Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Requited Love

Previous bloggers have expressed great admiration for certain male hyenas that hold special places in their hearts. And while I can see where they're coming from, I must confess that I cannot agree with them. In my experience I find that love/hate relationships never work out. It takes a strong woman to move on from an unhealthy relationship to one that is requited and, therefore, fulfilling and worthy of the investment of her time.

Which is why my heart has been stolen away by Rough and Ready. He is an amazing specimen of all the qualities I could ask for in a male hyena.

He has the most amazing spots you can imagine and was even dubbed "Awesome Spot in our data collection until we deemed him worthy of an official name (Immigrant males have to earn their name by sticking around for a few obs sessions and proving to us they have integrated into the clan by their behavior towards the other hyenas.). His spots are so amazing that is easy to identify, even when completely caked in mud.

Which brings me to another point. He is NOT afraid to get a little dirty. He's a real man's man of a hyena, not a wussy boy who's afraid to get a little mud on his paws.

He showed up in Prozac territory acting like he owned the place, amicably hanging out with the other males, following the alpha female around, and sacking out in the center of the action without a care in the world. Not only that, but he has covered a lot of ground to get to where he is today. Jeff and Dave have confirmed that he is the same hyena that they had previously seen on the other side of the Mara and named Acme. He seems to have been trying out different territories to find the perfect fit (or he was looking for me!).

In contrast to some other males I know, he LOVES the car. You can't get close enough to bother him without consciously trying. He'll go about his business like you are a part or it, or as if he's glad you're there to witness and share it.

Ours is a love/love relationship and I couldn't be happier.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Who be that?!

One of my favorite parts of my job, silly as it seems, is naming hyenas. We have a fancy naming scheme to help us keep track of which hyenas are related. As soon as a hyena has her first litter of cubs we assign her a 'lineage' theme. These cubs and all the cubs she has after are given names that relate to this theme. For example, Murphy's (the alpha female of the Talek West clan) lineage is "Greek gods and goddesses" so her cubs have been named Helios, Adonis, Artemis, Morpheus, and Dionysus, just to name a few.

Immigrant males require a different system because the vast majority of the time we do not know their mothers. All immigrant males are named after cities and towns.

I get irrationally excited about naming cubs and thinking up new lineages. The hyenas can't mature fast enough for me to run out of lineage ideas that I want to use and the adult females can't pop out enough cubs for me to run out of name ideas for the lineages I really enjoy. Plus, when conversation gets slow around camp and we're looking for entertainment, cub names and lineages are inexhaustible discussion topics.

I'm also very proud of the hyenas I have had the honor of naming so far. My favorite hyena has turned out to be Gambit, a hyena I named in the Fig Tree clan. He/she (we're not sure what sex it is yet) was the first cub born to Potter so I was able to start the X-men lineage off with him. Not only was Gambit born on the day of my arrival in Kenya, but he/she has also turned out to be a pretty spunky little cub. Gambit is always "play romping" and "play biting" with the other bigger cubs at the den and even has the gall to be pesky to Carol Doda, one of our most grumpy hyenas.

Other successful naming endeavors include Wozzeck, The Cunning Little Vixen (both from the operas lineage), Aero, Krackle (chocolate bars lineage, Levi's, Wrangler (brands of jeans lineage), Cherry Garcia, Karamel Sutra (Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream Flavors lineage), and Rough and Ready (immigrant male lineage; and yes, this really is the name of a town in California. It's a great place, look it up).

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Camp Conditions in the Mara

One of the first questions I asked Kay when trying to figure out what I was getting myself into was "What are the living conditions of camp?" Her response was vague but I was excited to hear that we would have actual beds and our own tents. A bed was more than I had initially hoped for. When I made it to camp, I was in for a big surprise.

We are spoiled!

Not only do we get our own tents, my tent has turned out to be bigger than any room I have ever lived in by myself. There is plenty of furniture in each tent, making it possible to unpack. It's amazing how much unpacking your bags completely can make you feel settled and at home. AND the tents have electricity.

We have a shower AND it has HOT water!
We have amazing cooks that prepare all our meals and wash all our dishes. AND mamas come in from Talek to take care of our laundry.
Camp is located within a restricted area of the park so the only visitors we have are animals. My first week here, on our way back from evening obs, we had to go through a herd of giraffes that were just hanging out in our driveway. There was one just a few meters from our tent. There are tons of animals that live or visit camp. In Talek Camp, we get vervets, baboons, bush babies, genets, puff adders, elephants, giraffes, fruit bats, and more species of birds and insects than I could ever identify or list here. In Serena, the boys get lions, leopards, elephants, hippos, and much more. For a biologist, sharing your living space with so much wildlife is paradise.
Plus both camps are in beautiful settings. Talek is on the banks of the Talek River and is a lush green wonderland when it's raining. Serena is located on the side of a hill with views across the Mara to the escarpment.

Both camps have turned out to be much more established and comfortable than anything I had imagined before coming to Kenya. I almost feel silly calling it a "field camp" when I compare it to other camps I have worked out of in the past. We really are spoiled. Conditions like this make living in the bush for a year or more a piece of cake instead of a trial that must be overcome for the sake of the research.

What comes of all this field work, anyway?

Readers of this blog may occasionally ask themselves, "What ever becomes of all the information about hyenas these people are collecting in the African bush?" Well, the answer is that we do a lot of different things with the data we collect in the field. For instance, we help the managers of national parks figure out how best to manage hyenas and other large carnivores, we help develop broad conservation strategies for African wildlife, and we also make our results available to our colleagues in the scientific community. Every year we publish a number of papers in professional journals addressing topics in animal behavior, ecology and evolutionary biology. Our most recent paper, which appeared this week in a journal called Behavioral Ecology, attracted the attention of the BBC. This article, which has senior grad student Jenn Smith as the first author, inquires why hyenas sometimes gang up to form aggressive coalitions against their clanmates. Check out the photo feature about our new article on the BBC website at

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science