Tuesday, March 31, 2009

So you say it's dusty...

You know I tell a lot of people that it's dusty where we study striped hyenas in Shompole, Kenya but really... no one gets it. People say, "oh yeah I saw a dust devil on the road once, it was huge." I just sigh, there's really no pressing the issue without visual evidence. So without further ado:

Still want to visit?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Follow-up to Kate's encounter

Just a couple thoughts on dolphins, in light of Kate's most recent post:

Dolphins are actually a lot like hyenas. They both live in fission-fusion societies, which means they live in a large social group (in the hyenas' case, a clan, which can have as many as 80 individuals) but spend most of their time in fluid subgroups. These subgroups can have anywhere from a lone individual to many, and the individuals may vary. So, for example, Morpheus (my favorite hyena) may spend this afternoon with Pan, Samburu, and Monroe (subgroup of 4), but hang alone in the evening (subgroup of 1). It's rare for an entire hyena clan to come together at the same time, despite them all being in the same social group. The same is true for dolphins—a social group may have a pretty clear territory in which everyone stays, but you're not likely to see the entire group together at once. So it's possible the various groups Kate saw were all part of the same larger group, and what she was seeing was multiple subgroups coming and going. (It's also possible that they were from different groups entirely, or even different species—interactions between different species of dolphins aren't uncommon.)

But the similarities don't stop there. Both dolphins and hyenas are extremely gregarious, as I just discussed, and they're each near the top of their respective food webs. They also both have very large brains relative to their body size (compared to most other mammals), making them adept at completing cognitive tasks (remember Kate's post on the puzzle box?).

In fact, one of my dissertation chapters was inspired by a phenomenon I saw in male bottlenose dolphins. Male dolphins form "pair bonds," which is basically science-talk for bromance. (Oh man, I am calling dibs RIGHT NOW on being the first person to ever publish a paper with "bromance" in the title—Nature reviewers, get your pens ready.) Two males will form a bond that's so strong that they spend as much time together as mother dolphins spend with their calves (re: almost all of it). They forage together, travel together, and even court the lay-dees together, giving a whole new dimension to the term wingman. So essentially, I'm asking if male hyenas do the same thing. Updates to follow on that one.

Anyway, given the similarities between dolphins and hyenas and the financial success of "swim with dolphins" programs worldwide, perhaps Fisi Camp is sitting on a goldmine here. Anyone interested in a "run around with hyenas" program? (Disclaimer regarding prepositional confusion: "around with" can also mean "from," as in, "for your life.")

Studies of hyena skull development put teeth into new female dominance theory

Holekamp Lab alumni Heather Watts and Jaime Tanner, along with Kay Holekamp and BarbaraLundrigan from the MSU Museum, have recently published a theory regarding female dominance among spotted hyenas in the March 18 issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Read the news release here: http://news.msu.edu/story/6091/.

Watch the video: MSU zoology professor Kay Holekamp discusses a new theory connecting female spotted hyena social dominance to the length of time it takes for young hyena skulls to develop to the point where they can compete for food.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Tales (tails?) from the seashore, part 2

When I learned that I could swim with dolphins at Kizingo, I thought I knew what to expect, since I “swam” with dolphins in the Bahamas about 10 years ago (and by “swam,” I mean I stood in a shallow enclosure with a bored captive dolphin and got my photo taken). But the dolphins around Kizingo were wild, interactive, and totally captivating…I had no idea what I was in for.

Our first two outings were thwarted by the elusive dolphins, which were nowhere to be seen. On the bright side, we snorkeled among stingrays, octopuses, whitetip sharks, and thousands of gorgeous tropical fish. We took a mid-day break on a rocky island where we had hermit crab races, marveled at giant clams, and dined on fresh oysters we cracked off the rocks. We returned only a bit frustrated by the dolphins’ absence....if I know anything about wild animals, it’s that they’re completely unpredictable. I held out hope.

I gave the dolphins another chance on my last morning at Kizingo. Less than 20 minutes off the beach, we spotted a group of 5 playing in the waves. Success! At that point, I knew I would encounter at least one dolphin on my trip, and that was enough. We quickly donned our fins and snorkels and took the plunge.

All of a sudden, it became clear that the dolphins weren’t the spectacle here…we were. In order to get – and keep - the dolphins’ attention, we were the performers. Since Kizingo doesn’t feed or attract the dolphins in any way (yay for responsible tourism), we had to rely on our creativity, and their curiosity, to bring them to us. We did flips, blew bubbles, and dove as deep as we could to engage them.

The dolphins really varied in their interest in us. Some groups were tremendously curious about these strange, snorkel-bearing interlopers. To others, we were about as exciting as a bunch of barnacles. The better we got at entertaining them, however, the more playful they became. They approached - sometimes just inches away - and peered at us, they swam alongside us, and they gracefully mimicked our awkward antics.

At one point, we were surrounded by about 30 dolphins from a few different pods. They were impossible to keep track of, since they were so much more agile underwater than we clumsy terrestrial mammals were, even with our fins and snorkels. Different groups would come in and out of sight, chasing each other, diving all the way to the bottom, then breaking the surface right next to us. You’d be playing “Simon Says” with one dolphin, and suddenly a group of four or five would swim up from behind and surround you.

Let me tell you, swimming with these guys isn’t an activity for wimps. It turns out being a dolphin (or at least pretending to) is UNBELIEVABLY hard work. A few times, I was breathing so hard – through a snorkel, mind you – that I thought I might have a heart attack. (But, what a way to go, right?) We kept getting in the boat, completely spent, then seeing a newly-arrived group and diving right back in. No matter how exhausted I was, I just couldn’t stay out of the water. I returned to Kizingo unbelievably sunburned, covered in flipper-blisters, and worn out to the point of comatose. But I still can’t stop smiling.

**Photos courtesy of Kizingo. Thanks!!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tales (tails?) from the seashore, part 1

You know you’re a hopeless animal geek when, on a beach vacation in paradise, you STILL manage to spend your time enthralled with the local fauna.

I spent the last week at Kizingo, an indescribably gorgeous resort on the Kenyan coast. My friend Sarah works there, and she invited me to come forget about animals for a bit. Somehow, we still ended up with some amazing critter encounters.
Chapter 1:

“Hello…Kate?” I woke up to someone calling my name. I groggily determined that it was WAY before my morning wake-up call, when fresh coffee would miraculously appear on my verandah. In fact, it was just after 4am.

As visions of horrible family emergencies swept through my mind and my body began to enter total panic mode, Sarah’s voice whispered through my window, “There’s a sea turtle laying eggs out here. Would you like to watch?”

Um…YES. Yes, I would.

Since Kizingo is right on the beach, I assumed we’d just saunter onto the sand and there would be the miracle of life, happening right in front of my adorable thatched hut. However, I suppose you’ve got to work a bit to witness such a miracle, since this particular turtle had chosen a lovely little spot waaaaaay down the beach. After a sweat-inducing half-hour power walk, we arrived. The turtle was several feet above the high-tide line, digging furiously into the sand.

Now, I knew green turtles were large, but this thing was huge. Like growth-hormone-fed, bad-horror-movie enormous. She was over three feet long and must have weighed several hundred pounds. Louis (one of Kizingo’s owners and the resident sea turtle expert) said she wasn’t much above average, but I certainly hadn't been expecting something outweighing a linebacker.

Not long after we arrived, she finished digging and started depositing her eggs into the freshly-dug nest. At this point in the process, laying females aren’t disturbed by human presence, so we could get up-close and personal. Since she was positioned over the hole, we couldn’t actually see the eggs, but Louis estimated that she likely laid over 80.

Then, the covering process began. She began flinging large amounts of sand over her back, onto her head, into onlookers’ eyes, and everywhere else within a few meters. I don’t know if this turtle had particularly poor coordination, or if evolution just hasn’t been kind to sea turtles in the sand-flinging department, but it seemed like a pretty inefficient process. I guess it’s all about tradeoffs; any animal that can outswim a fishing trawler probably won’t be particularly adept at moving large amounts of sand.

The female was finally satisfied with her nest, but by this time she had actually dug herself into a sand dune. Once she’d managed to excavate herself and turn around, she slid - surprisingly nimbly - down the shore and into the sea. The waves knocked her back a few times, then she submerged gracefully and was gone.

That was SO worth waking up early for.

At 4am, I didn't really have the presence of mind to bring a camera along. Luckily, someone else was better prepared. If these photos are yours, let me know and I'll give you photo credit!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Downtime á la Africa

For a hyena, downtime usually looks something like this…

For the Homo sapiens out here, downtime is a bit harder to come by.

Honestly, between watching hyenas, thinking about hyenas, and writing about hyenas, we don’t have a whole lot of free time. And, when we do have a moment to spare, we usually spend it peering under the hood of the car, repairing tent zippers, or fixing whatever’s gone wrong with the solar panel.

On those glorious occasions that we can unwind, we make it count. Fisi Camp knows how to throw a great party. All you need is some bad American music, a campfire, and a freshly-slaughtered goat. As if by magic, everyone in a 10-mile radius – both Masai and foreign - shows up at camp within the hour. It’s a great way to take a break from work, as well as show some generosity to the local community.

Another one of our favorite leisure activities is “sundowners,” Kenya’s variation on cocktail hour. The idea is simple: rally some friends, find a hilltop with a gorgeous view, pour some libations, nibble on cashews and “crisps” (that’s “chips” to us Americans), and watch the sun go down.

Often, however, our downtime is less exotic. When there’s enough power to spare, we watch movies (our standards are pretty low, so we don’t mind watching the same 5 movies over and over and over again). When we’re out of power, we read…we have an eclectic collection of books donated by previous Fisi Camp residents. When Kay is around, we play some bizarre German board game involving railroads. We gossip, we nap, we play with our food.

While there’s a definite scarcity of downtime here, there’s certainly no shortage of ways to fill those fantastic free moments.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Now THAT is a big termite mound.

Friday, March 6, 2009

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's...

A pangolin!!

Safari guides here will laugh if you ask them to find you a pangolin. Pangolin research projects have been abandoned because the scientists couldn’t locate any study subjects. Sightings are so exceptional that a pangolin’s emergence is said to herald some rare and magical event.

So, imagine our surprise last night when this guy decided to waddle across the road, right in front of our vehicle.

Also known as “scaly anteaters,” pangolins are utterly bizarre creatures. They are extremely specialized insect-eaters. They lack teeth, but have 15-inch tongues that are attached not in the mouth, but down in the abdominal cavity. To raid anthills and termite mounds, pangolins have incredibly long, sharp claws. Unfortunately, these super-cool talons are so cumbersome that pangolins can’t actually use their front paws for walking. They walk hunched over on their hind legs, holding their front feet curled up off the ground to protect their claws. We decided they look a bit like mini-Godzillas wearing some really heavy armor.

Perhaps the pangolin’s most noticeable adaptation is its scales, which cover its body from head to tail. They are made of keratin (like your fingernails) but are deadly-sharp and tough enough to deter most predators. When threatened, pangolins roll up into a scaly ball and wait out the danger. Their scales are supposedly the source of their magic, and are highly prized in some African societies for protection against evil.

Our pangolin meandered across the road, giving us just enough time to recover from total shock before grabbing our cameras. As if to wave goodbye (or maybe to say “stop gawking at me, you crazy stalkers”), it raised its tail and disappeared into the tall grass.

Now, we get to sit back, gloat over our unbelievable sighting, and wait for our magical event.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

One-eyed wonder

About a month ago, we noticed that Quark, a 5-month old Happy Zebra cub, had a very swollen right eye. The swelling has finally gone down, and now we realize the eye isn’t just damaged…it’s completely gone.

I know what you’re thinking: are you guys really geeky enough to name a lineage of hyenas after subatomic particles?

Um, yes we are. But perhaps you’re also thinking: yikes…what’s it like being a hyena with only one eye?

Hyenas have what we call “binocular vision,” meaning that their vision is a result of two overlapping images – one from each eye – that the brain puts together. This allows for several fantastic advantages, such as depth perception and increased detection. Animals such as predators (which rely on particular visual cues to hunt moving prey) and primates (which need to find and select particular fruits from the surrounding vegetation) often have binocular vision. Their eyes are usually placed closely together on the head and oriented forward.

Animals with “monocular vision” (like the rhino below) have eyes that are on opposite sides of their head, rather than in front. These animals use each eye separately, but the big advantage here is an increased field of view – sometimes nearly 360 degrees. If you’re a tasty Mara antelope and the biggest problem in your life is some scary carnivore creeping up on you while you’re chowing down on grass, you’re going to want to see as much as the world around you as possible. For most prey species, accuracy and depth perception probably aren’t quite as important as knowing what's around you at all times.

OK, enough biology lessons. The point is that, since hyenas need abilities such as depth perception, poor one-eyed Quark is probably at a real disadvantage. Try closing one eye and trying to play darts (first, please make sure nobody else is within striking distance)…it’s not easy. Now, imagine losing an eye and trying to catch a gazelle zipping around at 50 miles per hour.

But, Quark still has one good eye, and we aren’t counting her out quite yet. After all, our resident rebel Moss is likely blind in one eye, and she continues to kick some serious butt. Plus, Quark is pretty high-ranking, so, in theory, she doesn’t need to hunt at all to survive…she just needs to take advantage of others’ success. In any case, life probably isn't going to be easy for Quark.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science