Thursday, August 28, 2008

Free internet = More Photos

I'm in Nairobi for a couple days, which means I can take advantage of free internet at a local coffee shop. That means I can post more photos. Here we have the wildebeest migration blocking the road, a bat-eared fox, and a hyena cub "chillaxing." Not a bad life.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

When Nature Calls

When I am visiting a new place, my first two concerns are always the same: 1) food and 2) bathrooms, in that order. I want to know when we eat, what we eat, and how soon can it happen again. It’s biologically difficult to care that much about mealtime without also taking an interest in “the bathroom situation,” as I like to refer to it, so that’s inevitably my second line of questioning. And I know I’m not alone in this. So if you’ve been reading this blog and thinking to yourself, “Hyenas, cute babies, science, that’s all great, but what about when you really have to go?” this entry is for you.

Given that we don’t have running water, our bathroom situation is pretty stellar. When it’s a quick trip, so to speak, any old woods will do. But when you need a “second” (har har), we have a lovely toilet sitting atop a very deep hole in the middle of a delightful clearing. Although it’s not advisable to use it at night for fear of being joined by an equally gastrointestinally-plagued hippo, in the daytime it’s rather pleasant. Trees provide a cooling shade and birds will occasionally stop by to nod their approval and perhaps snag a bug or two. Aside from the camp lore of the monitor lizard that used to pop out of the hole every now and then, the whole experience can be quite charming.

Our shower is also pretty impressive, both in that we have one and in that it’s usually hot for at least part of the time. We have a battery-powered pump rigged up to a large container of water, with a showerhead attached to the other end. On its way from the container to our bodies, the water gets heated by burning kerosene. The shower area is discreetly enclosed by some tarps, so the only voyeurs are ants and monkeys. Overall, another refreshing outdoor experience.

Except when it’s raining.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

What's in a name?

Naming hyenas is a much trickier task than you might think. This project has been running for 20 years, and we’ve named a LOT of hyenas (over 1,400). Since we never use the same name twice, we have to get pretty creative!

Every adult female we study has a “lineage.” That means that all her kids’ names fall into one category. Lineages range from the obvious (like authors, rivers, and colors) to the obscure (such as surf breaks, talk show hosts, and places in Tolkien books). We have hyenas named after liquors, Kenyan tribes, gangsters, mystical creatures, and even cuts of meat. Food-based lineages are always popular here too, mostly because we live in the bush and constantly crave various treats…we’ve got junk foods, healthy foods, Italian foods, cheeses, breads, and chocolate bars.

(The cubs in this photo are Papagano and Rigoletto, from our "opera characters" lineage.)

We even have a lineage of donors to the Hyena Project. Unfortunately, we’ve only had two donors - thank you Primeau and Hogan - so we’re in trouble as soon as this mama has another litter! This means if you’ve got a few bucks to give away, or a spare LandCruiser lying around, send it our way and we’ll name a hyena after you.

If we don’t know who the hyena’s mom is (like many of the hyenas in our new study clans), the options are endless. Often, a name comes to mind after a single glance at their spots. Archer has a bow and arrow, Silkwood sports a radiation symbol, and Leprechaun’s got a rainbow…it’s kind of like seeing shapes in the clouds. Hyenas like Geezer and Pain in the Butt are named after something unmistakable about their demeanor. Sometimes, it’s more personal; there are hyenas named after our pets, our friends, and our inside jokes.

Moral of the story? To be a good hyena researcher, you have to be patient, dedicated, an excellent observer, etc…but more than anything, you need a good imagination.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Here's Lancelot!

It's true...the struggle to survive out here can be brutal, shocking, and emotional. However, when new life emerges, it's pretty darn cute.

Here, in a Hyena Blog exclusive, are the first photos of Archer's baby! I tried to sell them to the tabloids first, but they weren't interested. Their loss...

This tiny guy (or girl...we don't know yet) is named Sir Lancelot, and is the first in what will hopefully be a long line of Archer's "Knights of the Round Table" lineage.

After days of waiting, I finally saw Lancelot yesterday, and I can already tell he's going to be a wild child! He had no interest at all in nursing, and he certainly didn't want to be groomed. Instead, he chewed on Archer's ear, used her body as a playground, and head-butted her when he felt he was being ignored. With a gentle swipe of her paw, Archer reeled him in and he reluctantly settled down next to her.

Lancelot seems like a brave little one with a penchant for adventure...this mama's going to have her hands full!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls, Wildebeest—it Tolls for Thee

WARNING: This post contains graphic material that may be unsuitable for some readers. Like anyone eating lunch right now. Shouldn’t you be getting back to work anyway, instead of procrastinating by checking blogs?


This morning was bittersweet. We had just left a large group of adult hyenas napping in some bushes when we spotted an adult wildebeest acting a bit strangely in the distance. Upon driving closer, we saw that it was straddling one of our adult females, Adonis (one of Murphy’s many daughters). Adonis had her face buried in the side of the wildebeest, which was open and spilling guts. The wildebeest wasn’t moving much, it was just standing there, halfheartedly trying to head-butt Adonis, who had cleverly positioned herself out of reach of its horns. Adonis, meanwhile, was happily munching away on various internal organs.

The distraction we provided when we pulled up afforded the wildebeest the window of opportunity to dash away. It ran to the far side of our car, seeking asylum. Adonis backed off for a moment as the wildebeest pressed its less-bloody side against our back door. We try to avoid getting involved in interactions in any way, however, so we pulled away. Adonis continued her feast, and within minutes, the wildebeest had collapsed onto the ground. A few minutes later, after some final efforts at thrashing, the wildebeest died. It was very brave throughout the whole ordeal: it hardly cried at all, which is atypical.

I say that this was bittersweet for obvious reasons. On the one hand, it is extremely difficult to watch an animal meet such an untimely end, to watch a life expired in front of your eyes. Today’s episode wasn’t even as brutal to spectate as it could have been; as I mentioned, there was hardly any bleating, which always pulls at the heartstrings. Also, this was an adult wildebeest. Seeing a juvenile of any species hunted in front of its panicked mother is unquestionably more painful for me.

On the other hand, everything needs to eat, and that includes carnivores. Their evolutionary path has led them to hunt live prey, which makes some people think of them as savage killers, but watching a carnivore die of starvation is just as heartbreaking as watching an herbivore starve. Also, we are here on the Mara Hyena Project, which means that at the end of the day, we are on Team Hyena, so it’s not that difficult for us to make the decision to remain uninvolved when it’s going to benefit the hyenas. In today’s case, this meant driving away so the wildebeest couldn’t use our car as shelter.

But before you start envisioning us reveling in the wildebeest’s misery, know that it’s not always that easy to maintain our standards of ethics. Remaining uninvolved doesn’t just mean failing to rescue a dying wildebeest. It also means standing idly by when a male lion attacks the hyena den, searching for cubs to kill because they are his future competitors. When that happens, there is nothing we can do but curse at the lion and watch and hope that he comes up empty-handed. If he does, that’s another victory for Team Hyena. If he doesn’t…well, death is as big a part of life here in the Mara as is birth—it has to be to keep the system running smoothly. Today, that meant one fewer wildebeest. Tomorrow the sun will rise again and the bell will toll for someone else. I just hope it’s not someone from Team Hyena.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Since the lion encounter, the Happy Zebra Clan (named for the thousands of contented zebra coming and going in their territory) is back to normal. Although visits from lions often cause hyenas to jump ship and move to a different den, this clan has decided to stick it out. Hyenas definitely don't deserve their cowardly reputation! The females at the den remain vigilant, but otherwise, I haven't witnessed any aftermath.

Archer (note the huge notch in her left ear - she's very easy to identify!) is still a constant fixture at the den. Only cubs are small enough to fit inside the tunnels, but Archer backs up as far in as she can, with only her head sticking out! This allows cubs to nurse safely inside the den, so it's pretty good evidence that she's got very young babies that just aren't quite old enough to venture out yet. Any day now, I hope!

All seems to be well on the Happy Zebra plains.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Important life lesson:

It's nice to have a friend with whom to watch the sunset.

Even if you're a vulture.

Hyenas vs. lions

As the sun came up this morning, a tense standoff unfolded in front of me. Two lions – one subadult male and one young lioness – appeared just a few meters from one of our clan’s dens. The hyenas were on high alert; about 30 of them surrounded the lions, their tails bristled and their heads held high.

Four hyenas – Archer, Sawtooth, Koi, and Agent Orange - began to approach the pair of lions. The lions took off…and just when I thought my valiant hyenas had saved the day, I saw the real reason behind the lions’ departure: two HUGE adult male lions coming over the top of a nearby hill.

As they approached the hyenas, they broke into a lope and began roaring (and if you haven’t experienced a lion roaring next to you, let me tell you, it’s amazing. It’s unbelievably loud and very low-frequency…it reverberates in your body just like bass that’s turned up too high on your radio).

All the hyenas scattered except Archer, who stood her ground. For a moment, the lions stared her down from less than 5 meters away, then they turned for the den. They pawed and scent-marked all around it, then began to dig at the denhole. Finally, after wreaking havoc there for a few minutes, they turned around and simply walked away. Brave Archer (who I think has very young cubs inside the den) never fled, and as soon as the lions left, she lay right down next to the den.

Although it's reassuring that this meeting didn't end in bloodshed, the lions have obviously found the hyenas' den. The battle between these two carnivores never ends, and, for the moment, it looks like these lions have the upper hand.

Friday, August 8, 2008

You want more babies? You got it.

In light of Kate's amazing story, I thought I'd follow up with some pictures of a hyena cub that we saw the other day that we think is fewer than two weeks old. We don't know if it's male or female, but we do think it's the first-born of a certain lab alumna's favorite hyena, Falafel. Its name is Tilt and it is absolutely adorable. See for yourself. (That's slobber all over its head from the constant grooming it's been getting from Falafel.)

Babysitting in the bush

While working at the lab tent this morning, I heard the unmistakable shrieks of fighting baboons in the bushes next to me. Since baboon brawls are a daily occurrence here, I ignored the screams and got back to work.

About a minute later, a baby impala staggered up to the tent and stared imploringly at me. For a moment, I stared back, confused.

Our camp attendant, Philomen, had seen the events unfold: first, a fight had broken out between several baboons. They raced through a nearby herd of impala, and in the chaos, this foal had been separated from its mother. He couldn’t have been more than a week or two old.

The tiny impala must have been injured in the chase, and he was bleeding from a small wound on its side. Clearly lost and scared, he stood just inches from me, trembling on long, spindly legs. Instinctively, I reached out to reassure the frightened little guy. He nuzzled right up to my hand, and I could feel his tiny heart racing. He lay down next to me, with his head at my feet.

Twenty minutes later, I heard a rustling in the bushes and another impala appeared. My new friend clambored awkwardly to his feet and reunited with his mother. She groomed him vigorously, licking the blood off his side. The two disappeared into the bushes; the baby wobbled along in front, and his mother followed close behind. A happy ending.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A visit from home!

It’s amazing to see Kenya for the first time, through someone else’s eyes.

I just returned from a two-week visit from my parents, who had never been to Africa before. Although I’ve spent the last three years telling them stories and describing every detail of my life, they were still surprised by so many things I take for granted.

Although my mother loves to travel, she doesn’t particularly like to “rough it.” I’m quite convinced that her agreeing to stay at Fisi Camp was driven by pure motherly devotion. I know that sleeping in a tent, using a pit toilet, and living side-by-side with wild animals had given her panic attacks for weeks leading up to the trip. Less than 24 hours after we’d arrived, however, she was hooked. “I love it!” she cried, stepping out of the kerosene-heated outdoor shower. By the end of the trip, she’d been touched by bushbabies, licked by camels, nibbled by giraffes, and snuggled by elephants.

The highlight of my father’s trip was encountering the incredible cast of characters that here in Kenya. He spent hours talking with John and James, the fantastic Maasai guys that work here at Fisi Camp. He delighted in meeting Andrew, the quirky hot-air balloon pilot at a nearby safari lodge, as well as Grace, who runs the tiny shop where we buy fruits and vegetables. Their warmth, energy, and fresh perspectives on local and global issues won him over right away. (He also gave out Obama ’08 buttons, which automatically made him every Kenyan’s best friend!)

My parents have been unbelievably supportive of my career choice, but I knew they never fully understood why I do what I do. After all, their one and only daughter moved 7,000 miles away to study a bizarre and generally-despised animal. To many people, Africa seems like a lonely, dark, and dangerous place. However, despite the cultural divide, the time difference, and the exotic creatures, it only takes a short time here to feel comfortable here. In the course of two weeks, each of my parents accidentally called Kenya “home” more than once.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Meet Murphy, Our Alpha Female

Murphy is the current alpha female of the clan we’ve been studying for about twenty years (Kate will primarily be posting on the new clan that we just began to watch). Murphy is twelve years old and has been the alpha for a whopping nine years, which means she assumed the throne at the young age of three. Perhaps more impressively, she is a great-great-grandmother, and she just had two young cubs of her own. She has mothered at least sixteen cubs over the years, several of whom she has outlived. Her lineage’s theme is characters from Greek mythology, including Artemis, Hermes, Athena, and her two youngest, Loki and Juno, who are just two and a half months old. It is a bit mind-boggling to think that little Loki is the second-highest ranking hyena in our clan, considering she’s the size of a small puppy and weighs about 6 lbs.

Murphy has a pretty great life when you consider that she rarely (if ever) has to hunt, because she can always just help herself to prey killed by anyone else in the clan (see previous entry). She’s also, not surprisingly, immensely popular. It’s unusual to see her alone because many of the lower-ranking hyenas love to be in the presence of the queen. In the photo, Murphy is the hyena in the center, and you can see her being crowded by four other hyenas. I imagine being The Big Cheese can get a bit tiresome, though, because she rarely gets a moment of peace, and is constantly being presented to, greeted, groomed, etc. Quite frankly it looks exhausting.

Perhaps our favorite thing about Murphy isn’t Murphy at all, but her boyfriend, Midget. Midget is the highest-ranking immigrant male in the clan, but doesn’t have the reproductive record to match. Midget is absolutely obsessed with Murphy, but in the classic male hyena way: he keeps his distance and rarely approaches her. He follows her around constantly—it’s unusual to see Murphy without Midget lurking somewhere in the grass. Come to think of it, he’s more of a stalker than a boyfriend. But a loveable stalker, because he’s always quick to jump up and ward off any pesky lower-ranking immigrant males whom he thinks have strayed a bit too close to his One and Only. It’s tough not to pity Midget, though, because Murphy never so much as bats an eye in his direction. It’s the ultimate case of the nerdy underclassman following around the popular senior girl, who doesn’t even seem to know he exists. But Midge, bless his heart, never gives up his devotion.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

How hyenas relieve that hard-to-reach itch

Back-scratching hyena style.
Photo by Audrey Derose-Wilson.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science