Thursday, April 15, 2010

The life story of a hyena

This link is to a Slate web article that my boyfriend sent me. Not sure how he found it before any of us.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mara Mysteries Revealed!!

I have learned many things during my five months in the Mara: things about hyenas, things about birds (Kasaine is a birding pro), things about Kenyan and Maasai culture, and one very special thing about shoats. Now, you may be wondering "Hey Kenna, what exactly is a shoat?" I wondered the same thing during my first cow count (on the eastern side of the park we frequently see Maasai herders. Twice a month we count the number of domestic animals we encounter in the park). Leslie was calling out numbers left and right, "24 cows, 78 cows, 14 cows" and I was frantically trying to keep up until she said, "38 shoats." I paused for second. Leslie saw my confusion, and quickly explained that we count goats and sheep together because they are often in one herd together and are very difficult to distinguish at a distance. That was all well and good and made perfect sense to me, so we went on our way.

For the next month or two, upon further inspection of the shoat herds, I began to notice a funny contraption on some of the shoats. It looked like an overdone belt of some sort. Every time I saw a shoat with one on, I kind of wondered what it was but didn't think too hard about it. It always seemed to be on a bigger animal so I mistakenly assumed that it had something to do with keeping track of the herd or an older animal.

It wasn't until I passed through a herd of shoats on my way to Nairobi with one of our cooks that I finally asked what these belts were actually for.

Our cook kindly explained in his broken English (while chuckling nervously), that these belts were to keep the herd from multiplying out of control. The belt keeps the boy shoats from having sex with the girl shoats.

I was a little embarrassed, partly because once I knew, it seemed so obvious, and partly because I made our poor cook explain it to me. But now that I know, I just find the things hilarious. It is a chastity belt for boys and probably one of the best methods of birth control in the world.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Department of Missing Persons (crocuta division)

Hi. Andy Gersick here again. Sorry I have yet to properly introduce myself, and I promise to do so asap. But for now I want to start a little semi-regular feature I've been thinking of called...(drumroll please)..."unID of the Week."

Not sure if it'll actually be weekly, but we can dream. For “unID of the Week” I’ll be posting photos of hyenas we run into who defy our best efforts at identification. I know there’s not a whole lot that most readers can do to figure out who those hyenas are – you all don’t have a stack of dusty ID notebooks to page through like we do. So I don’t plan to take up a ton of blog real estate with “unID of the Week” postings. But I hope it’s at least a little interesting to see one of our ongoing puzzles. And I hope that old hyena-watchers and Talek-side researchers will take a look and let us know if any spots ring a bell.

Here on the Serena side we still see a fair number of hyenas that we don't know. This is partially because we're still learning who's who in our clans. Hyenas live in “fission-fusion” groups, which means that even though clans have a coherent identity, clan members don’t all hang out together and may not even see each other for long stretches of time. Hence fission (splitting) and fusion (coming together). But North clan seems to have more than its share of odd hyenas that show up one day, flash some great spots, and then disappear. I have my own pet theory about why this is: I think that some of our unIDs come from across the river, and go back there before we can get used to them. North-clan Territory borders the Mara River to the East, and we know that hyenas do cross the river sometimes. North clan also lost a whole swathe of high-ranking animals last year. The official line is that the lost hyenas – including Elf, the alpha female, and a number of the highest-ranked animals in North clan – died. But I'm more into JFK/Elvis-type explanations for the missing animals. I think they’re still alive. So if they’re alive, where did they go? Again, my theory is that they crossed the river. Sometime in 2009 the top third of North Clan up and disappears. Meanwhile, unfamiliar animals seem to pop up regularly in North territory. The other North hyenas know these animals, but we don’t. So what if North Clan split up, or just spread out, with most of the group staying here on our side of the river and a significant satellite group making their home base on the other side? That would explain the lost hyenas, the random unIDs… it’s perfect.

SO: unID of the Week. Again, if you’re an old hyena watcher or a Talek-side researcher, watch this space for pictures that might ring a bell. If you’re an at-home reader, I hope this feature will ultimately provide documentation for the unraveling of a mystery in real time. Maybe it’ll turn out that hyenas who make only cameo appearances over here are regulars on the other side of the river. Maybe one day, a Talek-side researcher will see a picture of Elf on the blog and say, “Oh her? I ran into her on the border of Prozac-clan territory yesterday.”

Today, we have “unID with Emma, Krest, Arrow and Golgotha near Mgoro Lugga.” This hyena was wandering around with a bunch of our clan regulars. The spots are distinctive, the other hyenas acted like this was a familiar clan-mate, but we can’t find a match in any of our ID books.


Friday, April 9, 2010

The Fall of Dolittle

This is Andy Gersick. I’m here to study vocal communication and I’m planning a post on that topic soon – hopefully with good clips of hyena calls for readers to click on – but for now I want to talk about some ongoing intrigue in the South clan.

The hyena you’re looking at – the one who looks like his head was run over by a lawnmower – is Dolittle. He’s our ranking male in South clan and normally he is as cocky and content as a male hyena can be (which is to say he’s skittish and timid around females but demands respect from the other males). We were frankly stunned when we saw him the other day in North-clan territory with wounds all over his head and neck. We never expect to see members of one clan deep in another’s territory unless they’re immigrant males trying to disperse. As a top male in South, Dolittle shouldn’t have been planning a move. Hanging out in alien-clan territory is a good way to get yourself attacked, so our first thought was that Dolittle must have somehow wandered into North and gotten a beating for it. Now we’re not so sure.

Just a couple of weeks earlier we had watched Dolittle behaving like an alpha male in his prime. He was at Orchid Den with Grimace – an unlucky female who’s often in heat but hasn’t managed to produce a viable litter (as far as we know). Apparently Grimace is smelling sexy again, because Dolittle was circling around her with the intense-but-worried interest that typifies a courting male – he would hover as close as possible whenever she sacked out and would follow her in nervous spirals whenever she’d wander, backing off timidly if she looked the least bit annoyed. Every once in awhile, when Dolittle’s spirals took him too far away, Grimace would stop and look over her shoulder at him, almost encouraging him to stop sniveling and catch up. Females aren’t usually inclined to tolerate a male’s presence, much less push him to get closer, so Grimace’s come-hither looks were our best clue that she might be interested in mating. At any rate, Grimace eventually seemed to give up on her anxious suitor and lay down by the den for a real snooze, with Dolittle standing twitchily nearby. At that point, we spotted three other clan males approaching in the tall grass just beyond the den clearing. Dolittle saw them too, and his posture changed completely. He stood up straight and stared intently in their direction, pawing the ground and seeming to send a clear message: Back off. The other changed course to avoid the den and slunk past without even shooting a glance at Grimace. Dolittle was flexing his alpha-male muscles.

The animal who showed up in North Territory a few days later was a shadow of that Dolittle. We found him lying in the middle of the road, wounded, exhausted and thin. We decided to hang out and see what would happen to him – half out of scientific interest, half out of worry that the first North animal that saw him would finish him off. But over the next two hours a procession of North-clan hyenas wandered past Dolittle during their morning perambulations, and none of them seemed terribly concerned with the invader. High-ranked Joni gave him an idle sniff – he answered with an intensely submissive posture and she went on her way, trailing young Hooker who barely looked at Dolittle. Later a mixed-sex group of young adults – Leprechaun (m), Arrow (f) and Peepers (f) – thought he was interesting enough to check out from a distance of about 30 meters. Dolittle heaved himself up from his convalescent nap and trotted another 20 meters away, and the three North-ers headed casually in the opposite direction.

So now we have a mystery: who or what attacked Dolittle, how did he end up so far from home, and why don’t any of the North animals seem to care?

Our best guess at the moment is that North is actually Dolittle’s natal clan, and that whatever happened to get him those injuries sent him back to his childhood home to recover. When young males mature sexually and disperse, their first try is often a failure; when they get tired of being abused in their adoptive clans they often come back home to resume their birth-ranks, get a break from being picked on, and fatten up before making the next attempt. Dolittle is too old to fit this model exactly, and his dispersal to South has been a success up to now, but if he was born in North it may still feel like the safest place to get over a serious trauma. If Dolittle is a North animal, that would explain the tolerant treatment he seems to be receiving from other North-ers.

Even if we’re right about that part of it, we still don’t know who gave Dolittle such a thrashing. One possibility is that there has been a mutiny among the South males. If they rose up to depose him, they may have driven him out of South entirely. Audrey DeRose-Wilson recalls a similar event with Rogue, a former number-one male in the Prozac clan. Rogue’s tenure ended suddenly when something triggered an uprising by the other clan males. They turned on him as a group, viciously attacked him and left him severely injured. He loitered around the outskirts of Prozac territory for a few days, then disappeared. He was never seen again.

But Dolittle’s injuries may have nothing to do with hyenas – other lab members have speculated that he might have taken a drink at the wrong time and barely escaped from a croc (his wounds don’t look consistent with a lion attack), or even gotten some kind of chemical burn.

Two days ago I saw Dolittle a second time, still in North Territory (pictures below). His wounds are healing but he is gaunt and limping badly.

The fact that he continues hanging around in North makes me feel more convinced that whatever happened to him happened in South territory. But for now there’s not much we can do to clarify the story. We can only wait to see if Dolittle turns up back in South to resume his reign, or disappears like Rogue.

If you’ve got a theory about what might have happened to Dolittle, post a comment.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Injuries and Survival

Hyenas are tough, way tough. We’ve all heard stories about such and such hyena that recovered from such and such terrible injury, but I had never seen it before until Moon Pie.

Moon Pie has always been a pretty solitary hyena. She’s relatively low ranking and most times we track her she is sacked out. She also manages to look more like a rock than any other hyena I’ve met yet. We have been tracking her and driven up to rocks that we think are her and passed by her thinking she’s a rock. Multiple times. It’s quite embarrassing.

One day, we tracked Moon Pie and found her sacked out, as usual. We didn’t drive too close due to her being sacked out in a swampy area. When she lifted up her head I started laughing immediately. It looked as if she was making some sort of silly face and I couldn’t imagine why she was doing that. But, at the time we didn’t think too much off it. We really did think that she was just kind of sticking her tongue out at us.

A few days later we tracked her again. This time we got a little closer and were surprised to see that she was still making that same silly face. But it wasn’t a face that she was making. It was just her face. It looked like someone had punched her with a concrete block. The left side of her face was completely swollen, her jaw was out of alignment and a few of her teeth appeared to have been broken or had fallen out.

We were pretty sure that she was not going to make it. We tracked her whenever we could for a week or two and any time we saw her she was sacked out and not really moving but, she always seemed alert. And then the swelling started to go down. And then we saw her moving around. And then we saw her chewing a bit. She still doesn’t look great by any standards. Her jaw is still out of alignment, her cheek looks painful, she has lost quite a few teeth, and those she hasn’t are perpendicular to the direction they should be pointing. But, she’s up and about, feeding, and pooping so it looks like she’s going to survive this one.

Necropsies: a scientist's chore (Warning: This blog contains pictures of blood and guts)

First, a little background:

I am a field scientist, but sometimes I am a wussy field scientist. I find bugs fascinating but, spiders terrify me. I’ll bathe in a crocodile infested river if I have to, but only if the water is clear enough to see the crocs coming. Perhaps my strangest “atypical for a scientist” trait is the fact that I passionately dislike doing necropsies. I am enthralled by the inner workings and details of the animal body, no matter the species, because they all have unique adaptations. I love reading about those adaptations in books and seeing diagrams and even pictures but, when it comes to cutting open an animal and seeing it all for myself, I can’t handle it. It’s not the blood and guts; those don’t bother me. Somehow I manage to freak myself out with the idea that this was once a living breathing animate creature, and now it’s not. I get light headed and nauseous and I am deeply affected by the “smell of death” (whether it’s real or imagined, I’m not sure).

I learned this lesson early on when I had an unexpectedly difficult time dissecting a fetal pig in my high school biology class. That knocked veterinarian off my list of possible “things I want to be when I grow up” and made room for research biologist.

Next, to the story:

On obs one day in December we came across one of our collared females who had been wounded by lions. She was in very bad shape, so bad that she didn’t move when we drove right up to her or when we got out of the car. Unfortunately, in this situation, even if there had been anything we could have done, it would have inappropriate to do so and interfere in the natural process. We resumed obs and by the time we came back to check on her an hour later, she had passed away.

For me, this experience was sobering enough without having to also load her into the car and take her back to camp for a necropsy. As a scientist I completely understand and appreciate the wealth of data that we collect during a necropsy but, I just can’t get excited about helping to perform one. I was in a state of utter dread the entire ride back to camp. I was convinced I was going to throw up, pass out, or both in quick succession. I quickly made my case to Sean and Kasaine and allowed them to take on the jobs of flensing the skull and cutting so that I could maintain my distance from the specimen by doing the paperwork and sample labeling.

Part of the necropsy involves determining the cause of death. That was easy: lions. Lions are the number one cause of death of hyenas and the lions hadn’t left much to the imagination. Our poor females had puncture wounds from claws and teeth in her neck, chest stomach, and inner back leg. One particularly nasty wound on her neck was the probable cause of death and seemed to have been bleeding the most.

Next, we had to take body measurements such as body length, height at the shoulder, leg lengths, and head circumference. Then, Sean cut off the hyena’s head and began flensing the skull. At this point, I mentally checked out. Our last task was to take organ and tissue samples. I focused on labeling my vials for the samples and recording how many of each we collected. After about an hour or so, I was so busy that I forgot to feel sick and light headed. By the end, I was surprised to find that the collection of our last few samples was captivating.

Kasaine had done a fine job locating all the vital organs that we needed to collect samples from, until we reached the sex organs. This is where my junior high and high school sex ed classes, and mammology class came in handy and gave me the advantage. I knew generally where the uterus and ovaries should be and what they should look like, while Kasaine was completely clueless. We located both, dissected the uterus and found a fetus! I realize how strange it is that this was the most exciting part for me and I can’t really explain why I didn’t find it even more depressing to find the fetus. I think it was the exploration of finding the correct organs and confirming our suspicion by finding the fetus itself.

I doubt I’ve completely cured myself of my necropsy handicap but at least I know I can survive them and find something positive in the experience.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science