Tuesday, September 30, 2008

An anatomy lesson?

Here's a baffling scene...

Skeletons in the Mara are never this intact; hungry carnivores usually scatter bones over a pretty large area by the time they've consumed a kill. If I didn't know better, I'd think this poor wildebeest bit the dust while sunbathing or attempting to make a snow angel.

But I don't think wildebeest lust after a golden tan, and it's way too warm here for snow, so I'm pretty sure someone's tampered with the scene of the crime.

My best guess? Someone decided to use what they learned in high school anatomy and put this skeleton back together. If you've got another explanation (realistic or entertaining) for this perfect specimen, feel free to share...

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A scavenging saga

Who doesn’t like freebies? As we've said, it's a pretty good strategy to get a meal without having to expend any energy hunting or waste any time ambushing. Therefore, many carnivores in the Mara scavenge at least some of the time, and there’s a lot of competition for free meals out here. This morning, we watched a fascinating drama unfold between several scavengers.

We happened upon a freshly-dead male impala that must have succumbed to starvation or disease. A lucky black-blacked jackal had been among the first to find the carcass, and it was hungrily feasting on the impala’s hindquarters when we arrived.

Soon, two species of vulture (White-backed and Rüppell’s Griffon) began to arrive from all directions, and within minutes, over 40 vultures had descended upon the impala. The jackal was clearly outnumbered and was driven away after just a few minutes of feeding. The frenzied vultures mobbed the carcass immediately, fighting like crazy for access to the meat.

There’s a specific hierarchy among vulture species, and here in the Mara, the Lappet-faced Vulture is king. With its large body, short muscular neck, and strong bill, this vulture can dominate the other species. When two of these bullies arrived on the scene, they swooped down and attacked the other vultures, who quickly gave way. The carcass had changed hands again, and the Lappet-faced were now in control.

But the saga wasn’t over yet. Three lions came trotting over the hill towards us, probably attracted by the vultures’ hysterical vocalizations. The largest lioness strode confidently to the carcass, and the vultures scattered. She began to drag the impala away and finally settled down in the tall grass about 80 meters away, in sole possession of the carcass. She ate quietly as the jackal, the vultures, and the two other lions watched from a distance.

What’s the moral of the story? Take whatever you can out here, but eat fast and stay vigilant. That carcass may seem like an easy meal, but there are formidable scavengers everywhere, thinking the very same thing about that very same carcass.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Are you going to eat that?

We humans usually think of ourselves as pretty smart. One of the intelligent ideas ourancestors happened upon long ago, was the concept of cooking our food before we eat it. Many modern cultures place a good deal emphasis on cooking as a means to enrich the taste of the food. However, the overriding reason that cooking food has spread throughout human societies is that it is still the most effective way of killing microbes (bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protists) that would otherwise make us ill.

For those of us that love a good steak, we often prepare the steak rare or medium rare, meaning the steak is not cooked all the way through. This is a risk we are willing to take, since not cooking the meat completely leaves the door open for microbes that are able to tolerate high temperatures. Spicing up your favorite dish adds flavor that not only enhances dining experience, but is some cases may also provide antimicrobial activity. Wild animals do not have the option of cooking or adding antimicrobial spices to their meal. As a result, animals have evolved other means of dealing with potential pathogenic (disease causing) organisms.

Spotted hyenas seem to be particularly adept at dealing with microbes that would make you or I extremely sick. This is one of the main reasons I am interested in studying hyenas. Hyenas will eat just about anything, plants being a major exception. Members of the hyena research team have witnessed hyenas eat rotting carcasses that other animals refuse to eat. Many animals will routinely pass up a meal that is decaying, most likely because the risk of infection from the consumption of the decaying meat is high. This widespread behavioral adaptation is an effective method of avoiding dangerous infections. This behavior is so pervasive that some animals have actually developed an anti-predator strategy that includes playing dead, also know as "playing possum." The logic behind this is that if an animal keels over and dies right in front of you, it must be very sick, and thus would probably make you sick if you ate it.

If the behavior of avoiding rotting meat is an effective way of avoiding infection, why are hyenas so willing to eat it? The simplest answer, is that it provides them with an advantage over other animals when prey animals are in short supply. The wildebeest migration is currently in the Mara and food is plentiful. However, the wildebeests will soon migrate back to Tanzania and prey will become more scarce. As the food becomes more difficult to obtain, being able to eat leftovers can be very important for survival. Of course hyenas are not the only animals to take advantage of carcasses, vultures have nearly perfected the art of locating and consuming rotting meat. Hyenas have an additional trick up their sleeve to get nutrients out of a carcass that vultures do not. I will write about this in a future post. If anyone knows what this behavior may be, please feel free to post a comment or email me what you think it is.

Hyenas are one of the most effecient hunters on the African savanna, but they also take advantage of kills made by other animals and animals that have died of disease and/or starvation. This food source can mean the difference between life and death for an animal that cannot go to the grocery store or McDonald's when it is hungry. The drawback of taking advantage of this food source is that hyenas must be able to fend off harmful microbes in the food they eat. This can be done in many ways. I am particularly interested in finding out how the hyena immune system is able to withstand the inexhaustible onslaught of microbes that seeks to exploit them. Over the next 6 months I will continue to write about this topic. I hope some of the readers of this blog will contribute their own ideas as to why hyenas are so resilient to disease.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A week with Animal Planet

Since we know more than anyone else about one of the most misunderstood animals around, we feel it's our responsibility to help educate people about hyenas. So when Animal Planet came to us with a project, we jumped at the chance. I spent the last week with a TV crew filming a whole hyena episode for a new show called “Night,” which documents the bizarre lives of nocturnal animals. I was called in as kind of a human-hyena liaison, working to help find hyenas and explain their behavior. But I had NO idea what to expect.

Here in the Mara we have enough trouble watching our hyenas on a day-to-day basis due to rough terrain, bad weather, and their somewhat unpredictable behavior, so I didn't know how a TV crew could get much decent footage. Plus, this whole show had to be shot at night, which made everything way more complicated! We went out every evening at dusk, spent all night out filming, and rolled back into camp for a few hours of sleep just as the sun came up.

In order to actually capture nocturnal behavior on film, the crew had all sorts of fantastic gadgets like infrared lights, night vision, and heat-sensing cameras. Since this kind of equipment is really expensive (the thermal video camera alone cost more than $50,000) and is usually reserved for military purposes, I was really lucky to be able to play with it all for a week! I also had the crew teach me all about cameras, sound equipment, and the process of directing a TV show. Here’s a photo of me playing sound technician for a day (the host, Brandon, is in the background hamming it up for the camera).

I thought I’d just be bringing some hyena knowledge to the table, but they wanted me to have a lot more on-camera time than I had anticipated. The host and I were constantly being filmed on this “quest” to uncover the truth about hyenas. I’m definitely no actress, and I think these 15 minutes of fame were enough for me! It’s nearly impossible trying to say anything serious on camera with 6 crazy guys standing on the sidelines trying to crack you up. I’m totally prone to giggling attacks, and I ruined more than a few takes that way. On the other hand, it turns out practical jokes are WAY funnier when you’ve got a director and camera crew in on them.

The focus of the entire episode was to dispel the myth that hyenas are merely cowardly scavengers, so our goal was to film an entire hunting sequence from beginning to end. Of course, it wasn’t as easy as it sounded. We found hyenas every night, but we were foiled by rain three times, lions twice, and darkness once. I think we were all feeling the pressure on the last night, but we finally captured some great footage. But I won’t spoil it…you’ll just have to watch the show to see what happens!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Running in Kenya does not a Kenyan runner make

At an altitude of almost 3,000 ft and under the equatorial sun, I'm not exactly churning out record-breaking times when I go running here. Running in the Mara is, needless to say, quite different from running in the States. Technically, I don’t run inside the Mara, I run just outside the border, through the Maasai community that neighbors our camp.
The landscape is a far cry from my typical suburban route—rolling hills of savannah, dotted with acacia trees and wildebeest, spread out to the south. To the east and north are mountains, and to the west are manyattas (Maasai homes—see photos), which are mostly made of dried cow manure. The view allows me to see rain coming from miles away, as opposed to at home, where dense trees and buildings make any jog a guessing game weather-wise. The river that forms the border of the park separates me from any carnivores, buffalo, or elephants that might present a threat (or at least that’s what I tell myself, although I haven’t seen anything more than a gazelle so far).

After I cross the river from camp, I make my way through a few bushes and out into open fields, all of which have been grazed down to mostly dirt by the Maasai’s livestock. I follow a cow path onto the road and turn west, making my way up the hill into the Maasai community, all the while avoiding piles of poop and mud puddles. Sometimes cars with tourists will pass me, and I love seeing the confused look on their faces at seeing this random white girl running in the middle of a Maasai community.

As I approach the first cluster of manyatas, I’m usually spotted by a child or two, who shriek to their friends that I’m arriving. Within seconds, kids pop out from every corner and gather at the road ahead, grinning and waving and shouting things in Maa (the Maasai language) that I cannot understand, but presume to be something along the lines of, “Crazy, crazy white lady, why are you in such a hurry?” Usually the kids will join me for a few hundred yards, running by my side, peppering me with questions that I can’t answer. Sometimes the crowd gets so thick—yesterday I had about twenty kids and two dogs with me—that the kids trip over each other and fall. Despite my rudimentary Swahili warnings of “pole, pole!” (“slowly, slowly!”), this inevitably cracks them up and they waste no time in catching up to the group. The kids range in ages from two to about fifteen, both boys and girls. They laugh hysterically as they weave in and out of my path, and love high-fiving me.
Most of the time, the children will run with me for a few minutes and then stop before they stray too far from home. Occasionally, though, I’ll acquire boys walking home from school. These boys are typically on the older side—between nine and fourteen, I’m guessing—and will often run with me for a mile or two. Given that they are wearing sweaters and carrying backpacks, this never fails to impress me. I have to admit: although I enjoy the attention of the younger children, it can be exhausting trying to make sure I don’t run anyone over (harder than it sounds), so I much prefer the older kids. They’ll stop walking when they see me, and as I reach them, they’ll casually say hello and fall into step right next to me, matching me stride for stride. They will run silently next to me until we pass their manyattas, at which point they will wave goodbye and abruptly veer off. I find these kids very comforting, because instead of being my spectators, they are my companions—they’re not in it for me, they’re in it for the run. When they leave, I shout, “Very good! Goodbye friend!” after them, and they grin as we go our separate ways.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Fisi Camp: Luxury or Basic? You make the call.

Hello from Fisi Camp in the beautiful Masai Mara National Reserve. After a one year hiatus from field work, I am back in the Mara and thrilled about being back. I have been working primarily in the lab (Hello to the Linda Mansfield lab and Jean Tsao lab) most of the summer and have been itching to get back to the field work for the past month. My research focuses on the ecology or wildlife disease and the immune response to infection. I will not elaborate beyond that at this point, but if you want more information about my research, you can visit my website at: https://www.msu.edu/user/fliesand/index.htm.

Many of my friends ask what it is like living in a tent for an extended period of time. For my first post on the blog, I thought it would be fitting to introduce everyone to camp the way I see my home for the next six months. To do this I created a simple map to give blog readers an idea of what the camp looks like. The map is a bit crude and geographers may be apalled, but I think you will get the idea. To supplement the map, I have also made a brief photo tour of some of the important features of Fisi Camp. By the way, for new readers, Fisi means hyena.

When I first arrived at Fisi Camp last year it exceeded my expectations. I thought living in a tent in Africa would be hard, but camp has proven very comfortable to me. The biggest adjustment for me is not being able to eat meat regularly, since there is no refrigeration in camp. We have outstanding cooks in camp that work wonders with an old butane range/oven and I probably eat better over here than I do back in the states. The lack of running water is one of the other major adjustments of living in camp.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

You can't possibly still think hyenas are ugly

You can't possibly still think hyenas are ugly (part 2)

Due to formatting complications, this post had to be in two parts. Part 1 was the photos. This is part 2.

So after seeing all these pictures, it seems inconceivable that you could still think that hyenas are ugly. Are all of them gorgeous? Heavens, no, some of them are mangy, ragged, and certainly not pictures of grace. But isn't that true for any species (um, hello Amy Winehouse)? There's always a spectrum of variation... thankfully, because if there weren't, we'd all be bored silly.

Personally, I think hyenas look a lot like dogs, and what's not cute about that? Interestingly, they are more closely related to cats than dogs, although they aren't really closely related to either, as you can see in the carnivore phylogeny I've so cleverly ripped off from http://whozoo.org/mammals/.

The four species of hyenas (brown, striped, aardwolf, and our beloved spotted) are actually their own family. No, not "family" like June, Ward, Wally, and the Beav...there are no potluck dinners among this group. I mean "family" in the phylogenetic sense, as in "kingdom-phylum- class-order-FAMILY-genus-species" (perhaps you remember the mnemonic from high school biology, "King Philip Comes Over For Good Soup"?). These are taxonomic categories of increasing specificity—it's how scientists keep the millions of species in the world organized. So spotted hyenas are in the kingdom Animalia, the phylum Chordata, the class Mammalia, the order Carnivora, the family Hyaenidae, the genus Crocuta, and the species crocuta. But that's a bit of a mouthful, so species are typically referred to by just their genus and species name, a la Homo sapiens. Phylogenetic trees, like the one above, show the evolutionary paths of species...when and where they diverged from other species, and who their closest relatives are. This particular tree moves from left (oldest) to right (most recent). For example, you can see that the hyena's closest relative is, surprisingly, the mongoose. Fur seals are more closely related to sea lions than they are to walruses because the divergence between fur seals and sea lions is more recent than the divergence between their ancestors and walruses. And it's possible that that sentence made no sense to anyone but me.

Coming soon...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hyena paws and teeth

As you can see from the picture to the left, hyena paws are pretty massive (...although in the interest of full disclosure, I do have freakishly small hands).

Also, Kate wasn't kidding when she said hyenas have clean teeth—check out these pearly whites. As she mentioned, that's probably from all the bone they eat and chew.

Compare them to the teeth of the male lion below—lions don't eat much bone at all, and this guy's teeth are noticeably more yellow because of it.

Monday, September 8, 2008

How to handle a hyena (don't try this at home...)

In order to collect some kinds of data, we have to get up close and personal with the hyenas. Since none of us are willing to lose a limb (or our lives!) to those strong jaws, we dart the animals in order to work on them. Here's the process, with some pictures from the darting that Audrey and I did this morning...

First, we identify a target hyena, which is more complicated than it sounds. The animal has to be alone, because lions and other hyenas may attack a vulnerable hyena while the drug is taking effect. We also don’t want the hyena to get lost in the bushes or fall into water before we can get to it, so we only dart in open areas where we can keep an eye on the hyena as it goes down.

If we’ve found a good darting situation, we fill a dart with a drug called Telazol and load it into our CO2 rifle. As soon as the hyena turns away from us (we don’t want it to associate our vehicles with the experience of being darted), we aim for the hindquarters and shoot. Hyenas generally start to act “drunk” quite quickly, and they’re usually down just less than ten minutes after they’re darted.

Once it’s safe to get our hands dirty, we work as quickly as possible. First, we cover its eyes because, although the animal is immobilized, it’s not unconscious; bright colors and fast movements can disturb hyenas while they’re down. Then, we draw several vials of blood to look at hormone levels, immune function, and DNA.

We take many different tooth measurements (by the way, since hyenas chew on so much bone, their teeth are surprisingly clean and their breath doesn’t stink nearly as much as you’d expect!), and several body measurements as well. This morphological data helps us understand how hyenas’ teeth, skulls, and bodies change with age. It also shows us the physical differences between males and females, and high- and low-rankers.

To identify the individual again in the future, we often ear-tag hyenas when they are darted. If this hyena is seen again (or found dead) many miles away or several years later, eartags can give us important information on movement, dispersal, and mortality.

Finally, we drive the hyena to a safe place in the bushes to wake up and cover it with water to keep it cool while the drug wears off. This can take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more, depending on the individual (the hyena in the picture is already raising its head and starting to come around).

While that’s the end of the actual darting, we still have work to do! We go back to camp to do all the bloodwork so that the samples can be sent back to the US. Fisi Camp may be in the middle of nowhere, but we’ve got plenty of sophisticated lab equipment (which we run off solar power and car batteries) to help us get the job done.

All in all, darting is a lengthy and complicated process, but it’s also unbelievably exhilarating to work, hands-on, with such an amazing predator.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Petty theft

This morning, I woke up to find my toothpaste missing. After a brief search, I found it on the ground about 10 meters from my tent, with a nice little hole chewed through the tube.

The scene of the crime

This is no unusual occurrence here at camp…in fact, this is the third time in three weeks that I’ve been the victim of a toothpaste theft! I’m on my last backup tube, so I’m going to have to keep that one that safe from furry little creatures. Usually, the perpetrators are baboons, who love to steal any toiletries that are lying around. This time, however, some nocturnal creature was responsible. The strangest part? The toothpaste had been carefully removed from a Tupperware container, and nothing else was touched or knocked around. The culprit must have known exactly what it was looking for, and was very dexterous at pilfering it.

Why do animals love toothpaste so much? Perhaps it’s a craving for minty-fresh breath. Or maybe they can’t resist the bright colors and glossy packaging of a tube of Crest. Who knows…whatever the reason, I’m going to start keeping my toothpaste inside my tent.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

City life

Our cottage and our "town car"

Nairobi…it’s definitely not my favorite destination, but our monthly trip here is essential. Our home away from home is a cute little cottage we rent in Karen, a suburb of the city. We have an ancient Suzuki to use here; the gauges don’t work, the glove compartment pops open randomly, and it rattles like a tin can, but I’ve learned to love it!

On every Nairobi trip, we have a pretty similar agenda…

Priority 1: Get to the mechanic. By driving off-road, through creek crossings, and through endless potholes, we definitely do a number on our vehicles. If car repairs don’t get done, wheels fall off, brakes go bad, and other scary things happen - it's not a risk I'm willing to run! While we do our best to take care of the vehicles in the bush, they always need some serious work when we come to town.

Priority 2: Hit up the bank account. There are definitely no ATMs in the Mara, and we have to pay for everything there in cash. Running out of money at camp is a total disaster; it means no money for food, salaries, or emergency car repairs. Every time we come to Nairobi, we take out enough Kenyan shillings to last us at least a month, and then guard that huge stack of bills with our lives!

Priority 3: Deal with whatever government documents that are pending. Whether it’s a research permit at the Ministry of Science, an export license from Kenya Wildlife Service, or a student visa through the Immigration Department, it’s going to take forever. Get in line, bring a book, and be prepared to wait. Inevitably, by the time you reach the front of the line, you're informed that you've forgotten something vital, or you need someone’s signature from across town. Be prepared to try again tomorrow.

Priority 4: Shop ‘til you drop. There’s always a long list of things to buy, from groceries and office supplies to liquid nitrogen and new tires. Since we’re still in the process of setting up the new camp in the Conservancy, there’s a LOT on our shopping list.

Priority 5: If there’s any time left, we indulge whatever cravings we've had while living in a tent for the last month. For some, that’s a frosty milkshake and a juicy burger, for others, it’s a big night out on the town, and for still others, it’s spending hours catching up on Facebook and celebrity gossip online.

Once it's all done, we can head back to camp and see what our hyenas have been up to. Barring any disasters, I'll return to the Mara tomorrow, and I'm already excited to catch up with my furry friends!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science