Friday, October 31, 2008

Gluttony: the second deadly sin

What happens when you eat all your Halloween candy in one sitting:

Every tree has its thorns

One of the things I noticed on my first visit to Kenya was how many plants are covered with sharp thorns. It seems trees and bushes covered with thorns are more common the those without thorns. After a week or two in the bush the soles of my shoe and sandals were full speckled with thorns. This year I have been wearing my generic crocs around camp, which are very comfortable, but provide the nasty thorns with easy access to the bottom of my foot.

The high density of animals that feed on tree leaves is one reason that so many trees have thorns. The thorns function as a defense against herbivores eating the tree leaves. As with defense in nature, a new offense will inevitably arise. Many adaptations have arisen in the savanna to circumvent the plant defenses. I think the elephants have a particularly interesting method of dealing with the thorns. They just eat them.

In the first picture below you can see the thorns in the foreground and the stripped branches in the background. The arrows are pointing to branches that have had the leaves and thorns removed by an elephant trunk. The second picture is for scale and to help you appreciate the size and strength of the thorns and how tough the elephant trunk, mouth and digestive system are. I was able to push the thorns on the branch into the log quite easily. It should also be evident how thorns of this size could easily go all the way through a human foot, some feet more easily that others.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


When I realized I was not going to be in the states during the election I was quite disappointed. Surprisingly the election in the U.S.A. is a hot topic in Kenya, due to the ancestral connection of one of the presidential candidates to Kenya. Many Kenyans I have spoken with has asked about the elections and has been well-informed. I have heard reports of Kenyans getting up at 5am to watch the presidential debates.

Most of the news I get from friends at home about the elections is how nasty the campaigns have become and how happy people will be when they don't have to see another political commercial. Despite the distance of the Fisi Camp researchers, we have managed to stay acutely interested and informed about the election process. Much to my surprise, my absentee ballot arrived promptly in late September and is now on its way back to the states. Special thanks goes out to the helpful staff of the City Clerk for the city of Lansing.


I wasn't convinced that you are fully appreciating just how ugly marabou storks really are from my previous photo, so I'm including another one here that should hopefully do the trick.

It's all fun and games until someone gets trampled by an angry buffalo

Hyenas are very curious about other species, this much is clear. Below is a photo of a hyena investigating a marabou stork, a large scavenging bird that I like to think of as “hands down the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

The next photos are of a group of hyenas we saw this morning, all very curious about a sleeping buffalo. Since they’ve certainly seen buffalo before, it seemed like they were playing a game of chicken, daring each other to see who could get the closest. Although these games are usually played by the cubs and subadults, a couple adults were even getting in on the action today. It was pretty hilarious: they’d tiptoe closer and closer, and if the buffalo even twitched its tail they would all freak out and back off. Then they’d get their courage up again and the game would repeat. Truthfully, I’m not sure the buffalo was even aware that it was involved in the game, since it was facing the other direction.

But that game paled in comparison to one we saw a couple weeks ago between a teenage hyena and an adult jackal. When we arrived, the hyena was chasing the jackal, which seemed strange since jackals are not typical hyena prey. But then we realized it was just a game—the hyena was chasing the jackal round and round a big bush (which begs the question, who really was chasing whom?). Our initial impression was that this was great fun for the hyena, but not so much for the traumatized jackal. Oh how wrong we were—the hyena stopped to catch its breath for a moment, and the jackal stood, looked at it, then ran it it teasingly and darted away at the last second, just like my dog does when he wants me to chase him. The jackal did this a few times until the hyena acquiesced and the game resumed around the bush. At one point they even switched directions mid-chase without breaking a stride. Sadly, it was too dark to get any photos or videos, but I think you get the idea.

This last photo is of a stand-off between an adult hyena and a wildebeest. They stood staring at each other like this for several minutes before going their separate ways, no love lost.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Your turn!

We slave over our computers day in and day out to entertain we're turning the tables. Welcome to the very first "Funny Photo Caption Contest!"

Because you're avid readers of the Hyena Blog, we know you're discerning, intelligent, and, let's face it, perhaps just slightly peculiar. Now you have the chance to display your quick wit and fantastic sense of humor. Your caption can be ironic, silly, clever, or quirky...just make it funny. Here's the photo:

There's no prize, of course, since we're a bunch of poor researchers without an extra dime to our names. Heck, there might not even be a winner. But come on, how can you even look at this photo without giggling? Plus, you'll get our undying gratitude, not to mention a big ego boost, for giving us a good laugh. And who wouldn't want that??

The most vicious creatures in the Mara smaller than your fingernail

Siafu. A simple word for ants that can strike fear into the heart of people that have spent time living in the bush. It means you need to be careful where you walk and sleep.

These tiny creatures can appear overnight by the thousands. Within a few hours of arrival they have usually worn an unmistakable path on the ground. Carelessly step on their path and you will have ants in your pants and ouch coming out of your mouth in seconds. Most of the safari ants are small workers, but a small proportion are soldiers. These soldiers are easily distinguished by their large size and huge jaws. The soldiers are intimidating ,but don't discount the bite from a worker. Both types will patiently crawl up you leg, looking for a sensitive place to chomp. When the army has reached a good place, one of the ants will make the first bite and send the signal to attack. If you were to visit Fisi Camp and see one of the researchers running around without their pants on, it is not some strange game we play because we have gone bush crazy, it is probably because we are under siege from siafu.

Despite the affinity of these little creatures for biting me, I find them most interesting and love watching them go about their business. I have found as long as you don't disrupt their path, they will leave you alone most of the time. A few bites here and there are worth the price of admission as far as I am concerned. The shear numbers they arrive in and the coordination among the castes are astounding. Along the paths they wear on the ground, soldiers will line the edges and at times even lock together to form a canopy. The path may disappear underground and then pop up again a few meters later. Recently, there were large ant chains hanging off a bucket in a tree. In some places the ants were so dense the bucket was not visible.

My brief description here does not do these fascinating eusocial insects justice. Nor does it properly relay the terror felt by some of the inhabitants at Fisi Camp. "The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver does an excellent job of laying out the worst case scenario of an ant invasion. Of course, the book is fiction, but nevertheless, an interesting story of a scene we hope never occurs in Fisi Camp.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Ahh, the miracle of life

It sounds so pleasant and innocuous when one describes giving birth as a “miracle,” but from what I can gather, from the point of view of the mother it’s more along the lines of “yeah, it’s a miracle all right—it’s a miracle that I survived this hell and thank god it’s over.” Full disclosure to readers: I have never given birth. Despite my own “nulliparity” (from the Latin, “nullus”=none + “parere”=bear children), birth has been on my mind a lot lately, mostly because my best friend, Perrin, is about to pop out her first child any day now (shameless plug: not just any child, but my very own goddaughter).

Hyena mamas carry their young around in their bellies for 110 days before sending them out into the world. I know what all you mamas are thinking—“wimps! I carried my child around for two and a half times that long!” Well, that may be true, but you should know that elephant mamas have you beat; their pregnancies last 22 months. Maybe you need to read that one more time to really let it sink in: that’s right, in the time it takes an elephant mama to make ONE baby, you could have made TWO. Betcha feel like kind of a slacker now, don’t you?

Anyway, I digress (what else is new). The point of this story is that I saw my very first live birth the other day. It was a topi mama, and she was just standing in the middle of a field. At first it looked like she was pooping, but upon closer inspection we saw that she was actually about to give birth to a calf. I took video of the birth itself, which I can't post here unfortunately, so thanks to Andy for the first photo.

It was pretty amazing, mostly because of how quickly it happened. Her entire labor lasted less than two minutes…the calf just slid right on out like it was popping out of the bottom of a water slide. It was covered in amniotic fluid and was very endearingly confused. Interestingly, though, the mama topi seemed equally confused. She had a look that said, “I don’t know what just happened, but I REALLY didn’t like it. By the way, did anyone notice that some crazy alien just popped out of my butt??” In fact, after the birth was over, she wandered away from her newborn calf and stood with some other mamas that had more well-established calves (i.e. at least a day or two old—see last photo) and just stared in the direction of her calf, stopping occasionally to graze. We had to agree with her that those clean, fuzzy calves looked a lot cuter and a lot more inviting than her own messy one, but that didn’t stop us from shouting (softly, inside the car), “For crying out loud, stop eating grass and go tend to your bleeping baby!!!”

We watched from afar for a little while as the mother wandered farther away from the spot where her calf lay. It had started to lick itself clean and had made a couple attempts at standing up, although to no avail. However, during the time we watched it, it did make solid progress, leaving us optimistic that it would stand up and its mother would notice it and remember, “Oh, wait a minute, that’s mine and I’m supposed to take care of it,” which is entirely possible. Well, actually, everyone’s definition of “optimistic” is different. Audrey and I, Future-Mothers-of-America, were optimistic that the mama would retrieve it and the topi calf would have a happy ending. Andy was optimistic that she would forget all about it and a bunch of hungry hyenas would stumble upon it and have a jolly good time arguing over who got the choice cuts. We left before any of our versions could be spoiled by something as bothersome as the truth.

So today’s life lesson is just for Perrin: when the time comes for you to have your baby, try to stay focused. Yes, I hope for your sake the process is as quick as it was for the topi. But I hope for your baby’s sake that you don’t become forgetful and sidetracked and wander away from her to check out the hospital’s cafeteria.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Battles in the Mara

Over the past few weeks we have witnessed some intense battles for territory among the many ungulates in the Mara. We first saw two male impalas going head to head about 5 meters from the road we were driving down. Normally an impala will quickly move out of the way when a vehicle approaches, but these brutes were oblivious to our Land Cruiser. With heads low to the ground, they locked their impressive horns and dug their hooves in for traction. I was amazed at how perfectly the horns on these two guys complemented each other. They seemed to fit together like a lock and key. From what I have observed, the variation among impala horns appears to be quite small, with most horns looking identical to the untrained eye.

These two males pushed back and forth, twisting their heads and trying to gain the advantage. This went on for a minute or two, when out of nowhere another male came charging in. He had no intention of waiting to find out the winner. Personally, I would have let them fight it out and then taken on the winner, but hey, I am no impala. The new challenger quickly charged in to show he was the boss. After that a chase ensued where it appeared at times that two of the impala were chasing the other one. The next moment is looked like they were all at war, without alliances between any of the males. The chase quickly carried them about 500 meters away and out of sight. I suspect the third male was the rightful territory owner and the initial two brawlers were bachelors looking to acquire a territory and harem of their own.

In the two weeks following the impala rumble, I have witnessed many battles between male topi. These battles have been less intense than the impala battle. At times the Topi appear as if they are ready to fight to the death, then the next minute they will pause, lift their back leg to scratch a fly of their face, take a look around, and then back to the action. Some of these fights may be between friendly males, just gearing up for future battles. In the past two days we have seen many tiny topi that were born in the last day or two. These new babies will need to nurse for a while before the mothers are ready mate again, at which point I expect the level of competition between the male topis to heat up.

Maasai Medicine

Doctor “Action” Jackson (shown below, with the BEAM 2008 class) runs the local medical clinic in Talek, and has been a good friend to the residents of FisiCamp for many years (it’s nice to be on good terms with a doctor when you work with bone-crushing predators). While the basic principles are the same, third-world medicine is a world away from the health care system with which we are so familiar.

The clinic consists of a waiting area, two tiny examining rooms, and a storage room that doubles as a treatment area (shown below). With no access to the expensive hospital equipment on which American hospitals rely, Jackson’s shelves are stocked instead with cotton balls, alcohol swabs, and painkillers. However, his knowledge of medicine is impressive and he relies on common sense and resourcefulness rather than high-tech treatments. He has even fashioned a simple, solar-powered centrifuge from a Tupperware container and a tiny electric motor.

Jackson sees dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of patients each day. On the busiest days, there’s a line way out the door of the clinic, and patients must wait for hours to be examined. In order to make medical care widely available, he keeps his rates very low; adults pay 300-400 shillings (about five dollars), and children are usually charged just 100 shillings (less than two dollars). If a family can’t afford treatment, he often pays out of his own pocket. Livestock is the major form of currency among the Maasai, so Jackson sells cattle in order to fund his work and keep the clinic running. Here's two Maasai "mamas" waiting to be seen by Jackson.

According to Jackson, malaria and pneumonia are the top two causes of death of Talek residents. However, Jackson also has lots of experience with conditions that are less familiar to us Westerners. Obviously, life in the bush can be dangerous, and Jackson treats more than a few animal attack victims per month. Lion and buffalo are the biggest problem animals; however, a few days ago when I dropped by to see Jackson, he was treating a man who had just been mauled by a leopard. Deep, bloody gashes covered the man’s arms, hands, and head. What amazed me most, however, was that the man was walking, talking, and able to return home the very next day.

While his knowledge, generosity, and passion have been embraced by most locals, Jackson has also made some controversial moves. By speaking out against female circumcision, as well as against some cultural beliefs regarding HIV and other STDs, he has made some enemies who condemn his disregard for valued Maasai customs. Despite these adversaries, however, Jackson continues to provide low-cost, innovative care to the residents of Talek.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Cobra pictures

We almost ran this black-necked spitting cobra over with the car the other night on our way home from watching the hyenas. Luckily, we didn't, and we managed to get a few photos before it slithered into the darkness. I thought it would be nice to put a face to a name given my recent post.

(Do you think he knows Stuart???)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Office

I know quite a few people that are fans of the show "The Office" or the movie "Office Space." My office for the next 5 months is a little different than either of these famous offices. Two days ago I was transcribing our morning behavioral observations when I heard something out the screen of my tent. I looked out the window and a group of zebra were grazing about 10 meters from my tent. The picture below is not greatest, but you should be able to see my laptop in the front where I was hard at work, and zebra through the trees in the back. Luckily, I had just reached my 15 minute break, so I could snap a few pictures and enjoy the wildlife.

I thought I would have to wait a long time before I got an office with a view. I think it will be difficult for any future job to top the view from this office/bedroom/house.

Friday, October 10, 2008

When I was a kid

Many times I have been informed by the generations ahead of me that things were much cheaper when they were children. I do not wish to argue this point, obviously we can't buy a coke for a nickel anymore. However, a good bargain can be found in Talek, the town near Fisi Camp.

The cost for a haircut last summer in Talek was fifty shillings, which is about seventy-five cents in U.S. currency. The price is now one hundred shillings for a nice, clean cut. This does not include a tip for the konyozi (barber). Despite the increased cost I still think my grandparents would appreciate the affordability!

The first photo shows the first female-owned barbershop in Talek from the outside. The second photo, taken by James, shows Andy in the foreground and visiting student Jon Deroba in the background getting their ears raised. Jon is Ph.D. student in the MSU Fish and Wildlife Department. Despite the fact there are very few fish in the Mara, Jon has proven himself to be very useful.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Snakes on a Plain

Recently I went into my tent in the middle of the afternoon to check something quickly on my computer. As anyone who knows me is aware, my obsessive-compulsive nature makes me very diligent about closing the zipper to my tent, even when I'm only going in for a minute. I really don't like mosquitoes, and by being anal about keeping the zipper closed at all times, I've managed to go over three months without a single mosquito getting in (and I think it's safe to say I've now jinxed that track record...). The irony of this will soon be apparent.

So after taking my shoes off outside—another lovely aspect of my OCD-ness, I don't like tracking dirt in—I stepped in wearing my socks and closed the zipper behind me. For the next few minutes I stood at my desk, which is only about a foot from the zipped entrance, piddling around at my computer, happy as a clam and completely unaware of my own impending doom. Suddenly I heard the sound of something rustling on the straw mat I use as a rug, and simultaneously felt something touching my foot. I looked down, and lo and behold, what adorably fuzzy and cute creature was on my foot?


Yes, yes, you read that correctly. A poisonous snake was touching my body. Right there, a few feet under my nose, slithering across my foot and under the desk. By the time my brain processed what it was—black, four feet long, couple inches in diameter, has no legs—it had moved off my foot and was coiled under the desk, seemingly as petrified as I was (is that even possible???). Miraculously, I neither screamed nor jerked my foot while it was on me (well DONE evolution! a special shout-out to all the people before me who took one for the team and were naturally selected out by doing either of those things). Instead, after coming out of my paralytic trance, I jumped backwards and leapt onto my bed, a few feet away from the cobra. We eyed each other for a moment before I began hollering for my labmate, Audrey.
"AUDREY!!! THERE'S A SNAKE IN MY TENT! PLEASE COME HERE!" I shouted from my perch.
"Oooo!" she yelled back. "Is it tiny and green?"
"Oh. Coming!"

Now, one thing you should know about Audrey is that she grew up on a farm with loads of harmless snakes, claims to have been bitten by them "hundreds or thousands of times" (I believe it), and spent two years as a research assistant on a snake project. So snakes are just about Audrey's favorite things in the whole wide world. Well that's just lovely for Audrey, but sadly I have had none of those charming experiences, so I was freaking out. But I knew she wouldn't, which was why she was the perfect person to be my knight in shining armor.

Audrey came and stood outside as I apprised her of the situation. Me: on the bed. Tent opening: zipped shut. Cobra: under the desk, right next to the opening. "No problem," she informed me, "I'll just open the zipper and you can run out." Yes, yes, wonderful, I'll just DASH past the poisonous menace that is just waiting for me to commit such a blunder. But it was that or spend the next several years in a stand-off with something lacking arms or legs, so I decided to make a break for it. Audrey opened the zipper, held open the flaps, and I held my breath and took a flying leap off my bed, hurling myself out the opening and into the sunlight.

It was at that point that I became aware of a little thing called adrenaline. See, as many of you probably know, you're not aware of it at the time, because it usually only shows up in high quantities during times of extreme duress. So naturally, you're not thinking, "Wow, I feel so energized and all my senses are hyper-aware"—you're thinking, "Wow, I wish I could get this boulder off my leg," or "Wow, I wish I could save this drowning child," or "Wow, I hope I picked the right suitcase on Deal or No Deal." Or in my case, "Wow, I really need to not die right now." But the second the stressor is removed, you don't need all that adrenaline any more, so the levels of it come crashing down. [Editor's note: Leslie is by no means an endocrinologist. If you want real explanations of this, ask Robert Sapolsky.] So the second I got out of the tent and to safety, it felt like there were massive waves of energy all exiting my body at the same time (perhaps what Linda Blair felt like in The Exorcist, only my head didn't spin around and I didn't spit out pea soup). My muscles got very tingly and loose and I began sobbing and shaking uncontrollably—not because I was still scared, but because that was how my relief was manifesting itself. I hadn't cried or trembled when I was in the tent, but the second I was out, I couldn't stop either for about twenty minutes. Part of it was that I couldn't stop reliving that one moment where I looked down and the cobra was on my body, and that sensation of it moving against my foot.

So at that point, Audrey kept an eye on the snake while I went and fetched James, one of our staff who has been pictured in previous posts. In his own words, James "does NOT fear snakes," but he doesn't like them, either, so the next question became whether or not we should kill it. James and Audrey decided that they would leave it up to me, since it was in my tent and it was me that had been traumatized. Naturally, my first instinct was one of revenge, but then I stepped back a moment and thought: revenge for what? What had it done to me? It had gotten in my tent through a hole in the back that I didn't know about, probably looking for mice to eat. Upon realizing that this was not a mouse hole and where the heck was this crazy place and how could it get out again, the snake presumably got scared, which was why it was hiding in a corner. I had been standing less than a foot from it for several minutes before it moved at all, so if it had been interested in biting me, it certainly had had ample opportunity. But it didn't. It didn't bite me, it didn't spit in my eye (the signature move of the spitting cobra, shockingly), it didn't even flare out its hood and try to intimidate me. What it actually did was wait for me to leave, and when that didn't happen, it tried to get out of my way. Why, then, would I want to kill it? That just didn't seem to make much sense to me. Certainly not good karma for a biologist. So we opened the tent up as wide as possible and James poked at it with a stick from the outside until it recognized the exit and slithered away as quickly as it could manage. At the risk of anthropomorphizing any more than usual, it seemed like the cobra was about as glad to say goodbye to me as I was to it.

It's been a while since I've had any Life Lessons, so I think it's time for a couple:

Life Lesson #1: Most snakes aren't nasty jerks
First of all, most snakes aren't poisonous. Second of all, making venom is very energetically-expensive, so even poisonous snakes will often give what is called a "dry bite" (thanks to Audrey for all this information), into which they don't inject any venom. Given that humans don't at all resemble a snake's typical prey item, it's unlikely that poisonous snakes will see you and think, "Yum, lunch," so most aren't out to bite you at all unless they run out of other options. And even then, they'll usually warn you somehow that they're feeling agitated, whether it's with an open hood, or a rattle, or something else along those lines. They mostly just want to be left alone. Third of all, supposedly most poisonous snake bites don't result in death, so even if everything else goes wrong for you and you DO get bitten, your goose isn't necessarily coming out of the oven just yet. Key word there of course is "necessarily."

Life Lesson #2: You are not as tough as you think you are
If your reaction to this story was, "Wow, cool!" or "Awesome!" or "That's so exciting!" then you are severely delusional. Several people have responded to my story with those exclamations, and I'm sure many of you reading this are having the same thoughts. Well, I have one thing to say to all of you: WRONG. You are WRONG. It is not COOL, it is not AWESOME, and for crying out loud it is not EXCITING to have a potentially-deadly animal touching your body. It is SCARY, and I don't care HOW much wildlife experience you have, I don't care if you used to have a pet rat snake, I don't care if your favorite Harry Potter character is Nagini—unless your name is Audrey, when you have a black-necked spitting cobra slithering across your foot, your heart stops, even if just for a second. (And, for the record, if you're wondering what the appropriate reaction is, I can tell you, because many people did indeed give it: "Oh my god, that would have made me poop my pants right there on the spot.")

Sadly, I was too distraught to take any pictures of Stuart—I named the cobra Stuart, because what could be less scary than that? But I'm sure if you Google image search "black-necked spitting cobra," you can fill in those blanks for yourself.

And if you're wondering, yes, I still take an extra peek around to all the crevices of my tent when I step in, because fool me once....

Friday, October 3, 2008

Bone crushers

I mentioned last week that hyenas have a trick up their sleeve that allows them to take advantage of a food source that is inaccessible to most animals. A few people posted comments right away and hit the nail on the head. Hyenas are actually capable of breaking bones into smaller pieces and eating them. They accomplish this by gripping the bone between their teeth and the then biting down with immense amount of force. After splitting the bone into smaller fragments, they simply gulp down the chunks of bone.

The advantage of eating bones is more obvious during periods when prey animals are scarce. Being able to crack open, swallow and digest bones gives hyenas access to nutrients such as calcium and phosphorus. I would consider this similar to digging to the bottom of the pantry or freezer when I haven't been to the grocery store for a long time. I am not going to find my favorite food in either place, but I will find something to eat in one of those places. Mothers nursing cubs may eat bones to get large amounts of calcium for milk production.

A couple of interesting side notes on the diet of a spotted hyena. Spotted hyenas get around 95% of their annual food intake from fresh ungulate kills. Eating bones can be an important supplement to a healthy diet, but eating fresh meat is of paramount importance. Reports exist of hyenas cracking and eating bones as large as giraffe femurs.In the photo below, James is holding three giraffe leg bones for perspective on the size of the bones. James is about five feet and nine inches tall, so that should give you some idea about the size of these bones and the strength of hyena jaws.

Most hyenas favor cracking bones on either the right or left side of their mouth. Instead of being right or left-handed, they are right or left-mouthed. Many animals worldwide exhibit some form of favoritism for one side over the other. There is only one other animal to my knowledge that regularly breaks open bones to eat the marrow, and that is the Lammergeier, also know as the bearded vulture. This vulture picks up bones in its mouth and flies into the sky. They then release the bones and drop them on rocks with the hope of breaking open the bone. It may take several tries before the bone actually breaks open, if it does at all. Much less efficient than the hyena method of using their massive jaw muscles to break open the bones

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science