Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Dominance Hierarchy

One of the major reasons that we find spotted hyenas so fascinating is their social complexity. Hyenas operate under a linear dominance hierarchy that is extremely strict: no two hyenas share a rank, and it’s very clear who is dominant to whom (to them and to us). When a cub is born, it inherits a rank immediately below its mother, making it dominant to all its older siblings. Females will retain this rank throughout their entire lives, although how close this rank is to the top will decrease as more higher-ranking cubs are born (or increase as higher-ranking adults die). Males have a slightly shoddier deal, as is usually the case in this species. When a male is born, he inherits the rank immediately under his mother, just like a female cub. He keeps this rank for the first couple years of his life, while he’s still in his birth (or “natal”) clan. But once he reaches sexual maturity, he needs to disperse to another clan, because females from his natal clan won’t mate with him (high probability of incest—gross). So each male immigrates to a new clan at around age 2, and enters this new clan at the very bottom of the pecking order. He’s below all adult females, all cubs, and even below all the other adult males who have immigrated to this new clan. The only hyenas to whom he will be dominant are future immigrant males. This must be an especially tough blow to the ego to the son of an alpha female...

The first take-home lesson is that all adult female spotted hyenas are dominant to all adult males, because all adult males in a clan are immigrants. The females will be the first ones to point this out to you when you’re watching them—they are constantly putting the males in their place by being aggressive toward them or just ignoring them. The males, for their part, act the role—they tend to tiptoe around females, keeping their distance and acting very submissively.

The second take-home lesson is that when we say this hierarchy is “strict,” we mean STRICT. It dictates everything. Yesterday we saw one mother approach a den hole to try to nurse her cub, and when a higher-ranking mother (whose cub was in the same hole) saw this, she immediately walked over and snapped at the first mother, displacing her in the hole. After the first mother backed off submissively, the dominant mother walked away—she didn’t even want to nurse at that moment, she just wanted to make it perfectly clear that it was HER hole at that time. When the submissive mother made a move to approach the hole again, the dominant mother lunged at her, decisively ending the conflict. Eventually, they both lay down a couple feet from the hole, just staring at it.

Likewise, when the hyenas have killed a prey animal, such as a wildebeest, the highest ranking females and their offspring get to eat first. They are then followed by lower-ranking females/offspring, and finally by the adult males, who often stand near the kill looking longingly (and hungrily) at the carcass as all the choice cuts are devoured by their superiors. By the time these immigrant males get access, what remains is often just the skeleton—good thing hyenas can digest bone (more about that another day)!

What can be especially heartbreaking is that these adult males do much of the leg work (pun intended) when it comes to the hunting—and yes, hyenas hunt about 95% of their food—they don’t scavenge, as many mistakenly believe. Last summer we saw one male chase down a Thompson’s gazelle, eventually killing it. He had only taken a few bites when his higher-ranking brother came along, marched right up, and swiped the carcass. Because of the strict hierarchy, there was nothing the lower-ranking brother could do except watch as his brother ate the entire gazelle.

But it gets worse. Still hungry, this male proceeded to get himself ANOTHER meal, this time chasing down a juvenile gazelle (hunting is exhausting, so this is no small feat). Just as before, within seconds of biting into it, his brother showed up on the scene. He waddled over—his enormous belly, already full of the first gazelle, was definitely slowing him down—and promptly stole and ate this meal, too. You can imagine the torrent of expletives we let out as we watched this unfair sequence of events unfold. However, to the hyenas, it is more than fair, because everyone knows the rules, and everyone plays by them.

Important life lesson: if you’re low-ranking and you’re hankering for filet mignon, try to kill your prey in private, and then eat very, very quickly.

Up next: meet our alpha female, Murphy

Monday, July 28, 2008

Dominant and Subordinate Cubs

Spotted hyena cubs are usually born in pairs, although singletons and triplets are not unheard of. One cub will immediately assert itself as the dominant cub, and if the cubs are of different sexes, this is usually the female. This dominant cub—which will remain dominant to its sibling for the rest of its life—enjoys many privileges. One particularly notable privilege that manifests early in life is that the dominant cub gets to nurse “in the preferred position.” An adult female has two teats, and the cub nursing in the preferred position lies closer to her head. The mother will often drape her front paw over this dominant cub, and even groom it as it nurses. The subordinate cub is relegated to the back, lying either between the mother’s hind legs or behind her entirely. Unfortunately for the subordinate cub, the benefits of nursing in the preferred position extend beyond cuddles and a bath: the dominant cub is often able to limit the subordinate cub's access to the teats. The result of this disparity is that the dominant cub grows more quickly than the subordinate cub—a significant difference when trying to survive in the savannah.

Important life lesson: try to be the dominant cub.

Photo: Pictured above are Ursa, an adult female, and her two cubs, Muffin and Macaroon (Ursa's lineage theme is “things found in a bakery”). You can see Muffin, the dominant cub, with its back to the camera, Ursa’s front leg wrapped around it. The subordinate cub, Macaroon, is that dark lump in the back under Ursa’s hind leg.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The cast of (human) characters

You've been reading blog entries from Kate, Leslie and Kay. Here are photos of these folks (plus Eli). In her last blog entry, Leslie talked about the work we do in camp all day between morning and evening hyena obs. Here you can see Kate, Leslie and Eli (from left to right) working on car maintenance and Eli, Kate and Leslie doing blood work after a hyena darting. Kay is shown allowing a bushbaby at the dinner table to eat part of her banana.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Day in the Life of a Fisi Camper

People always seem to be curious about our daily routine here in the Mara. Knowing that we only observe the hyenas in the early morning and evening, people often ask me how we spend the rest of our time. So here's a rough outline of my daily itinerary:

4:30am: Fruit bats sound their alarm.

5:10am: My actual alarm clock goes off. I get up, get dressed, brush my teeth, groggily put on my headlamp, and trudge out to the main lab tent. I record how much it has rained since the previous morning and the previous day's minimum and maximum temperatures. I take a cup of tea for the road.

5:30am: We leave for our morning observation session. Since the sun doesn't rise until close to

7am, we spend the first hour using our telemetry system to track hyenas that are wearing radio collars (more about that another day). Sometimes we'll go and park at the den and see if there are any cubs out and about. We wait for the sun to come up and illuminate their identities.

9:00am: We return to camp, unload our equipment from the car, and sit down to a delicious breakfast consisting of one or more of the following: oatmeal, fruit, crepes, pancakes, scrambled eggs, toast, and french toast.

9:30am: We tackle the daily camp chore. This might be checking the solar power equipment, cleaning up around camp, checking the cars, or printing photos of hyenas for our identification catalogs.

10:30am: I spend the middle of the day on a variety of tasks, most of them computer-related. I check my email, transcribe the notes (recorded orally) from that morning's observation session, or do some dissertation-related work/reading.

3:00pm: The middle of the afternoon is my working-out time. I go for a run outside the park through the local Maasai village (more on that another day, too), or jump rope, or do pilates. It can be tough to stay fit when you're living in a camp surrounded by wild animals, so we often have to get creative.

4:00pm: I take a shower. Our shower is remarkably good—it's heated by kerosene and has great water pressure for a campsite. We shower with river water that has been treated with "alum," a chemical powder that makes the sediment in the water settle to the bottom of the tank. Showering outside is extremely refreshing, barring the occasional mosquito or peeping vervet monkey in a tree overhead.

4:30pm: We have dinner. Everyone each has his/her own favorite meals, but the consensus favorite is certainly guacamole, salsa, black beans or lentils, cheese, and chapattis. Chapattis are a flour-based pancake-like bread that is cooked in oil—similar to a thick tortilla, but with a different flavor. My other favorites are the sweet potato/carrot/ginger soup, spaghetti with steamed vegetables, and sukuma-wiki, which is very similar to collared greens. "Sukuma-wiki" literally means "push the week" in Swahili, and is so named because it's very inexpensive, so people often rely on it at the end of the week to "push" them to their next paycheck. We love it so much, however, that it's always the first thing gone from our weekly food order.

5:00pm: Our bellies full, we leave for our evening observation session. This usually includes being graced by a spectacular savannah sunset.

8:00pm: We return to camp for the night and head straight to our tents. I talk to loved ones or do some pleasure-reading—our camp has a substantial library of books accumulated over twenty years' worth of transient students.

9:00pm: At this point I'm struggling to keep my eyes open…a good thing, too, because 5am comes very quickly!

Friday, July 18, 2008


The following is a poem written about ugali, a staple in the Kenyan diet. Ugali is similar to cornmeal mush and doesn't have a strong flavor, so it's used in conjunction with other foods—vegetables, sauces, stews, etc.—to add substance and carbohydrates to a meal. The author of this poem lived in East Africa for many years but currently resides in the United States.

Immaculately swept dirt,
an African hut/home
aroma of hay dripping
from recently rained upon
thatched roof,

A steaming mound of
lovingly, laughingly
prepared corn meal.
In the dark
field coarsened hands of
a dusky Sukuma woman.

scratchy, firm
hot ball rolled
in the right hand
—only the right hand.
A concave cup of
corn swiped in spicy
stewed sauce.

grainy and coarse
bland yet spiked.
A mushy meal
made meaningful
by careful preparation
and conversation.

a simple warm

-bzm, 10 May 2008

Individually ID-ing hyenas

One of the most common questions I get about my research is, “Can you REALLY recognize all the different hyenas you study?” The answer is yes, but it takes a while to get good at individually identifying animals! There are several ways we tell our hyenas apart…

The first clues we use are a hyena’s body shape and coloration. Male hyenas look quite different from females; their bodies are smaller and skinnier. This lets us immediately determine whether a hyena is male or female. Coloration is also really helpful in being able to tell who's who! Hyenas’ color ranges from blonde to red to dark brown, and their spots can be anywhere from barely noticeable to extremely dark.

The second way we can recognize hyenas is by their spots. After a hyena develops its spots, the pattern never changes. Once we learn what a hyena’s spots look like, we can recognize it for the rest of its life!

Finally, hyenas often suffer ear injuries due to aggression from others. This damage can range from tiny slits in their ears to huge chunks of missing skin, and it lasts forever! We often use hyenas’ ear damage to help us tell different individuals apart.

The pictures above are of two different hyenas, ET (a female) and Alum (a male). Their body shapes, coloration, spot patterns, and ears all help us to tell them apart. Could you recognize these hyenas again?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Other Residents of Our Camp

We aren't the only primates who inhabit our camp here in the Mara. Vervet monkeys, bushbabies, and baboons also call Fisi Camp home, and their presence can at times be quite amusing, but it can also be quite irksome.

The vervet monkeys squawk at each other all day long, use the tarps over our tents as trampolines, and spend a lot of time devising plans to steal any food we might unwittingly leave out of a zippered tent (or, on occasion, in one). They watch us from the haven of the bushes, and when they think we aren't looking they creep closer and closer, jumping on the tarps above each tent if they have the chance. If we are vigilant enough to catch them in the act, they freeze and look at us for a moment like a kid with his hand in the cookie jar, then scamper off back into the bushes. This continues, and each time the vervets try a new route to their destination. It all basically amounts to a giant game of capture-the-flag, with the fruit in our kitchen tent as the flag. Yesterday I spotted a vervet getting close on my right side so I yelled, "I see you!" and it ran off. Apparently, however, it didn't think I saw it double back into the bushes, because two minutes later it was creeping toward me again, this time from my left side. This time I stood up and yelled and it got the message, at least for another few minutes. I wonder if I catch one if it will put its hands on its head and walk to a designated vervet jail…

The bushbabies are barely recognizable as primates—they look more like gremlins (but only Gizmo, the cute gremlin). They are about the size of a stuffed animal, all black, and with huge pointy ears. They have a long tail and they are adept trapeze artists, often leaping from tent pole to tent pole with ease. One, which my labmates have named Milo, is especially fond of hanging around at dinner time, and when he is lucky enough to get a scrap, he eats it very carefully with his tiny little hands—definitely his most human-like quality (well, besides his gluttony).

Then there are the baboons. Baboons are a bit more problematic because they are a lot bigger (a large male is the size of a small man), have very sharp teeth, and are a lot gutsier when it comes to stealing our stuff. We've had an assortment of belongings stolen by baboons, primarily containers of sugar. One time a box of wine went missing, and after a few days we found the remains of the container discarded in the woods. Suffice it to say I imagine THAT was a fun evening for that baboon! One particular male has his own specific spot in the woods where he stashes his loot, and we have found many of our things there, the most amusing of which was a pack of D-cell batteries. I'm not sure what a male baboon needs with D-cell batteries, but perhaps he's building something, in which case we should probably offer him our electrical tape and our spare wires and see what he comes up with. Last summer I was sitting under at our main table one afternoon, and this very same male walked to about ten feet from me and sat down. I saw him and started warning him to stay away, at which point he seemed to contemplate my threat level (I'm 5'1") and proceeded to march right up to the lab tent and go inside. He emerged a minute later with our box of banana bread in his hand, paused long enough to give me a look that my labmate Andy oh-so-accurately described as the baboon equivalent of an obscene gesture, and ran off to his spot in the woods. I now know that I need to start yelling a lot earlier and wave my arms, which seems to work. Our banana bread is FAR too precious for me to let that guy get the better of me again.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

BBC comes to Kenya

It’s been a rather hectic few days here at camp, because BBC has been here filming our hyenas (as well as us!) for a short documentary. It’s been really interesting to work with the film crew – I had no idea that so much time and energy goes into a 4-minute TV segment! There were two producers, a cameraman, an audio guy, and a driver, along with a LOT of impressive camera and sound equipment. They taped several hours of footage of us darting a hyena, working at camp, and conducting our hyena “intelligence tests.” I don’t think the crew was prepared for all the logistical difficulties of working out here in the field, as their grand plans were repeatedly challenged by bad weather, rough terrain, and rather unpredictable hyena behavior!

However, in the end they got some great footage, and it will be fun to see our hyenas star on TV. The segment will air in early October during a special live episode of Big Cat Diaries. If you have access to BBC, be sure to watch!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Juvenile hyenas at play

We watched a wonderful play bout, involving several juvenile hyenas, that lasted over half an hour. These kids played very rough, but nonetheless looked like they were having fun. In the photo, they are playing right in front of our new research station, which is hidden in the trees at the top right of this picture.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Welcoming the wildebeest!

As we celebrate the launch of our new blog, we are also welcoming hundreds of thousands of wildebeest to the Masai Mara! We (as well as all the hungry carnivores here) have been eagerly awaiting the "Great Migration" for months, and it has finally arrived! Over the next few weeks, up to one million wildebeest will cross the border from Tanzania and eat their way through miles and miles of tall grass here in the Mara.

We were lucky enough to witness one of the first river crossings that these wildebeest encounter on their epic journey. It was completely amazing...thousands of wildebeest were just standing over a gorge, waiting for one brave herd member to decide to cross. Once the first individual descended down the steep bank, chaos ensued as all the wildebeest flooded into the tiny crossing and flung themselves into the river. This herd was lucky enough to escape the hungry crocodiles waiting in the water, and they all emerged safely from the gorge.

Now the plains are bursting with prey, and our hyenas are all fat and happy! More updates to come as the amazing migration continues to move across the Mara...


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Returning to the Mara

I just came back to the Masai Mara, having been away since last August. Like most places I've called home, upon returning I feel as if I'd never left. Everything is familiar: my tent, the roads, the hyenas, the french toast we had for breakfast this morning, even waking at 5am and going to sleep at 9pm. I would say that I forgot how much I missed field work, but that's not true…I did miss it, but I never forgot. We continue to live the dream here as we spend our days witnessing animals at all levels of the food chain exhibiting a wide range of behaviors. For instance, I couldn't help but smile this afternoon as the Land Cruiser I was driving approached a family of warthogs (mom, dad, and three young ones) foraging near the road. After seeing me—well, more likely hearing me, given the noise the truck makes—dad gave me a watchful eye as mom rounded up her kids and herded them away from the road. They gladly clung to her side as I drove by and nodded to dad my appreciation of his family.

The fruit bats outside my tent have taken it upon themselves to decide that 5am just isn't early enough, and that I should really be waking up at 4am each morning. They ensure this happens with their calls, which are dead ringers for an alarm clock—an alarm clock without a working sleep button. The soy milk and spinach in my diet have been replaced with fifty-seven different types of carb. In two days I've already acquired eight unidentifiable bug bites, and the baboons and vervet monkeys prowling around our campsite leave an unmistakable stench.

It's good to be back in the Mara.


Saturday, July 5, 2008

New research station

Thanks to a very generous donation from Mr. Thom Hogan, during the past several days the research team from the Holekamp lab has been able to establish a new Carnivore Monitoring station in the western part of the Masai Mara, in an area known as the Mara Conservancy. The accompanying photos show erection of the new research station: they include pictures of the site when we first arrived, Dr. Holekamp and MSU graduate student Eli Swanson unloading a vehicle, Kate Shaw and Eli Swanson at the newly erected kitchen tent, and a shot of our new lab tent.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Moss guards her dead cub

This morning we came across an old female named Moss who was guarding her cub that had clearly just been killed within the preceding couple of hours. Watching this is one of the saddest things imaginable; Moss repeatedly tried to groom her cub and wake it up, but to no avail. We do not know what had killed the cub, but it had blood on its neck. Photo taken by MSU student Audrey Derose-Wilson.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science