Friday, August 19, 2022

How to fart (oops, sorry I meant *dart*, thanks autocorrect!) a hyena

Hi all,

It’s been a busy time in Fisi Camp (“fisi” means “hyena” in Swahili for those of you who are new to the blog), so this will be a short and sweet update. We are currently prepping for a massive study on communication and coordination in spotted hyenas (read more here: If all goes well, we will be deploying custom-made collars on all juveniles and adults in our Serena South Clan starting this fall. These collars will record all vocalizations, fine-scale movements, and GPS locations of each individual, allowing us to monitor the clan around the clock for a few months. Very exciting!! 

We are currently finishing up a small pilot project to test out the collars to make sure that everything works. Last month, we deployed collars on two very lucky KCM females (BRGR and BLLN). Here’s a “behind-the-scenes” look into what it takes to get these collars on:

Step 1: Find the hyena. 

This is often easier said than done. Not only do we need to find a specific individual (luckily this time any adult female hyena in KCM clan was good), but we also need to make sure that they are in a “good” darting situation. This means that they are ideally in short grass, away from any water sources, and with no other predators nearby.

Step 2: Dart the hyena.

This is left to the professionals – we had two vets from Kenyan Wildlife Services who helped us with this step. It is important to note that we darted and handled all individuals with the proper permits. I very highly do NOT recommend that you go out and dart your neighborhood hyena after reading this blog post.

Step 3: Wait for the hyena to go down.

We generally have to wait 10-15 minutes for the anesthetics to work their magic before we can approach the darted individual. On an unrelated note, these drugs also work great as a hyena laxative.

Step 4: Collect biological samples and body measurements.

Dartings give us a unique opportunity to collect critical data about the hyenas that we wouldn’t be able to get from purely observational studies. We generally collect blood, saliva, paste, and hair samples, as well as body and dental measurements.

Step 5: Fit the collar.

Now comes the fun part: attaching our precious collars to the individual. This is a pretty simple step – we just need to ensure that the collar is loose enough to not cause discomfort, but tight enough to not fall off easily. 

Step 6: Let the hyena recover.

Once we’re done collecting our samples and attaching the collar, the vets will administer the antidote. Within 10-20 minutes, the hyena is awake and ready to rumble (with a fancy new necklace!)

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Jambo from Kenya: Part 3

Hi all, I’m backkkk!

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Jana (Yah-nah) and I’ve been working with the Mara Hyena Project for a little over three years now. I started out as a Research Assistant in our Serena Camp in 2019, before joining the lab officially as a PhD student last summer. After finishing my first year of classes at MSU, I returned to Kenya at the beginning of last month to help teach BEAM, a study-abroad course run through the Holekamp lab for MSU undergrads. After BEAM, I spent a couple of weeks in Serena Camp before heading over to Talek Camp. That’s right! This Serena girl is making the Big Move to Talek!* If everything goes according to plan, I will be working with the Pond Clan over in Talek until April 2023 for my dissertation research. So, if you’re a Talek fan, rejoice! This blog will be featuring lots of exciting updates in the next coming months. And if you’re a Serena fan, fret not! This post will focus exclusively on our beloved clans, and I hope to visit Serena Camp while I’m out here. So, let’s get started!

*For our new readers, we have two camps: Talek Camp, which is in the Main Reserve, and Serena Camp, which is in the Mara Triangle. These two camps allow us to compare how hyenas respond to different management strategies and disturbance levels.

South Clan

OWEN, the dominant cub of MPRS's first litter
South Clan is back to its former glory and truly living its best life right now. Brian Heath, the Conservancy manager, burned a big portion of their territory earlier this year, which means lots of delicious new grass. Yum, hyenas love grass! Not quite… but their prey does. Impalas, warthogs, Thomson’s gazelles, zebras… you name it, South territory has lots of it. And lots of prey = lots of big, fat, happy hyenas = lots of new cubs. The South communal den currently has 11 cubs romping around, including 4 black ones. Most notable, MPRS, who was just a cub herself when I first met her, is nursing her first litter of two – DYDA and OWEN. They grow up so quickly! *MPRS: Empress Cicada, DYDA: Eko Dyddah, OWEN: Dady Owen

Happy Zebra Clan

CHET, JLYR's latest offspring and one of the newer cubs at the HZ den
Happy Zebra Clan is still obsessed with buffalos. When I first returned to Serena Camp, David, our Kenyan Research Assistant, was complaining that he rarely saw the hyenas away from the den. Though I could commiserate, I knew that I had hacked the secret to finding HZ hyenas while I was den hunting for 4 months last year: buffalo herds. Sure enough, the next day we headed straight to a big buffalo herd, where we managed to see 7-8 hyenas. Within a couple of days, we even found their new communal den, aptly named Buffalo Den. Unlike South, their communal den is relatively boring right now – I only saw 4-5 cubs during my two weeks in Serena Camp. Nonetheless, both JLYR and ANDO have new black cubs. The Great Migration should also arrive next month, so hopefully they will have more prey around and experience a cub boom soon. *JLYR: Jolly Roger, ANDO: Andor, CHET: Mary Critchett

North Clan

YANA, daughter of the current matriarch and hopefully future matriarch of North Clan

North Clan has been unusually elusive. During the nine months that I was back in the States, David only had their communal den for 3 weeks. Unfortunately, half of their territory turns into an impenetrable swamp during the rainy seasons, so our den hunting is very limited during those times. However, the long rains are officially over as of last week, so hopefully the territory will dry up soon. Either way, the North Clan hyenas graced us with a big hippo carcass, so I was able to confirm that the two most important hyenas are still alive: WAFL and YANA. WAFL was even nice enough to deposit a fecal sample for me to collect – science at its finest! *WAFL: Waffles, YANA: Solyanka

Spotted in Serena:

MPRS with her two cubs, DYDA and OWEN

I may have lost some of my photography skills while I was gone...

Staying warm on a cold and rainy morning

South Clan getting ready to steal a warthog from three lionesses

ANUB showing off the hippo skull he found

What a gorgeous field site!

Some quality bonding time between two brothers

ELDR from Happy Zebra following the buffalo

Lions are thriving in the Triangle right now!

Cub cuddle puddle 

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Goodbye Mara (for now!)

And that’s a wrap! As of last weekend, I’m back in the States for my first semester of classes as a PhD student. I officially joined the Holekamp lab earlier this summer and will hopefully return to the Mara in January for my first round of fieldwork. Until then, David, our latest Kenyan research assistant, will keep an eye on the Serena hyenas to make sure they keep their shenanigans to a minimum. As I embark on my new journey, I can’t help but to reflect on my time in the Mara this year. Although being the only researcher in Serena was challenging at times, I am eternally grateful for this experience.

Thank you to Brian and Sue Heath, for allowing me to conduct research in the Triangle, taking me on countless game drives, and hosting delicious dinners. Thank you for introducing me to the surrounding mzungu community when I was faced with the social challenges of living in a remote research camp. And most of all, thank you for not accidentally killing me on our last game drive through arguably one of the worst off-road areas I’ve encountered in the Mara. 

Thank you to Warden Alfred, Aruasa, and the other rangers for changing my flat tire in less than 5 minutes and digging me out of mud when I found the only wet patch in the entire Mara Triangle. Thanks for always stopping to chat while out on patrol, taking me out on game drives, and keeping me company at the infamous leopard bush for literally hours at a time. Lastly, I’d like to say the opposite of thank you, for the time you guys got me horribly stuck in black cotton soil for 3+ hours. 

Thank you to Benson and the entire Serena Team for keeping me alive out here. Simply put, I would not have survived in the bush for 7 months if it wasn’t for you guys. Benson, thank you for the endless supply runs, advice, and kindness. This project would not be the same without you.

Thank you to Lerijin for answering all of my 6am wake-up calls and WhatsApp messages. Thank you for rescuing me 3 times in less than 48 hours, for fixing KAS anytime a problem popped up, and for teaching me African time. 

Thank you to Fran and her kids for the picnics, lunches, and camping trip. Thank you for coming out to see the hyenas with me – may Austin and Zoe become the newest research assistants in Serena one day. 

Thank you to Simon for the hot showers at the lodge, which drastically improved my quality of life in the bush. Thank you for hosting my friends, the beautiful hippo pool breakfast, and yummy bush dinner. Thank you also for conceding that the “greedy” hyenas can actually be quite cute sometimes.

Thank you to Stratton, Perry, and all of the other visitors who stayed in Fisi Camp. Thank you for accompanying me on obs, listening to me rant about why hyenas are awesome, and teaching me about your research. Thank you for breaking up the monotony of regular camp life and expanding my social circle.

Thank you to Lila for listening to hours and hours of voice messages about literally anything and everything that happened out in the bush. I cannot wait for our reunion in the Mara next year. 

Thank you to the Mara for the beautiful sunsets, stunning landscapes, and incredible wildlife sightings:

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Meet the Wapi Dave Crew!

Over the last month, Happy Zebra went from my least favorite clan to my most favorite clan. From meeting the new cubs, to figuring out the hierarchy changes, to determining who has gone missing/immigrated while I was gone, there is always something interesting happening during an obs session in Happy Zebra. Last week, I also finally found the second Happy Zebra communal den. Happy Zebra has traditionally had two different dens at the same time: a relatively busy den with most of the high and mid rankers and a slower den with low rankers. Funnily enough, the hyenas are currently at Lugga Den and Wapi Dave Den, the same two places where they were denning at when Lila and I first started out in 2019. Although Wapi Dave Den currently only has 1 cub, it’s always fun watching the hyenas there interact. Here’s the general crew:

SILK – The Queen of Wapi Dave
Even though SILK is technically lower ranking than MUON, it seems like she is the queen of this den (SILK is the second lowest ranking mother, after SGL). With most of her offspring, from PLTO to BRUM, hanging out at the den with her, she always has a posse of potential allies around. Even RMMY and SKEP, who are also both higher ranking than SILK, have appeased to her over the past week.

PLTO – The One and Only Cub
The true star of this show: PLTO is currently the only cub at the den. Although it is beneficial for SILK to keep PLTO at Wapi Dave Den, where she can easily nurse her without interruption, PLTO is also missing out on crucial socialization right now. Cubs love to play with each other at the den and will often form important alliances/friendships with others in their cohort during their shared time at the communal den.

MERC – SILK’s Subadult Son
MERC is the dominant cub from SILK’s previous litter and loves to stop by the den to play with PLTO. Unfortunately, I have not seen his littermate, DOOM, around yet. Just like PLTO, both MERC and DOOM were raised at Wapi Dave Den.

BRUM – SILK’s Grown-up Daughter
BRUM is also SILK’s offspring, though she is sexually mature and even has a torn phallus, which indicates that she has given birth at least once. BRUM has been scent-marking and groaning a lot while at the den, which could potentially mean that she has little cubs at a natal den somewhere that she wants to bring to Wapi Dave Den soon. Fingers crossed! 

MUON – SILK’s Best Friend
Although I have not seen any cubs that could belong to MUON, she spends a lot of time at Wapi Dave Den with SILK. The last time I was there, MUON was generally within 1-2m of SILK, and even appeased to her cub, PLTO. Could SILK actually have climbed up the social ladder a bit during the pandemic?

JAZZ – The King of Wapi Dave
JAZZ is our highest-ranking immigrant male, and his long time in Happy Zebra clan has given him some special privileges, at least with the Wapi Dave Crew. Unlike other males, who generally spend most of their time 20-30m away from the main action at the den, JAZZ will simply walk up to any of the females and engage with them. He was even grooming BRUM’s leg without issues the other day!

DEGO – The Traditional Male
DEGO is one of the “newer” immigrants in Happy Zebra, though he has been around since 2019/2020. He behaves like most immigrants: keeping his distance from the others, anxiously backing away from anybody who approaches him, and generally appeasing to any and all hyenas he sees. 

Although Wapi Dave Den has fewer hyenas than Lugga Den, it generates a ton of interesting data! First, I love watching JAZZ interact with SILK and co. Whereas most males get chased away if they come too close, JAZZ can confidently walk up to anyone at Wapi Dave without having to worry about being attacked. Even OMHA, another long-term immigrant who spends a lot of time with the Lugga Den Crew, will behave very submissively and cautiously towards the females and cubs. Second, it will be interesting to see how the benefits vs. disadvantages of raising PLTO away from the main communal den will play out in the future – sure, PLTO is able to nurse without interruption at the moment, but she probably hasn’t met the majority of the clan yet, which will likely lead to a lot of stressful interactions once she den graduates. Third, could there have been a dominance switch-up among the low rankers? Like I mentioned before, several hyenas who are technically higher ranking than SILK have behaved submissively towards her. And lastly, just like with any other den, are there more cubs coming soon? MUON and BRUM are both spending a lot of time at Wapi Dave Den, and even RMMY and SKEP have stopped by to scope out the den.

Matriarchy Update
After watching the high rankers interact over the past month and a half, I *think* I finally have some concrete answers! It seems like BOOM’s daughters, SAVY, RUMG, and JLYR, have formed a close alliance to overtake the others. I can confidently say that JLYR is not the matriarch, though I’m still figuring out whether SAVY or RUMG is higher ranking between the two. Although SAVY should be higher ranking based on the old clan list, RUMG does have a strong ally in ARGO, her daughter, who spends most of her time with RUMG. For now, I have all three at the top of the clan list, with no other changes among everyone else (though I may have to move SILK up a couple of ranks soon too). 

Full names: SILK – Silkwood, PLTO – Plutonium-239, MERC – Mercury, BRUM – Candelabrum, MUON – Muon, JAZZ – Jazz, DEGO – San Diego, RMMY – Rummy, SKEP – Skeptic, OMHA – Omaha, BOOM – Boomerang, SAVY – Savvy, RUMG – Why is the Rum Gone?, JLYR – Jolly Roger, ARGO – Argo, SGL – Shangri-La


Wednesday, July 28, 2021

It's the little things

Out here, we have a lot of time to appreciate the little things in life... a hot, indoor shower after 3.5 months of cold showers, the first post-supply trip breakfast with avocado toast, eggs, sausages, AND cheese, the first mile on a paved road after off-roading through the Maasai Mara for months at a time... After over a year out here, I can guarantee you that I will never take a hot shower for granted again.
After mainly focusing on the Big Five while my visitors were here, this week has been incredible for small predator sightings:
Does a hyena cub count as a small predator? Probably not, but I wanted to include this little guy anyways. After months of waiting, we're finally seeing black cubs at the communal dens again :) ROUG, from South, has two small cubs right now (COLR and PNCL) and LANC, from Happy Zebra, has one cub (LAVA). RUMG, from Happy Zebra, has also been spending a suspicious amount of time in/near the den hole, so I have been keeping a close eye on her in case a black head or two pops up out of the den. Hopefully this is just the beginning of a little baby boom: THLS and SAVY, both from Happy Zebra, and RANG, from South, could possibly have cubs as well. Both THLS and SAVY have been spending a lot of time at the den, groaning and pasting (scent-marking) throughout the obs sessions. We generally witness this type of behavior right before moms will bring their new cubs to the communal den. RANG showed up to the South communal den for the first time this year (that I’ve observed at least) last night with very prominent nipples, a good indicator that she may also be nursing right now.

*Full names: ROUG – Moulin Rouge; COLR – Lip Color; PNCL – Brow Pencil; LANC – Lance; LAVA – Laevatein; RUMG – Why is the Rum Gone; THLS – Toothless; SAVY – Savvy; RANG - Rangsang  

My visitors and I saw this serval pouncing around the grass in Happy Zebra territory earlier this week. We immediately stopped and turned off the car to quietly watch it successfully hunt a little mouse. Very fun!
This jackal was nice enough to carry a tired thomson’s gazelle around South territory yesterday morning. 
Another beautiful serval sighting in Happy Zebra territory this week – I tried to use my hyena IDing skills to see if this is the same serval as from above, but the spot patterns are different, so I’m assuming it’s another individual. Any serval experts out there?
Jackals have been providing a great taxi service out here lately – this one was carrying a coqui francolin around Happy Zebra territory over the weekend.
Banded mongooses often come through camp to forage on insects, so I’m always a little surprised when I see them with bigger prey.
Another successful mongoose from the same group as the one above.
Bonus: Puff Adder spotted on one of the main roads in Happy Zebra this morning – these are a lot cooler to see when they’re not hanging out right next to our toilet. 

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science