Monday, June 28, 2010

Two Years of Great Hyena Blog Stories

Two years ago, Professor Holekamp launched this blog as a way to share some of the great stories involving MSU students and their hyena research in Kenya. To mark the two year anniversary and highlight some of the interesting stories shared on the blog, we've put together a poll based on audience recommendations of their favorite stories. Cast your vote and we'll reward the winning author with all the glory and bragging rights we see fit:

In case you are not familiar with all the posts, use the search box or Blog Archive on the lower left to find these gems. Enjoy!

The Adventures of Dolittle - The Saga Continues

When last we saw our intrepid hyena, Dolittle was stumbling through North territory and, well, he looked like crap. Ripped to shreds, one foot in the grave... you get the picture. I'm sure you've all been waiting with bated breath for the next installment in this epic adventure, so here I am to sate your curiosity.

And so our valiant but tattered hero trudged onward through the lonely wilderness, and made his way to... Happy Zebra?!

For about a month after Dolittle mysteriously turned up in North clan territory, he just vanished completely. The last time anyone had seen him, his head and neck looked like he'd been attacked by a rabid paper shredder, and he'd moved on from thin and was well into gaunt.

Fast forward to the morning of May 5th. I was moseying along through Happy Zebra territory when I suddenly came across a rather scruffy looking hyena sacked out in the middle of the road (for further clarification regarding this phenomenon, please refer to Kenna's treatise on the many forms of "sacking out"). This hyena had amazing ear damage, which I knew didn't match up with any of the HZ gang. Hmm... who could this be?

As the sun started to come up, I noticed that the hair on this hyena's neck was all patchy and the underlying skin was scabby and scarred. Eew. Something must have torn this hyena up but good.

Wait a sec...

No way!

It can't be.

But yes folks, it was. Dolittle, in all his scruffy glory, alive, almost completely healed and looking pretty well-fed to boot!

The Long Road Home

We were all ridiculously excited to see Dolittle again, and we wondered initially if he might try a secondary dispersal into Happy Zebra after his abrupt ejection from South clan. Then several weeks passed without us catching another glimpse of our little refugee, and we started to worry again.

On the morning of May 27th I headed off to the current South clan communal den. Most of the hyenas were easily recognizable, but one lazy lump was curled up in a tall patch of grass near the den and just wouldn't budge for me to get a good look. So I sat, and waited, and sat some more. Finally it decided to stretch its legs, and I nearly spit my tea. Dolittle! Same scruffy neck, same mangled ears, and all safe and sound at home again. He was in good company, too, lounging around with Clovis, the top female, and Spider, one of the higher ranking males.


Dolittle is most definitely back in South clan (we've been seeing him at almost every den session lately) but it looks like the male ranks in South clan have gone through a little bit of a reorganization. We started off with Dolittle > Spider > Bing > Rooster. After this whole Dolittle saga, Bing has somehow clawed his way to the top and we have Bing > Dolittle > Spider > Rooster. It makes me suspect that Bing might have been to one to thrash Dolittle and send him packing... Sadly we'll never know for sure.

Anyway, the important thing is that Dolittle is alive and well, and back home. I'd call that a happy ending, right?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Eye Issues

This poor little guy is one of our new den cubs in Talek West. His left eye appears to blind in much the same way that Jin from Fig Tree was blind. We have not seen Jin in months so we assume he has passed on to hyena heaven (yes, of course there is a hyena heaven). He seems to be doing ok at the den so far with one eye but we will have to keep you posted on how he does when he graduates from the den and starts spending time out in the big world. We are all curious to find out who his mom is because her rank may determine whether he survives to adulthood. For now we have dubbed him with the cub name Elk and we have a sneaky suspicion that he is sibling to another unknown cub we have temporarily named Moose.

UPDATE: Elk is in fact Vanity, cub to Argon. Unfortunately Argon is pretty low ranking so Vanity may have to be pretty aggressive and assert all the dominance he has over his sibling Moose (now Avarice) in order to survive.

A Reunion: They're Baaaaaack!

It is amazing what a heartfelt apology can accomplish in so little time.

We had heard rumors that the migration would be late this year due to all the rain in Tanzania. But, it looks like that didn't keep them from us. The migration is a bit early in fact. I was here in November for the tail end of the migration and I had no idea how little that had prepared me for this. One day we were still laughing at our one wildebeest that looked confused and silly hanging out with all the topi on the Talek Plain and the next we were seeing herds of zebra all over the place and strings of wildebeest running in from the South. I am completely overwhelmed by the sheer number and density of the herds. None of the pictures or personal accounts had prepared me for this. And this is only the beginning!

The Talek West hyenas are getting multiple kills every morning and they've become strikingly more gregarious. The cubs at the den are always playing keep-away with various scraps of wildebeest and everyone is fat and bloody all the time. The wildebeest are headed west as well so it won't be long before we start seeing our Fig Tree and Mara River hyenas again.

Snare Blues

Snares are one of the unfortunate consequences of studying a large carnivore in a park surrounded by a pastoral rural community. Some Masai feel that placing snares around their homes is a good way to protect their families and livelihoods against hyenas and other carnivores. Snares are also utilized by poachers and in some areas you are likely to see them on every animal you come across.

When hyenas find themselves caught in a snare, they are usually able to gnaw the cord holding them down but are unable to remove the loop that has tightened around their neck or leg. Sometimes they die from their injuries or suffocate if they get the snare caught on something later on. Other times, they manage to survive with whatever handicap the snare creates. Kay has told us stories about finding hyena remains with snares embedded in the bones. One of our immigrant males, Oakland, has a scar from a snare that is still in his neck. By the time he was darted the wound had grown over and the snare could not be removed without endangering his life. He seems to be doing just fine with it and has remained an active member of the Talek West Clan. Although, I am not sure if this is due to the snare or not, but Oakland has the strangest-sounding whoop I have ever heard.

When I got here I naively thought that snares were a thing of the past. The Mara Conservancy has been cracking down on poaching in the area and most Masai seem to understand that large carnivores are what bring tourists to the Mara. That fantasy world was destroyed about a week ago when we first saw Gelato, one of our Talek West subadults, with a snare stuck on her neck. At this point it seems very loose but she is unable to get it off. We've seen a few younger cubs and other subadults really attack the snare during play (like in the picture above) and we are getting a little worried that this play might tighten the snare further. For this reason, we have made darting Gelato a top priority so that we can remove the snare. Unfortunately Gelato has been spending all her time with large groups of hyenas and so far, no opportunities to dart her have arisen.

Please think happy thoughts for Gelato and we'll keep you posted on her condition.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Reconciliation

Dear Migration,

I know I haven’t tried to contact you since you left in November. I’m sorry, my pride kept me away. You were right to leave me. I was taking you for granted, just like you said. I had no idea how hard life would be without you around. I’m so sorry I pushed you away. The rains came just after you left and the grass grew so tall without you here to mow it down. Half the time we can’t even find the hyenas, and when we can, we can’t ID them because the grass is so tall and thick its impossible to see their spots. Ticks are breeding like crazy and I’ve found six of them on me in the last two days. That never used to happen when you were around. I’m so sorry I took you for granted. I’m so sorry I pushed you away. I’m so sorry I let my pride get the best of me and didn’t contact you until now. I’m nothing without you and I miss you so much. Life in the Mara just doesn’t hold the joy it used to when you were here. Please please please come back home. I’m ready to take the next step and I'll do whatever it takes to show you I'm ready. I love you. Please come back.

Yours always,


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Kenna dazzles IDing border patrol participants

OK, you’ve seen from her blog posts that Kenna has a great sense of humor, but let me tell you a little bit about her ability as an observer of hyena behavior out here in the bush. We arrived at the den yesterday morning to find very little going on; no radio signals were coming in from there either, so we drove west from the den until we picked up Pan’s signal. We tracked Pan to a processional of 17 hyenas coming toward the den from the west, apparently the tail end of a border patrol along the territorial boundary separating Talek West and Fig Tree clans. The sight of 17 hyenas coming at you is mighty intimidating, but what’s really scary is trying to identify all these hyenas as they move past you in pretty quick succession. Kenna did that yesterday morning with astounding ease, particularly for someone who has only been here for 7 months! She never hesitated, and recognized each one individually as soon as she got only a few seconds to see it clearly. Most of these 17 hyenas eventually got spooked by some cattle and herdsmen, and vanished into the bushes along Den One Creek at about 7:15am. We then moved on to determine how many cubs Gucci had at her natal den (she has two!), and we discovered incidentally that her teenage daughter, Gelato, has a snare around her neck. We’ll have to try to get that off of her soon. While we were nervously watching Gucci’s newest cubs pull on the end of Gelato’s snare, we heard sounds of excited hyenas coming from further up the creek, and so set out to see what was going on. I thought Kenna’s identification skills had been put to the test earlier that morning, but what we found next made that earlier effort look like a piece of cake. This time the sounds led us to a group of 30 hyenas engaging in yet another border patrol but this time along the southern border of the clan’s territory. Once again, Kenna dazzled the rest of us (a brand new grad student and me) with her ability to identify all these hyenas, even though this time they were moving through tall grass for most of the distance covered. Being able to ID hyenas is not something one can fake, as we could easily check all of Kenna’s suggested hyena IDs against photos in our clan spot pattern albums (which we have in the car with us every day), and she was always correct. Check out these photos andimagine how you’d do trying to ID all these (what seemed like) zillions of hyenas. No small feat! Click on a photo if you want to see it blown up.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

When Lions Don't Bore You to Tears

Most hyena researchers that come out here have a healthy respect for lions but, on average, there is no love lost between Fisi Campers and Mara lions. They steal our hyena's food, kill our hyenas, and for the most part, are just plain boring. Call us biased or elitist if you will, but hyenas are much more beautiful, much more intelligent, better hunters, and much more interesting in their behavior and biology. In my seven months out here, lions have impressed and fascinated me only a handful of times. Most of those times have been during lion/hyena interactions (I'm convinced that it was the hyenas bringing out the best in the lions and that the cool behavior really didn't have anything to do with the lions at all). A few times though, lions have been interesting all on their own. In the spirit of fairness and unbiased scientific discovery, I thought I would share a few of those stories with you.

One of the lions prides that I have warmed up to is a large pride that hangs out in our Fig Tree and Prozac territories. I've managed to find them interesting due to a few unique individuals that they have and a few unique behaviors that I have witnessed. Their subadults actually play instead of just laying around all day! Amazing!

This adult female has obviously earned my respect. All it takes is getting your face gored by a warthog

The other cool thing that this pride has going for it is a propensity for climbing small trees in a "clown-car-ish" fashion. Believe it or not, there are 8 lions in this little tree/bush.

In West Territory, there was this one time when I saw a lion actually stalking something! It failed miserably, but I was proud to see a lion actually trying something other than sleeping.
That same morning, shortly after this failed hunting attempt, two HUGE male lions put forth the effort required to chase these females across the plain and out of their territory.

This last picture may not look like much but it is undeniable proof that lions really do get up from their endless napping and do something now and then. So Kay, you really should listen to Dee and go a little easier on those poor lions.

I am still looking for undeniable proof of their superior intelligence and beauty though. That might take another seven months/years.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Yet Another Andy

I’d like to take a minute to introduce myself. My name is Andy Booms and, yes, I’m actually the third Andy to post on this blog. I just finished my first year as a Ph.D. student in the lab and I’m out for my first field season. While I’m mainly here to get a feel for the conditions and limitations with regard to conducting research out here and to familiarize myself with the hyenas and basic hyena biology, I’m also hoping to test out some methods for my eventual dissertation work on gene flow among hyena populations throughout Kenya.

I know others have posted before on their initial impressions and experiences, but I can’t help but do the same, especially since Kay’s latest post provided the perfect segue. The drive down from Nairobi was incident-free (thankfully) and full of wildlife. I saw elephants, giraffes, wildebeest, zebras, ostriches, gazelles, and many other species before I even set foot in Talek camp. That night I heard my first real hyena whoop in person. It was so cool to have large carnivores off in the distance that it didn’t seem real. I spent the next few days going on obs and adding to my species list. Everything was better than I had imagined, especially the food (and hyenas too, of course).

Then, just yesterday, I moved to Serena camp to spend some time setting up trail cameras. News of recent activity in Serena had already reached Talek before I left: there was a dead hippo in the woods just outside of camp and it was attracting lions and hyenas each night. When I arrived at Serena I was happy to find that my tent was one of the closest to all of the activity; it was probably less than 100m away from the hippo itself. It certainly smelled like it was that close. We went about our evening obs as usual and returned at night to find hyenas already in camp, some only 30-40m from my tent. Then, during dinner, the lions arrived. We couldn’t see them but we could certainly hear them. The roars were so close and so powerful that I could feel them in my chest. Things seemed a little more real then. After dinner I walked to my tent, constantly scanning with my flashlight, and managed to get there in one piece and settle down for bed. The lions continued to roar, closer still, and hyenas could be heard running through camp throughout the night. They all wanted a shot at an easy meal. At some point elephants wandered by and stumbled upon the lions, and I awoke to a loud, angry trumpeting. I could also hear hippos grunting. At that point I just hoped I wouldn’t be trampled.

Morning came and I was still alive. The lions are reportedly still nearby, resting after a long night of eating, but so far this morning I’ve only seen a jackal moving around camp. Today we’ll go about our normal business and I’m sure when we get back tonight we’ll have an encore of last night. It’s important to point out, though, that the lions, hyenas, elephants, hippos, and everything else are generally unconcerned with us. They have better things to do than lurk around each corner or stalk us as we walk to our tents. We’re just bystanders who happen to have a front row seat for now. And it’s a seat I don’t mind having. It’s just another day in Serena camp, and my fifth day in Africa.

The mongooses return....along with some other unexpected stuff

We had all told Dee she would be sure to have dwarf mongooses attend breakfast with us every day while she was visiting our camp in the Mara Conservancy. They are usually extremely predictable, and they clearly enjoy ]treats like scrambled eggs and toast just as much as we do. However, the entire time Dee was staying in that camp, the mongooses were apparently off foraging at the other end of their home range, so she never saw them. We all felt terrible about this, but we also all recognize that we simply need to accept whatever Mother Nature hands us out here; although Mother Nature put on a pretty good show for Dee during her Kenya visit, the dwarf mongooses weren’t part of it. Camille, who lives in the Conservancy camp year-round, reports that the mongooses showed up at the breakfast table again the very first morning after Dee & I had to drive away to return to Nairobi for Dee’s homeward bound flight. So here’s a glimpse of what Dee missed mongoose-wise. On the other hand, 3 days after Dee left, a hippo died in the forest 50 meters from camp, and the lions and North hyenas have been warring over the carcass day and night ever since. Not only does this mean it’s very scary living in that camp right now due to the constant presence of so many large carnivores, but this also means the whole camp smells absolutely unbelievably terrible, as the hippo carcass is situated directly up wind of camp. As long-time blog readers will recall, however, spotted hyenas can make a hippo carcass vanish very quickly, so it ought to be completely gone in only a couple more days. Hopefully Camille will post a blog entry soon about adventures associated with the dead hippo in camp.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Shoat disaster relief

On 3 May, I posted a blog entry describing a nocturnal massacre of sheep & goats (“shoats”) belonging to our askari, Stephen. Now I have to tell you about the amazing and wonderful thing that happened in response to that post. A number of readers of this blog were apparently moved by Stephen’s plight, and wanted to help him recover from this devastating loss. Then these kind people, some individually and some in groups, proceeded to donate funds to permit Stephen to buy shoats to rebuild his decimated flock. On 13 May, an old friend of mine, Dee White (shown at right having lunch in camp last week), arrived for a visit at fisi camp, and she brought with her roughly US $500.00 for Stephen, donated by Dee and several of her friends. We converted the dollars to Kenya shillings shortly after Dee arrived in Nairobi, and when she got to camp, she handed most of this cash directly to Stephen, who was, I believe, as shocked as he was pleased. He had clearly never expected to be able to replace so many of his lost animals. At my suggestion, Dee held back a little bit of the money she and her friends had donated, and we are using those funds to buy some cyclone fencing and other materials necessary to make Stephen’s shoat corral predator-proof so such carnage can’t happen again in future. Stephen can’t read or write to thank you all himself, so I’m doing that for him here. When Dee handed him that money, she showed him photos of all her friends back in the States who had contributed to the “shoat disaster relief fund.” Since then, Stephen has expressed his appreciation several different times in various ways, most immediately by inviting Dee to a goat roast at his manyatta (she gracefully declined), but also later asking me repeatedly to be sure to express his own appreciation for this generous gift, and the appreciation of his wives and children as well. So to Dee, Maggie, Judy, Carol, Mary Lou, Pook, Greg, Anne, and all the rest of you, “Asante sana!” from Stephen.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science