Thursday, December 3, 2009

To the hyena blog faithful...

...I've officially left Fisi Camp for the last time, thus ending my blogging career. It's been a lot of fun and thanks for reading—stick around as the next generation of hyena researchers carries the torch. In the meantime, it's back to the real world for this Mama Fisi. Had to happen sometime. Catch you on the flip!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Where Have All The Wildebeest Gone?

The “Great Migration” has finally decided to move along from the Trans-Mara side of the Mara. Some of you may ask how it is possible to know when this is official, but let me just give you a couple photos to help exemplify my point.

Not more than 1 month ago, it looked like this everywhere:

There are still a few resident wildebeest that you can see around, but not nearly the all-encompassing groups that used to be a mainstay.

However with the wildebeest leaving, some of the other animals are coming back in larger numbers. You can imagine that with a few hundred thousand wildebeest, so come all of the flies and bugs that may get on the nerves of such temperamental animals such as elephants.

Another fun thing about the wildebeest leaving is that the zebras seem to stick around for the peace and quiet. It’s an interesting sight being able to see these black and white animals littering the landscape. Amazingly, it’s nearly impossible to take a bad picture of a zebra. All of my photos of these guys are going straight to National Geographic.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Te amo, te odio, te amo, te odio: an ode to Barcelona

Since first being introduced to the West clan in 2007, my favorite male has been Barcelona. Barcelona is the second-highest ranking immigrant male in the clan, but by far the best looking (in my opinion). He's always extremely well-fed and well-coiffed, like he keeps a comb and a mirror in his pocket just in case he runs into any ladies (which he always does—he's quite the social butterfly).

Barce moves from hyena sub-group to sub-group with confidence and ease—unusual qualities in an adult immigrant male. He seems comfortable with his place in society and knows when to keep his head low and his mouth shut, and when it's okay to push his luck a little further. For example, he's the only adult male I've ever seen groom an adult female...and she loved every second of it. Nobody else could get away with that. You can practically hear him counting down the days until Midget, the only immigrant male above Barce on the social ladder and an old, old man, kicks the bucket.

But Barcelona and I have a love-hate relationship. As in, I love him, and he hates me. And all other Fisi Campers. And our cars. Since the day he arrived in the West clan back in 2002, he's been extremely "spooky," which is our term for a hyena that fears our car. It's not unusual for immigrant males to be spooky—after all, whereas the adult females and cubs have all grown up with our cars, seeing us every day since the day they first poked their head out of the den, the immigrant males aren't used to being observed so closely and are understandably a tad more wary. Most of them get over it after a while...but not Barce.

One of my goals for being out here is to dart the males in our clans, in part because we need their DNA to determine paternity for all our cubs. As of one month ago, all the males in our West clan had been darted with one exception—Barcelona. He's been around for seven years—a long time in hyena years—but has thus far managed to evade all the efforts to dart him. When he sees us, he hides behind bushes, trees, other hyenas, grass clumps, you name it. He's very crafty: sometimes he won't even hide his whole body, he'll just hide the parts that he knows we can shoot (the butt and the side). In the evenings, when we can't dart because of impending darkness, he'll prance around the car, lollygagging with his butt in the air. For three field seasons he has been taunting me like this.

This year, I came to Kenya with the expectation that it would be my final field season, so I knew it was now or never for me to mend my relationship with Barcelona. As the months ticked down, I wracked my brain, hoping for a stroke of genius, some brilliant plan that no one had thought of until now. I asked everyone I knew for ideas, and here's what I got:

-get scuba gear and a waterproof gun and wait in the river for him to cross
-dig a tunnel that pops up near one of his favorite spots
-rent a helicopter and shoot him with one of those enormous nets used to dart elephants and rhinos
-buy a predator drone from the military and shoot him via joystick from my tent at camp

As creative and helpful as these ideas were, they all seemed slightly out of my budget range of zero US dollars (conversion to Kenyan shillings: zero Ksh). I was getting progressively more desperate...and more obsessed. Barcelona had started to haunt my dreams (no, I'm not exaggerating). I started to mentally prepare myself for what seemed like the inevitability that I would have to leave Kenya without his DNA. His cubs would forever go unclaimed, the only daddy-less black marks in an otherwise perfect paternity data set. The thought was devastating.

But there was one secret weapon I hadn't counted on: my man. And this time I'm not talking about Barcelona (although I have referred to him as "my man" more times than I can count). My boyfriend Dan was joining me for the last six weeks of my field season, and one benefit to having him here was going to be that he could be my "shooter" (I'm the driver). He had a little experience in marksmanship (thank youuuuuuu, Boy Scouts!) and is just generally very good at that kind of thing. So his first afternoon at Fisi Camp I plopped him out in the driveway with the darting gun, put out our practice target, and told him to get to work. The next morning he darted his first hyena and over the next week a few more to boot. But no Barce.

Dan could see how important darting Barcelona was to me, and being a competitive person, it soon became an obsession of his as well. So after a week he proclaimed that if Barce wouldn't let us get close enough to shoot (less than 30m), we would just have to figure out a way to shoot him from farther away. Three hours of practice shooting in the driveway later, and I had a shooter who was hitting the target from 40m away. This development introduced an entirely new set of rules to the game, and it rejuvenated my hope. I started to allow myself to think that we might actually get him. Our first few days post-New Rules were unsuccessful but encouraging. Barce was letting us get within 40m...a distance he thought was safe for him, since it had been for so many years. We could feel that it was coming.

And then, on October 29th—what a glorious day!—the stars aligned. We found Barcelona roaming around a small thicket of bushes, a little chubby and therefore more lethargic than usual. Perfect. He was wary of us, as always, and was fulfilling his mantra of "constant vigilance!" We can't shoot hyenas when they're looking at us, because we don't want them to associate the experience with humans, and Barce wouldn't take his eyes off us. But we didn't give up. We were following him in the car from about 40m away, waiting for something to distract him, when off in the distance we saw a herd of wildebeest begin running in a panic. Barce's eyes lit up as quickly as ours did. As we watched, a hyena isolated one wildebeest from the herd and began to close the gap. For a split second, Barce forgot himself and paused, mesmerized by the thought of fresh meat. That's all we (okay, Dan) needed. He pulled the trigger and we watched and waited to see if it hit.

Got him.

From 36m no less. Nothing short of a miracle. It only took a few minutes for Barcelona to fall asleep—in hindsight, surprising given his enormous mass of 65 kg (143 lbs.) When I first drew his blood into our vials, I was so overcome with emotion—relief, joy, disbelief, pride—that I teared up a little. Dan proclaimed his blood "liquid gold." And indeed it was. You can't see it in the photos, but we're pointing to the name on the vials—Barcelona.

Now I can relax. And relax we did—the last photo is of us celebrating. Dan is wearing a pod from a tree on his head as a crown. Don't ask...he just shot Barcelona—he can do whatever he wants!!! (I may live to regret those words....)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Suffice it to say the short rains have arrived.

61 mm in less than two hours yesterday afternoon (that's about 2.5"). 44 of those mm (1.75") came within just half an hour. Unbelievable.

The wildebeest seemed to know the rains were coming (they always do...) as they finally showed up last week. A good four months lather than the migration usually comes, but better late than never. It's good to see them back.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Wanting it Both Ways

One of the biggest inner conflicts I have experienced out here has been with tourists and tour vehicles. On the one hand, tourists help fund the existence of the park, and it's largely because of them that this land has been set aside as a protected area. On a larger scale, tourism is the Kenyan economy's largest source of income. Clearly, Kenya NEEDS tourists, and the Mara is arguably the most popular destination. Furthermore, it's wonderful to see people interested in and excited about wildlife, and wanting to shoot photos instead of bullets. These are all good things.

On the other hand, it can be very frustrating to watch tour vehicles violate the park "rules" (and I use that word loosely because like a tree toppling in a forest, is a rule really a rule if no one ever enforces it?) over and over again. On a daily basis, we see tour vehicles driving off-road, approaching animals to very close distances, making a lot of noise, and occasionally littering. The more in-demand animals like cheetahs and lions routinely get surrounded by tour vehicles. Below is a photo depicting only a portion of the thirty-one vehicles that encircled three adult cheetahs attempting to hunt.

As you can imagine, it's pretty difficult to sneak up on your prey when you've got thirty+ vehicles on your tail, so on this particular evening these cheetahs were unsuccessful. Better luck next time.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Thirsty Lions

Some of you may already know this, but most of Kenya is in a severe drought. This is affecting crops, livestock, and wildlife within and outside of the parks. Driving back from Nairobi the other day, I couldn’t help but notice how dusty and dry it has become. With many fresh cattle carcasses littering the landscape, I know that many families are going to struggle keeping their livestock going during this next month.

Back at camp, I have a different story to share.

I woke up this morning and looked for a water jug to brush my teeth. Usually, this is just outside of my tent like this:

However, I looked around and could not find it anywhere. Upon closer inspection of the scene of the missing water jug, I saw this:

Yeah, that’s a lion’s footprint. After learning about Leslie’s great detective work in finding her phone, I followed the tracks to find my missing water jug. Finally, I had discovered it, but the lion had already broken in and gotten its fill of delicious H2O. I felt surprisingly accomplished for finding the remains, but a big bummer because this water jug is now out of commission.

Lucky for us in Serena Camp on the western side of the Mara, the short rains are rolling in right now. It’s been raining for the past 3 days; each storm getting progressively larger, longer, and starting earlier in the day.

Maybe now the lions can find their OWN water?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Camp's newest visitors

Our latest invasion is by a family of banded mongooses (no, the plural is not "mongeese"). Banded mongooses are small social carnivores that inhabit the Mara. To give you a reference point, they look and act a lot like meerkats—lots of vigilant behavior by standing up on their hind legs and swiveling their heads around. Check out the nasty little claws; they're particularly impressive I think.

Interestingly, mongooses are hyenas' closest relative (I think I've talked about this before, perhaps). The four species of hyena—spotted, striped, brown, and the aardwolf—are their own family (Hyaenidae), but if you back up the taxonomic chain a little to the order Carnivora, you'll see that the hyena family and the mongoose family share their most recent common ancestor. So hyenas are more closely related to mongooses than they are to cats, dogs, or bears (I mention bears because here at Fisi Camp we tend to think hyenas have "bear faces"). That being said, mongooses and hyenas split LONG ago, so they still aren't necessarily "closely" related...just closEST.

Anyway, these guys are totally cute, and make really interesting vocalizations. They are constantly squeaking and chirping at each other as they prowl around in search of food. As you'll see in one of these photos, they have recently found a constant food source in some of our more generous camp members (not me—let the record show that I don't feed wildlife in camp!).

It's quite amusing: we'll be sitting enjoying our breakfast, and all of a sudden a dozen mongooses will sprint in from every direction, run around like mad for half an hour, then equally suddenly dash off to their next appointment. The real highlight was watching one take a snail shell and try to crack it by repeatedly whacking it against one of our tent poles. I hope they stick around!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

So far, so good...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Potter Park Zoo lecture

To those in the East Lansing area:

A Maasai safari guide will be giving a guest lecture on Kenyan wildlife next month at Potter Park Zoo. You can find out more information here.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Cub cuteness

Okay, you've earned it. Here's a completely frivolous post that has nothing to do with the harsh realities of natural selection. Enjoy our latest crop of kiddos.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The shallow end of the gene pool

As we all know, we are not all equally blessed when it comes to genetic perfection, and our hyenas are no exception. Here are two particular gems:

Having had braces for five years, I can relate to poor Snaggletooth, who's looked like this since she was a kid:
Just looking at her cracks me up. But she's smarter than she looks.

Then there's this poor soul...a three-month old cub that is almost certainly blind (I don't think I need to point him out in the photo below).

I fondly call him "Demon Hyena."
When he was two months old, his eyes were a striking blue, but over the last month they have noticeably turned green. It's actually quite sad to watch him because he wanders around, constantly sniffing the air, occasionally stepping on other hyenas, who are less patient than we might be. Unfortunately, vision is absolutely crucial in the life of a hyena. Not only do you need to be able to see to hunt and watch out for ill-intentioned lions, but so many of the social cues that hyenas use are also visual, such as putting ears back to show submission, or giving nasty glares to show dominance. In hyena societies, much like middle school, it's ALL about fitting in and knowing your place in the social hierarchy. If this guy can't recognize when he's being "yelled" at, he might accidentally sit at the Cool Kids' table when he shouldn't, or fail to pay enough respect to the captain of the cheerleading squad. In middle school that might get you stuffed in a locker...for this guy, it will be a lot worse. For now, though, he's lucky enough to still belong at the den, so he doesn't need to depend on anyone but his mama, who surely loves him in spite of his blindness.

That being said, every time we see him we rejoice a little that he's still hanging in. Let's just say I don't think he should buy the big tube of toothpaste.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Nancy Drew's lost file: crimebusting, Maasai-style

There are three things you should know before reading this post:

1. This is easily one of my all-time favorite stories from living in the Mara. Right up there with the cobra slithering across my foot.
2. Because of #1, I am unwilling to compromise on the level of detail, and this story is therefore QUITE long. So if you’re in a rush or have a short attention span, this post is not for you.
3. The idiocy I will display at one point of this story is truly baffling. I do not need you to point this out to me (commenters on the last post, this means you).

Okay, now that those are out of the way, I can begin.

So as you may recall from my last post, I lost my phone while peeing in the middle of the open savannah just over a week ago. Wednesday the 5th, to be exact. Here is the sequence of events that followed:

Thursday: I call a friend in Nairobi and ask her to try to buy me a used phone of the same model, which I need to connect to the internet. It can’t be any old model, unfortunately—it has to be this one. She calls that night and informs me that she has succeeded in procuring this phone for me. HOORAY.

Friday: I have my most trusted taxi driver pick the phone up from her apartment and drive it across the city to the house of another friend, who is driving down to the Mara over the weekend. Meanwhile, I ALSO need to replace my “sim card,” which is a small chip you insert into your phone that contains all your contacts and is basically YOUR line. (So you can insert your sim card into someone else’s phone and use it as “your” phone.) In order to get my old number back, I have to get a new sim card, which can only be obtained at the nearest city, two hours away. (I know this is a little confusing. Stay with me, people.) So I call one of our staff members, James, who happens to be on leave at that city. James goes to the phone company’s shop, gets the replacement sim card, and puts it on a bus leaving for my area that evening. The driver drops it off at a nearby bar, and one of our night watchmen, Steven (remember him, he’ll appear later), picks it up and gives it to me that night. But when I insert it into any phone (and I try several), it won’t work. I call customer service and they tell me technical services will get back to me by Tuesday. This sounds like an eternity to me.

Sunday: The friend who has the phone in Nairobi drives down to the Mara and drops the new phone off at Fisi Camp. I am excited but can’t do much with it until I get my sim card working.

Tuesday: Technical services finally gets back to me, and fixes my problem. I am now able to make and receive calls, and more importantly, connect to the internet. I yelp with joy and do a little Happy Dance all around camp, blissfully touting the wonders of email.

The reason I am telling you all of that is so that you fully appreciate the time, effort and coordination (not to mention cost) that went into getting me this replacement phone. You need to recognize that in order to really comprehend the rest of the story.

Wednesday: It is now exactly one week after I dropped my first phone, and less than twenty-four hours after I got my new one working properly. I no longer keep my phone in my back pocket, but instead in a deep pocket of my vest. We stop in town on the way home from morning observations, and as we’re leaving, an old Maasai mama and a young girl beg a ride from us. When we get to their neighborhood, I stop and get out to open the door for them. You can perhaps see where this is headed.

We get back to camp, not ten minutes after dropping them off, and I conduct my routine inventory of my belongings. Headlamp, check. Digital voice recorder, check. Sunglasses, check. Phone…no phone. NO PHONE. This cannot be happening. I panic and begin calling it from another phone, and the line is ringing, but we can’t hear it ringing at camp. I do some mental calculations…I had the phone when we picked up the mama and girl, that I remember. I only got out of the car once, to let them out. It seems impossible that it could have fallen out of my pocket—I didn’t bend over, and the other things I had in that pocket are all still there. The phone would have had to practically LEAP out of my pocket, defying gravity, to escape me. And yet….

Steven hasn’t left yet for the day, so I beg him to come help me and we hop in the car and return to the spot where I dropped off the mama and girl. No phone. I call it again, and it rings a couple times and then I get the message “line busy,” the way you would if someone hit “ignore” when you were calling. I call again, and this time I get the message “This phone has been turned off.” That means someone must have it.

Let the crime-solving begin.

First we drive to the nearest group of loitering men, and ask them which mama I gave a ride to earlier. They tell Steven they aren’t sure, but a bunch of mamas nearby might know. Two of them hop in the car and we drive to those mamas, and they tell us they don’t know either, but they do know the girl that also got a ride. When we find her, she says he hasn’t seen the phone, but knows where the mama lives, and she hops in the car too. At each leg of this investigation, we seem to acquire more detectives. It’s not clear whether this is just because they are bored or because they might actually be able to help with our investigation. I am too distraught to care.

We finally track down the mama, who comes out of her manyatta along with six or seven other women and countless children. Steven and the other men begin interrogating her. (All these conversations are in Maa, but one of the men speaks English and kindly translates for me.) She says that she never saw the phone, and when they ask if she saw anyone else nearby, she says no. This is where it turns ugly, because the girl pipes up and says that that’s a lie, she saw many other women in the area, and this old mama even talked to one of them. The men begin yelling at the mama to tell the truth, pointing out that I was kind enough to give them a ride home from town, so the least she could do is help me find the phone. She yells back and suddenly many raised voices are all talking at once. In the meantime, another mama comes out of the manyatta and decides this is a good time to shake everyone’s hand, amidst all the yelling.

It is eventually determined that lie or no lie, the old mama really doesn’t know where the phone is. So the girl, the men, Steven, and I pile back into the car and drive to about a half dozen other manyattas, asking everyone we see if they know anything about the phone. No one does, but at this point half of the village knows I’ve lost it. Given how small a community it is and how much people love to chat, by evening the other half will know too. This is part of our plan.

We realize that anyone who has found the phone and intends to use it will have to charge it. Since the manyattas don’t have electricity, there are stores in town that will charge phones for a small fee. So we head into town and stop at as many shops as we can think of, telling them what has happened. We describe the phone to them and tell them that if anyone brings in a phone like that, please call us immediately. I won’t lie—at this point, I’m so angry at myself, embarrassed at my own stupidity and carelessness, that I am crying. In our small Maasai community, the only thing more gawk-able than a young white woman is a crying young white woman, so I am quite the spectacle. But everyone we talk to is incredibly nice and assures us they will try to help. I am convinced that my phone is halfway to Nairobi right now to be sold, and now I’m out a bunch of money and have to go through that hassle of getting a new phone all over again. I decide this is definitively the worst day I’ve had in the Mara.

But wait.

The next afternoon (yesterday), Steven gets a call from one of the shopkeepers, who says that a man just brought in a phone just like mine, wanting to charge it. The shopkeeper didn’t have the right charger, but he cleverly told the man he would get it and to come back later. Then he called us and told us to bring him the charger, and we’ll catch him. A sting. I love it.

So we drive into town, with the charger and the receipt for the phone (complete with the serial #), me trying not to get my hopes up, Steven grinning widely, Ben (another research assistant) driving and translating for me. The shopkeeper has told us to park around the corner so the thief doesn’t see our car, which says “hyena research” on it. I ask how he knows the phone belongs to a Fisi Camper, and Ben says that everyone knows, that the whole town has been talking about it and looking for it since yesterday. (If that doesn’t sell you on small-town kindness, you’re hopeless.) So we send Steven in to drop off the charger, and anxiously wait around the corner for the man to come back with the phone.

As we wait, we get a call from a different shopkeeper, who says the man was also at her shop, again trying to charge the phone. The man works at a nearby lodge and she even knows his name. Taking a different approach than the first shopkeeper, she tells him, “This phone is stolen, it belongs to a Fisi Camper. Return it to the security office of your lodge at once.” Whether or not he plans to do this, at this point he at least knows we are onto him.

We go to see the shopkeeper, who says the man has left and is walking back to the lodge. So we begin driving that way and see him walking with four other men (it really helps that Steven knows everyone in town). We quickly work out a plan—first approach is just to ask for the phone, no harassment, second choice is to threaten calling the police—and stop, casually offering them a ride. They gladly get in, seemingly oblivious to our cause. We drive to the lodge, making small talk, and when we park and get out, the man’s friend turns to us and says, “We know why you are here. Rather than involve other people, let’s just settle it right now, here.”

And with that, one man pulls out my phone and I pull out the receipt with the serial number. The men compare and agree that it is indeed my phone, and the man readily gives it back to me. I do the Happy Dance once again (reunited and it feeeeels so gooood!) and tip everyone involved, especially the man who had my phone. It turns out that he is NOT the thief—he bought the phone from a friend the day before, so THAT guy is the thief. And wouldn’t you know it, he’s also walking to the lodge right now (seriously, I said it was a small town). In fact, we passed him earlier on the road. So we all get back in the car and track him down. The men get out and begin talking very quickly with the thief, but we decide to stay out of it and thank everyone and go on our merry way.

Case closed! Mystery solved! Private Investigator Steven proves he really is the “head of Fisi Camp security,” as he often reminds us.

If you happen to be taking issue with my use of the word “thief” (ahem, Daniel), considering it’s not exactly like he swiped the phone out of my bag—he found it on the ground, after all—please consider the following things this man could have done:
1. He could have turned it into the police.
2. He could have answered it when I called it several times.
3. He could have called the most recently dialed numbers to try to track me down.

Now consider what he DID do:
1. He hit ignore when I called the first couple times, then turned the phone completely off.
2. He took out my sim card and threw it away.
3. He sold my phone to his friend, even though he most likely heard from people that I was missing it.

I have learned two very important lessons from this escapade:

1. From now on, I will be zippering the pocket in which I keep my phone.

2. The kindness and selflessness of a community that genuinely desires to help someone can overcome one bad apple. That being said, you can count on that bad apple being the one to find your phone if you drop it. Which you should really try hard not to do.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mara Hazard #712: Loss of phone whilst peeing

One lovely part of working out here is that we never have to “hold it”—since there are no official bathrooms, everywhere is our bathroom. When we have to pee, we just stop the car, hop out, look around for peeping-tom tourists and hungry-looking lions (fat lions are okay), and pop a squat. It’s quick, it’s simple, and it’s very liberating.

But apparently it’s also perilous. You all probably know someone who has dropped a cell phone into a toilet. (Right now my mom is thinking, “No, no I DON’T know anyone who has done that…what kind of friends does my daughter have?!?”) Well, as is true for many aspects of a modern American life, we have an unconventional equivalent here in the Mara. Last week I had to make a pit stop during a long morning observation session. I stopped the car, hopped out, dropped trou, took care of business, and off we went on our merry way. Unbeknownst to me, my cell phone had fallen out of my back pocket. The very phone that is my lifeline out here, my connection to my loved ones, my boss, the world at large via the internet…all gone with one emptying of the bladder.

I didn’t realize this until about an hour later, at which point we were in a different area. We went back and drove around, furiously calling it while driving with our heads out the windows, searching with our eyes and ears, but alas, to no avail. Somewhere out there, a hyena is happily reconnecting with his friends and family from the Serengeti at the rate of three shillings per minute.

If you’re thinking that it couldn’t possibly have been THAT difficult to find the phone, take a look at the photos below. Where would you even begin?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Displacement Behavior

In her recent post, Kay described how conflicted males feel when courting females and how they do what we call "approach-avoid" ("I want you...but I'm scared of you...but you're cute....but also dangerous..."). I once watched a male hyena approach-avoid a female for literally half an hour. He would take two steps toward her, then freak out and back up as if he had hit an invisible wall. Then a minute later, he would shuffle forward again, only to hit the wall and reverse. This went on and on. The best part? The female was facing the other way, sleeping, and had no idea it was even happening. My heart really went out to that guy.

One other way this conflict is expressed is through "displacement behavior," which is when a motivational conflict in an individual results in a behavior that is completely irrelevant to any of the potential goals. The best example I can think of is how when I was an undergrad and had a big exam coming up, I wanted to do well—that's one motivation—so I needed to study, but I also wanted to be rested—that's the other motivation—so I needed to sleep. What I would actually do was clean my room, which clearly accomplishes neither goal—classic displacement behavior. Curiously, now that I'm a grad student, my displacement-behavior-of-choice has morphed into baking. Whenever I have a bazillion papers to grade, for some reason I decide that that's the appropriate time to try a new recipe for peanut-butter fudge brownies.

Okay, tangent over, back to the hyenas and THEIR displacement behaviors. So when males are doing the approach-avoid thing, it's very common for them to stop and begin vigorously grooming themselves, particularly the forelegs. Recently, we watched as a male pursued a female who was in estrus for over an hour, trying to get up his courage to copulate with her. He would scurry up behind her and just when it looked like he would mount her, he would chicken out and begin grooming his forelegs. During the course of this saga, he stopped to groom his forelegs a whopping thirty-six times(!!) before finally successfully copulating with the female. I think by that point he had the cleanest feet in the Mara.

Friday, July 31, 2009

NSS Episode Three: Moving Day

In a land where Elf (the dominant female) is queen, and clashes with lions are the norm, we bring you a clan. Located between the beautiful Oz Valley and the famous Mara River, this is where the drama unfolds. Known to many as “fisi,” we just call them “North.”

This is the North Side Story.

Episode 3: “Moving Day”

All of the fan mail, post cards, and requests for autographs have really gotten to our cast members of the North Side Story. Just the other day, they decided that the current den they were living in was not receiving the spotlight as well as it should have.

Abandoned den with new resident mongoose.

Thus, they moved to a den that would garner just a little more attention.

Ok, they moved to a den that would encourage a whole new fan base. They moved to a den that is right off the main road near Serena Lodge. Now every tourist, visitor, and guest of the Mara Conservancy can’t go a single day without acknowledging our new blog-stars.

New den just off the main road.

My guess is next week we’ll see them on MTV-cribs. Hopefully they’ll make sure to clean up nicely before the film crews arrive.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Courtship -- hyena style

Although it is perfectly clear that adult male spotted hyenas are sexually interested in adult females who might be getting ready to mate, it is equally clear that males experience rather dramatic emotional conflicts during courtship.

On the one hand, a male hyena wants to mate with the female, and for this he obviously needs to remain in close proximity to her, but on the other hand he clearly fears biting attacks by the female, and this appears to make him want to keep a safe distance from her. Thus courtship interactions in this species are therefore characterized by extreme male ambivalence. They are also characterized by apparent indifference on the part of the female, who generally seems to ignore the male’s courtship gestures altogether.

The other day I watched the male (standing) in the pictures at right expressing very strong sexual interest in a female dozing near the den. He would repeatedly tiptoe up to her while she napped, but as soon as she lifted her head (even if she was not even orienting toward him), he would dash out of range of her jaws. You can see from his posture, with his front foot elevated, that he was always ready to flee even as he approached the female.

You can also see how aroused he was, because he was sporting a phallic erection that actually flipped up against his belly. He engaged over and over in this sequence of behaviors, in what we call an “approach-avoid” display. Obviously male spotted hyenas must overcome a very unusual set of motivational challenges in order to court large, aggressive, well-armed females.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Hyena watching in the western Mara

Just over one year ago, we set up a new carnivore monitoring station and research camp in the western part of the Masai Mara National Reserve. Here are some shots I took this week of the camp as it is now (complete with resident wart hogs foraging among our tents), and one of Dave and Jeff out on morning "Obs" parked (in our one good car!) at the den of the Serena North clan.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Car woes

Here's a dilemma: as two of our 4-wheel drive bush vehicles are REALLY on their last legs these days, awhile back I asked our program officer at the National Science Foundation, the federal agency that supports most of our hyena work, whether we might be able to get a supplement to our current grant large enough to allow us to replace one of our ancient decrepit cars with a new one. The program officer wrote back today to say that they can give us some money toward a new car, but that all they have available right now is $15,000. Well, that's problematic because we need about three times that much to purchase a car that can hold up under bush conditions. And since our university, like most universities these days, is in the midst of a financial crisis, I figured I might as well ask the readers of this blog whether they have any ideas how we might raise the funds to supplement those NSF is offering us right now. The rub is that, if we don't figure out how to supplement the NSF offer by 15 July, we are likely to lose even the $15,000 they are offering us right now. Unfortunately at this point, that's probably the likeliest scenario.

Why do we need a new car so badly? Well, because once you leave the major cities, most roads here are pitted with ruts and potholes so deep that driving into one at any speed higher than about 10 mph can break your axle. And those roads beat cars up pretty badly over time. Two of our current cars (see photo) are so old that they now cost us a fortune to keep running. I bought one of them in 1995 and the other in 1999. That means parts for those cars are not only expensive, but also hard to find. Although we do weekly maintenance and small repairs on all our vehicles, these old cars keep breaking down with problems so severe that we can't fix them ourselves. To get your car towed from the remote Kenyan bush back to Nairobi costs us $500 each time it happens. And these cars are so old that this is happening a lot these days. The other day we broke down near our striped hyena study site in Shompole and had to be towed all the way back to the capital. That took all day and cost 29,000 Kenya shillings! Most importantly, because we study larege carnivores that would find any of us to be a delicious suppertime treat, we need to monitor them from inside cars, and those cars really need to work well!

So, if you miraculously happen to have some cash lying around that you want to donate to a good cause, please consider giving it to us (and soon!) so we can avoid losing the NSF funds and get ourselves a car that will allow us to do our work without having to spend endless hours diagnosing car problems every day.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Giving birth though a soda straw: ouch!!

One of the most mysterious and bizarre characteristics of the spotted hyena is the heavily masculinized genitalia of the female. Here you can see adult female Gucchi (wearing the radio collar) investigating the genitalia of adult female Carter (who has her butt toward the camera and her tail raised) during a greeting ceremony at the den (that's Gucchi's cub, Alfredo, scratching himself while his mom greets). Notice that Carter has a male-like pseudoscrotum and a male-like phallus. It is not known why female spotted hyenas sport such unusual genitalia. However, one of the most amazing things about all this, in my opinion, is that the female is obliged to give birth through that narrow tube. Cubs weigh just over two pounds at birth, so imagine introducing a baby that size to the world via that route. It has GOT to hurt! In fact, the female's pseudopenis tears when she bears her first litter, and this natural episiotomy leaves a neat strip of pink scar tissue on the posterior surface (see blow-up). Thus, even if her first cubs die before we can ever see them, we can tell that a young adult female has given birth based on the presence of that scar tissue.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Look Out Poachers

The Mara Conservancy has just made a giant leap forward in anti-poaching efforts. Just this week they welcomed eight dog-handling rangers and two new “officers” into their ranks. After an intensive four-week training with two professional dog trainers from the Colorado police department, these dogs are ready to assist the Conservancy and surrounding lodges.

Using their amazing bloodhound sense of smell, the rangers will bring these dogs to poachers’ camps and follow individual tracks left behind as people flee. For Mamusi and Murani (the dogs; meaning “something we’ve been waiting for” and “warrior” in Masai) following the trails left by the poachers is the easy part. For the rangers, keeping up with such strong dogs that enjoy every minute of tracking, is much more challenging.

Jeff and I had the opportunity to follow along on a training exercise and boy can these dogs run! To prepare the rangers for extreme all-night tracking, each ranger had to go through (and continue) rigorous conditioning. This includes running multiple kilometers around the camp daily, all-encompassing weight training, and being able to traverse the nearby escarpment in under seven minutes!

We ran about a mile and a half following the dogs in our practice run, and I cannot imagine what it must feel like during the real thing. Running through the dark of night with no lights, surrounded by grass that is at least eight feet tall, all the time searching for people that you know have no remorse for breaking laws.

After lightly jogging behind these dogs, I know there is absolutely no way I could out-run them in the middle of the night.

Good luck poachers when they are at full speed!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

What else is out there at night besides hyenas?

Here are a few photos from our Shompole camera traps to give you an idea of the diversity of life-forms wandering around there at night. See if you can identify all these animals. I'll post answers in my next blog entry.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science