippo came out of the river at 7am...

...and came back home 3 hours later!

Buffalos are probably the animal that we like having the least, so dangerous...

And we also had a leopard visiting us, very exciting!

Hopefully, our night guards are always here doing a good job keeping these animals away.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

3 months in the Mara!

Hi all,

I’ve been in the Mara for a little over 3 months now, which means that I’m officially more than halfway to the halfway point of my year out here, which basically means that I’m almost 30 years old (not really of course, but time sure does fly by fast out here!). Before I came out here, Erin, former Serena RA and overall awesome person, warned me that living in the bush for a year can be challenging, but also incredibly rewarding. Since first arriving in the bush, I’ve learned some valuable lessons:

Most importantly, I’ve learned how to identify hyenas based on their spot patterns, faces, ear damage, body shape, and overall scruffiness. Just a quick disclaimer: spot patterns are the only accurate way that we identify our hyenas, so Lila and I always double check spots if we use other methods. Nonetheless, some of our hyenas, especially the older ones, have been through a lot and it definitely shows. Together, Lila and I can identify most, if not all, of our hyenas when we pull up to one of our communal dens now, which is really cool!
We (primarily me) referred to SASS (Assassin Bug) as Teddy Bear until we confirmed its mother because it looks really fluffy compared to the other cubs at the den.
Second most importantly, I’ve learned how to drive a 5-ton, manual transmission car through our different territories and the bustling streets of Nairobi. This includes off-roading (rocks and wallows are your enemy, avoid at all cost) and mud driving (high ground is your best friend, embrace whenever possible). The most important lesson here is safety first! We only off-road in areas that we know are safe and if it is absolutely necessary to ID hyenas and will often skip an obs period or two if the roads are too muddy after rain. 

Meet KAS – Serena’s powerhouse of a car. Off-roading, mud driving, and long trips to Nairobi with all of our field supplies… she truly can do it all. 
On a less fortunate note, I’ve also learned why everybody warned me about the rainy season: siafu ants. Their underground nests will easily flood in the rain and, similar to us while mud driving, they will seek higher ground. Although we are technically in the dry season right now, we’ve gotten quite a bit of rain in the past couple of weeks. One morning after a rainy night, I was woken up by what I assumed was more rain falling on my tent. I was wrong! When I opened my zipper to meet Lila at the lab tent for morning obs, I realized that my tent had been claimed by an incredibly ambitious siafu colony. Although I made a quick dash for the lab tent, some of the ants were still able to climb onto me: ouch!

After spending the first night in the Mara anxiously listening to what sounded like lions that were right next to my tent, which in fact turned out to be hippos that were indeed very far away, I’ve also learned how to identify animals based on their sounds. Most importantly, I now know what a distressed zebra sounds like! I honestly don’t even know how to describe or mimic this noise, but it’s definitely not at all like what I expected it to be. Before you ask, however, I still have no idea what a giraffe sounds like – stay tuned for future updates.
Baby Zebra! This is the smallest one that Lila and I have seen so far... we think it may be less than a week old. 
While we’re on the topic of animals, I’ve also learned how to sex elephants… in theory. Lila has explained this concept to me numerous times (it has to do with the angle of their forehead, but maybe ask her about it instead). Nonetheless, I still have to wait until I see a fifth “leg” before I can accurately point out a male elephant. 
A little elephant! Is it a male or a female? I have no idea.
Lastly, I’ve learned that Philimon will get upset with me if I repeatedly ask for hard-boiled eggs with breakfast because he “can also cook omelets, and fried eggs, and scrambled eggs” and basically anything else that requires a little bit more effort than boiling eggs. In all honesty, I am so grateful that we have Philimon, Moses, and Stephen in camp with us – they truly spoil us when it comes to food and ensure that our camp site is always properly maintained, and that Lila and I have everything we need. 

Overall, the past three months have been an incredible experience so far, and I cannot wait to see what the rest of my year out here has in store for me.

Bonus Pictures:
RMON (Ramon) and GAZR (Star Gazer) may be contributing to the next generation of North clan soon. Seeing hyenas mate is incredibly rare, but Lila and I saw not only these two, but also another couple in South territory, mate this week. Very cool! (Disclaimer: when I first saw these two in the distance, I thought it was a waterbuck that was awkwardly grooming itself.)
Although we didn’t see her while she was mating, SOUP, the current matriarch of North clan, recently brought her two cubs to the communal den. Meet DASH (Dashi Soup) and SQSH (Squash Bisque). Lila still pronounces SQSH as “squash”, but I like to pronounce it so that it rhymes with DASH (Lila cringes every time).
Plot twist: it’s not hyenas! This pair of Egyptian geese is currently raising 9 (!) little goslings. We often see them while we’re out on obs in Happy Zebra territory, and always stop to make sure that there are still 9 goslings. So far, so good!

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Fisi Fashion

Here at Serena Fisi Camp (fisi is Swahili for hyena) we go through more outfits than you might expect. We start off every morning freezing our behinds off and finish off our evenings back in the cold. However, Kenya has a tendency to heat up very quickly throughout the rest of the day. So here my co-RA Jana and I would like to give you a little tour of our Fisi Fashion: 
Although not taken at 0530 when we leave for mornings obs, this is how Jana starts off nearly every morning.

I myself tend to bundle up, but to everyone's surprise, we're not going to the snow! I'm just that cold.

Come midday, Jana and I tend to do our daily work out, but as Jana is advertising here, it's safety first here at Fisi Camp! Just check out that hydration and high SPF sunscreen.

I tend to go a little more low intensity when exercising; just enough to get a little sweaty so yoga is my go to.

Sometimes we dress up to get drinks at the nearby lodge or when we really want to make a good impression. But you'll never catch me without my Tevas!

Jana gets even more dressed up than I do with those fancy jeans!

After we work out we tend to just lounge and relax. Jana would like everyone to notice that her idea of relaxing is to solve hard sudoku puzzles. Gotta keep that brain sharp!

When lounging, I tend to read a fiction book to take my mind off the stress of the day, but Jana and I have very similar uniforms when it comes to loungewear, mine just happens to be blue instead of black!

As you can see, Fisi Fashion varies widely! From fleeces and sweatpants to elephant pants and tank tops, every day we go through our closet to find the most weather appropriate outfit for that hour. And here, comfort is key, but that doesn't mean we don't stay fashionable! Gotta keep up with those trends, am I right? We are even lucky enough to be able to get some clothes made just for us, Jana tending towards beautiful black and white patterns while I look for as much color as can fit on a piece of fabric. We all have our styles, and they're all great! What's your Fisi Fashion?

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Favorite Sightings so far!

Hi all!

As you probably know, this job requires a lot of driving around the Mara. While Lila and I are primarily looking for suspicious-looking rocks, branches, and topis that could potentially be hyenas, we also encounter some incredible sightings along the way. Here are a couple of my favorite moments from the past 2.5 months: 
It’s mid-July, and rumors had started spreading: the great migration has finally come to the Mara Triangle! Indeed, thousands of wildebeest were hanging out right across the river from us, waiting for a prime opportunity to cross to our side. Eager to see our first major crossing, Lila and I decided to go on an official stake-out. Armed with unfinished transcriptions, binoculars, and snacks, we decided to find a spot close to BBC crossing (one of the many crossing points along the river). As we typed up our transcriptions, the herd of wildebeest slowly crept towards the edge of the river. Two hours into our stake-out, Lila and I decided to drive a little closer to BBC crossing to see how far away the wildebeest were (our previous spot had given us a great view of the river, but bushes obstructed the edge of the cliff). Suddenly, we saw not one, but two cheetahs who appeared to have been hanging out with us for quite a while without either of us noticing them! And, it looked like the wildebeest were right where we wanted them: the only place left for them to go was through the river. Lila and I were stoked to say the least. Until the hyena came! We love our hyenas with all of our hearts, but man, this was not the time to make an appearance. Within five minutes, a single hyena effectively managed to scare all of the wildebeest away from the edge. Disappointed, Lila and I decided to give up – dinner time was quickly approaching. As we drove back to camp, however, we realized that there was a major crossing finishing up a little down the river that we had completely missed. Big L.

Day two in the Mara. Erin and Lila are showing me around our three territories and pointing out various landmarks that we use to orient ourselves. Eager to see my first hyena/lion/cheetah/leopard/eland/etc, my eyes were constantly scanning our surroundings. At one point, Erin casually points to a random tree in the distance: “This is Scrawny Sausage Tree, which marks the end of one of our prey transects.” If you’re wondering how sausage trees got their name, a quick Google image search should enlighten you. Inspecting the fruit that was hanging down from this tree, I was intrigued by one particular fruit – it was darker and fuzzier than all of the other fruit. A quick scan of the tree led to another fascinating fact about this fruit: it was connected to a leopard and was not a fruit at all. Another quick scan of the tree led to an even more fascinating fact: there was a freshly-killed impala in the tree as well. It looked like we had just missed an exciting hunt! Nonetheless, the leopard was more than willing to pose with its trophy for us. Very cool. On an unrelated note, we found a natal den that appeared to belong to SAW (Saw), one of our Happy Zebra mothers, around five minutes later. Although we were unable to see any cubs at this den, SAW has recently brought her cub, ELDR (El Dorado), to our communal den!

What’s cuter than a little lion cub? Three little lion cubs. What’s cuter than three little lion cubs? A mother lion carrying around one of the little lion cubs in her mouth. Unfortunately, I was not able to get any stellar photos of that, so you will have to settle with three little lion cubs and their mother walking off into the distance. Still adorable though!

Our conversation at this sighting went something like this:

Jana: “Wait… are they fighting?”***
*2 seconds later*
Jana: “Wait… are they mating?”

***In case you’re curious, giraffes fight by smashing their necks into each other while standing next to each other.

Another case of mistaken identity! This seems to be a recurring theme throughout my blog posts, but I swear it’s really hard to spot predators that are meant to blend in with tall grass!!! As Erin, Lila, and I were driving to our communal den in Happy Zebra, we noticed an oddly-shaped tree branch/log on the side of the road. Since we drive through these territories regularly, we immediately notice when a rock has moved, a tree branch has fallen, or anything else is out of the ordinary, so we were thoroughly confused by this new branch/log. None of us realized that we were looking at a leopard until we were 5m away from it! To be fair, this was unlike any of our other leopard sightings so far. Usually, the leopard will walk away or hide in the tall grass as soon as a car pulls up, so it was weird to see a leopard sitting quietly right next to the road. As we drove by, we could’ve easily reached out our hands and petted it (don’t worry Mom, I didn’t!).   
You already knew that I *had* to include a picture of hyenas in this blog post! Meet BSCT (Seabiscuit) and her cubs, BLT (B.L.T.) and CHEZ (Grilled Cheese), from South clan! Lila and I are very obsessed with our new cubs in South (see our very excited blog post from July), so it’s always nice to see them out and about while we’re on obs. Now, please look at BLT’s face (the one in the middle) and try to convince me that hyenas actually belong in the Ugly Five.

Honorable Mentions:

Seen on solo obs the other day while I was alone in camp – just 4 lionesses and I! Usually predators in the Mara are accompanied with lots of tour cars, so it’s always nice to have solo encounters with them. 

Too cute not to share 😊

Lila and I managed to see a crossing after all! No wildebeest were harmed (good for them, but Lila and I were hoping for some crocodile action).

We even randomly encountered one while taking our Maruti out for a quick spin. I kid you not, we stopped to let this herd cross the road, and two minutes later they were on the other side of the river (the first few crossings we saw took ages!).


Michigan State University | College of Natural Science