Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A tourist's perspective

I enjoy listening to the guys at camp talk about life and animals. I think there is value in traditional knowledge that stems from experiences and cultures that are tied to nature. As a visitor I have not been here long enough to either believe or disbelieve their wisdom, but I have been writing it down to retell.
The clever ways of animals in the Mara as told by a few Masai...

  • Jackals follow lions to eat their cubs.

  • Hyenas put desiccated carcasses in water and return to a rehydrated softened meal.

  • Baboons chase cheetahs off kills.

  • Leopards remove the guts of kills in the tree to preserve the meat…eating first some of the intestine, which is hung on a different branch than the rest of the carcass.

  • Giraffes are polite.

  • Lions will pounce on a baby elephant while the mother is off feeding, urinate on it and then retreat to sit and wait. When the mother elephant returns it will beat the baby because of an association with the lion smell…then the baby will run and the lions will attempt to kill the baby once away from the mother elephant.

  • Crocs won’t eat a cheetah that swims across the river.

  • Nothing eats waterbuck because they have too many tendons and it chokes the predator.

I am not sure how regular any of these scenarios are in the wild. I still have not seen enough of the Mara to contribute much insight. Similarly after the past few months of hyena work I am uncertain if I should believe or disbelieve what I have observed and heard.

For example, ask almost anyone if spotted hyenas are nothing more than scavengers and they will tell you…

 A group of 4 lions encircled and chased a herd of zebra back into three crouching waiting lions, which then pounced on and killed two juvenile zebras. After the lions had fed for a few minutes, a rally call of whoops preceded the bristle tail arrival of hyenas. Approximately 30+ hyenas showed up and the lions were forced off one zebra carcass. (Pictures courtesy Noemie Lamon)

Not long after the cheetah disembowled its kill, a hyena (not from one of the clans that we study), catches wind of the dead gazelle. With no more than a half-hearted paw swat of resistance, the cheetah watched is breakfast walk away.

Since I have been in the Mara I have seen two successful hyena kills. I have seen numerous hyenas at kills (responsible killer unknown), and there have been multiple occasions where hyenas have stolen food from some other carnivore. My experience lends to a strong propensity that spotted hyenas are primarily scavengers, but for a less inhibited account of spotted hyena feeding ecology see the combined years of observations detailed in Kruuk 1972 and Holekamp et al 1997 (among others).

In addition to feeding patterns, other aspects of hyena ecology have not forthright unveiled their truth to me. An accurate delineation of a clan social hierarchy is another example of a pattern in nature that is best observed over a significant amount of time; arguably longer than the 9.5 months that I have been in the Mara. Take for example the organization of adult female rank for the Serena North clan … on paper it breaks down as such (highest rank to lowest rank, left to right):

RBC-->ZOEY-->SHRM-->SAU-->ANGI-->DIGS-->PEEP-->ARRO… and near the bottom AWP or some other invariably tattered eared low rank female.

This organization is not so clear in the field…

On August 31st, 2011, RBC (supposed highest rank) was at a location with a number of her offspring, along with DIGS (supposed 6th rank) and number of her offspring; all loosely associated around a small piece of food scrap. More importantly, the following transcription excerpts precipitate the fact that both RBC and DIGS were present and able to reinforce any rank discrepancies if they had occurred among their offspring. Furthermore, the rank associations of a youngest offspring outranking older offspring within a mother’s lineage, was upheld at this session; suggesting that these interactions were not altogether an outlier.

1839            MARI app t1 lk (fd) t1 st ov (fd) TYPH, eb oma
                    MARI t2 lunge (fd) TYPH, eb def parry bo

(In the interaction at 1829, MARI [DIGS cub who was about 1 year old] aggresses on TYPH [RBC’s cub who was also about 1 year old] and TYPH submits.) 

1843            DIGS st t1 lk (pesky) t1 pt (pesky) SANA, eb bo
                    SANA app t1 st ov (fd, scape) brt t2 chase (fd, scape) TYPH, stop fd scrap eb lope bo squeal

(A few minutes later DIGS aggresses on her older offspring SANA, who transfers that aggression to TYPH in a scape-goating reaction…RBC still did not to intervene)

1851            SANA TYPH coal brt t1 st ov (fd) SHRK, eb brt squeal bo
                    SHRK app t1 st ov/pt (scape) t1 displ (scape) STON, eb bo
                    SANA t1 lk (fd) SHRK, eb bo w/ fd

(At 1851 SHRK [who is most likely RBC’s offspring, older than TYPH] arrives and is aggressed on by SANA and TYPH…and this causes SHRK to scape goat on the un-involved cub STON [STON’s mother is of low rank].
1859            TYPH app brt t1 st ov (fd) SHRK, eb gig av w/ fd
                    TYPH brt t2 chase (fd) SHRK, eb av w/ fd

(Finally at 1859 I saw TYPH aggressing on SHRK who responded submissively and this suggested that age related rank of mother’s offspring was being upheld.)

Coming away from the session on August 31, 2011, it would seem that DIGS was of higher rank than RBC. On November 1, 2011 the North clan social structure was further disrupted. During this session SHRM’s lineage was involved in a number of aggressions with other high-ranking females while I was at the communal den. The important individuals to note in the following excerpts are SNIP, who is SHRM’s youngest cub, and HKR, SHRM’s adult female offspring.

0705            HKR groan app t1 st ov (unk) RBC, eb snf
                    RBC eb grm phallus HKR, groan ll
                    SNIP app snf RBC, eb sp
                    SNIP t1 pt (unk) RBC, eb
                    HKR join in t1 pt (unk) RBC, eb

(Simply put HKR and SNIP aggress on RBC, who submits…that seemed unlikely if RBC was the clan matriarch)

0709            HKR groan app t1 pt (unprov) ZOEY, eb sp
                    HKR groan snf ZOEY, eb sp bo
                    HKR SNIP coal brt t1 pt (unprov) ZOEY, eb

(Again if SHRM was the 3rd highest ranking adult female, it should not be that SHRM’s offspring would be able to aggress on and cause ZOEY to submit, who is ranked number two.)

Highest to lowest rank revised…

…SHRM-->ZOEY/DIGS-->RBC?--> other North clan females in some unknown rank order. That all makes about as much sense as the time I recently saw RBC, in what seemed to be an act of food provisioning to DIGS. At this point in time if any bets are called my money goes to the ‘lions-urinating-on-baby-elephants scenario’ as the most predictable odds.

The more familiar I have become with the North clan, the less I know. Happy Zebra however, after having gone missing for months and losing their matriarch, now seems to be falling effortlessly into a stable social hierarchy.

After previously observing COEL’s displacement from rightful matriarch as KOI’s youngest daughter and heir to dominance, it was still uncertain whether SNAP or PIKE (KOI’s older daughters) would be the newest dominant female in Happy Zebra. On November 30th PIKE arrived at the communal den and after greeting with an excited SNAP, PIKE proceeded to aggress on SNAP. Not only did SNAP submit to PIKE’s aggression, but SNAP was then aggressed on and bitten by BOOM (PIKE’s oldest female offspring), to which SNAP again responded submissively. In each following interaction, PIKE and BOOM succeeded in dominance over SNAP, who was left to vent her aggression on a few other lower ranking individuals at the den. These first observations of the social reorganization of Happy Zebra are little more than glance at the possible hierarchy delineation. But after a number of observation sessions around the communal den, I would say that I am now sure that PIKE is the dominant hyena in Happy Zebra clan.

I was also sure this would be last picture of BARR taken after KOI (BARR's mom) died. 

Siblings COEL and BARR, lying together in July not long after their mother (KOI) was killed.

Coming up on six months since last seen, BARR, was about to be moved into the missing or presumed dead category…

 BARR with two of the newest hyena cubs from Happy Zebra clan.

…welcome back BARR
In my last days in the Mara I would do best by remembering that, ‘…studying spotted hyenas requires an open mind and a willingness to recognize that, in the natural world, things are not always what they seem’ (

I would agree that even with careful observation, what we see and experience in nature is rarely straightforward, and that may be the only validated thing I have yet posted…of that I am sure.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Happy Zebra clan and clues to social organization

Most of the end of October I was in Nairobi and that was long enough. By the time I returned to the Mara the migration activity had begun to subside and Happy Zebra clan was relocated in my absence. Uncovering the whereabouts of the Happy Zebra communal den seems blog worthy just given the amount of time and effort we have invested in pursuit of these animals. From call play backs, to checking old dens, to driving the most extreme edges of this clan’s suspected territory, and waiting nights after dark trying to pinpoint the location of distant whoops… we tried for the better part of September and October to find Happy Zebra. The unknown with this clan did not however begin when CSBY (the last adult female to occupy Alamo Den) was last seen with her two 4-week old cubs at the previous communal den. As earlier discussed on the blog, the death of KOI by lions removed the highest-ranking individual from the clan. This opened up Happy Zebra to uncertainty (at least for us observing) or possibly opportunity (for other females in the clan) as the social organization was determined to shift.

At the time of KOI’s death, Happy Zebra was composed of 11 adult females, 9 cubs, 6 subadults, and 4 adult males. KOI and her lineage comprised about 33% of the total Happy Zebra clan. All else equal and following the conventional inherited social rank descendent from KOI, COEL (KOI’s youngest female cub) should have been successive dominant female of Happy Zebra clan. However, given that COEL was less than a year old, this cub’s survival, far less its dominance, was not certain. The possible other successors to dominance could in theory have been any female in the clan, though most likely it would be some relation to KOI that arrived at the top. A breakdown of KOI’s lineage and prospective inheritance of dominance in Happy Zebra were organized in a list from a previous post, To discern the newest rank relations we would have to observe and record a series of dyadic interactions and tally aggressions and submissions between individuals in a matrix. The first steps…observe behavioral interactions.
On October 31st, 2011 I saw Happy Zebra present at their communal den. Most notable in this session was the confirmation of PIKE (one of KOI’s older daughters and a likely candidate for the highest rank individual in Happy Zebra) having two 4 week old cubs. Also of interest were a number of interactions, which occurred between the female members of KOI’s lineage. PIKE’s cubs were confirmed after they were seen nursing from PIKE. Also nearby was BOOM, a previous female offspring to PIKE. Like many female subadults interested in the business of babies, BOOM was being pesky and bothersome to the nursing PIKE. Not very note worthy in and of itself. However, a good context to achieve a brief, instantaneous glance at the social hierarchy is through a cascade of aggressions. For example if a high rank individual aggresses on a mid rank individual, and then the mid-rank individual takes out that aggression on low rank individual, we note the latter aggression as a scape goat context. It could be like, when my girlfriend reprimands me, and in my frustration I vent on my dog (that is assuming my dog doesn’t out rank me…data is still out on that); either way the aggression filters down through the ranks, clearly revealing who is dominant. Anyway my point, was that in being pesky to PIKE, BOOM was aggressed upon. It was also the case that COEL (KOI’s youngest cub and technically rightful heir to dominance) had recently arrived at the den.

COEL cautiously approaching one of PIKE’s newest cubs (the small black one on the right).

The good news is that the ~1 year old orphan persisted through the migration season unaided by her mother. However, after being aggressed on by PIKE, BOOM redirected that aggression to COEL, who submitted and retreated. Shortly after words PIKE and BOOM, in a coalition aggression, again displaced COEL.

PIKE and BOOM in the background before they aggress on and displace COEL, who is already beginning to go ears back (a sign of submission).

Although far from conclusive, at the surface it seems that without the support of her mother to reinforce her social standing, COEL may not befall the highest rank spot in Happy Zebra. Other clues, like COEL arriving and flattening her ears as she approached to greet PIKE and BOOM also suggests her subordination to these two. More evidence is needed, including the observation of interactions between PIKE and some of the other adult females in this clan, but this was a good start to reorganizing the Happy Zebra social hierarchy.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

High Season

At the end of low season the Mara was still a relatively quiet place when I went to bed…and then one morning I wake up and the wildebeest are here… and tourists are here, and the vultures are here, and more crocodiles are here, and all those hyenas I thought may have disappeared are in actuality, still here. And, it all seems to hinge on the fact that…well, the wildebeest are here. People plan and save and finally arrive in the Mara hoping to see a crossing; and I am right there with them as I shuffle camp’s land cruzer among that cross hatched mess of vehicles towards rivers edge. Just a little closer to line up a better view…hopefully the first wildebeest that enters the water is a bit slow or ill or young or old… I didn’t say it aloud, but I am likely not the only one thinking it. And in all the excitement you have to catch yourself as an observer from falling into reflective sentiments like, ‘Wow the circle of life’ as that that Elton John song drowns out a couple thousand bellowing widlebeest.

The migration starts with a crossing…the initialization of the circle of life… or at the very least, increased flight prices to and from the Mara.  Jambo high season.

The time surrounding the migration provides an opportunity to see a variety of animal behaviors. Underlying every decision and respective behavior in the animal world (even humans??? no I don’t have the gall to pursue that) there are tradeoffs that ultimately affect an individual’s somatic and reproductive fitness. Disney aside, you eat, are eaten, and/or reproduce. In two words you could argue that the process of living, from to sex, to eating, to death involves combinations of chasing and fleeing.

Sex seems an appropriate starting point.

To set the stage here is my 10-15 second pitch on how this works…I’ll use a pair of lions to illustrate my point.


Simple, right? In the time you read that, it is all over and both lions have once again sacked out. That is likely a hyena camp bias on some level, slighting the complexity and the social interactions involving a lion’s establishment within a pride. Not to mention what it takes to achieve reproductive success as a lion; that will require insight from someone more qualified.

Observing hyenas mating is not overly common, but since the wildebeest arrived I have seen two successful mating attempts and a few less successful pursuits. That being said I am obviously no expert so I’ll first provide a reference for a more technical source (

The hyena mating events I have observed involve both a lot of chasing and fleeing of variable degrees of intensity. The first part of the chase is a slinky cautious approach by a male, towards a seemingly uninterested female in estrus who walks away (hardly an example of fleeing but it is movement away). As the female’s preoccupation and patience wanes she expresses her annoyance in an aggressive lunge or chase at the hovering male, who (because he is much smaller in stature than the female) flees, loping away to avoid injury. With persistence this exchange of ‘chasing’ and ‘fleeing’ continues and once in a while the result is that the female consents and success (such as that achieved by Trotsky with Sherman).

But success is relative, and as I suggested, all of this somatic and reproductive give-and-take involves the costs along with the benefits. I am not sure of the story behind each scar, but as highest-ranking male in the South territory clan, Dolittle, shows the wear of a life full of costs, from emigration to female courtship; all for ~15 minutes of intromission… maybe that’s worth more than “just” 15 seconds, as with those lions. On the other hand there is more to life than mating. 

I tune into the Discovery channel’s Shark Week each year not because it promises to unveil the latest footage of shark courtship. Rather, just as the tourists monitor the riverbanks for a potential crossing or scan the grass for a hidden predator, my intent is witnessing a kill. The energy flux that occurs between trophic levels involving predators and prey epitomizes chasing and fleeing in the wild and it captivates me…us… at least the reviews would suggest. This likely requires little explanation on my part, so I have captioned a series of photographs that demonstrate somatic maintenance among a variety of taxa.

Every chase begins with an approach. This young lion achieved little more than a few uncalculated test chases after a group of impala.

When pursuing prey that will inevitably flee, age is not the single determinant in success. I came across this young leopard suffocating a live and kicking impala that almost certainly weighed more than the leopard.

Even though age does not solely determine when a chase is more successful than the flight, size certainly achieves the endpoint with far less wear and tear. Shortly after the leopard had killed and drug the impala off the road leading into our camp, two lionesses ran out of the grass and darkness. Displaced, the smaller younger leopard was left to watch its catch consumed by the lions as nothing more than a faint pair of eye shines from the periphery of my headlights.


If not just size and age, then numbers also put the odds in favor of both those chasing and those fleeing. Hunting both alone and in groups, hyenas are able to pursue a wide variety of prey. Although I did not see the progression of this kill (and a lone hyena is certainly more than capable of killing a wildebeest) these two adult hyenas and a cub shared the benefit of this wildebeest kill.


This was the fewest and least excited group of hyenas I have yet observed at a feeding session. Usually upon arriving at a fallen carcass,  one can rest assured that the chasing and fleeing has yet to really begin until after the prey is immobilized and the hyenas begin to sort the feeding privilege based on social rank.

The competition of chasing and fleeing is not merely a phenomenon of mammals in the Mara (as this blog seems to thus far suggest). So, as not to overlook birds and reptiles, I will include a few more photographs that highlight the endpoint of a chase. Both the eagle and the heron out matched their respective reptilian prey in these pictures.

That covers the majority of both sex and death, animal-pursuing-animal interactions I have encountered. Before wrapping this up, I have left out my most personal accounts of chasing and fleeing. Not for a meal or as successfully as birds, and not to achieve any sort of reproductive success (well at least not directly…although I used to think I could embellish a good snake story to my advantage while chatting some uninterested girl in a bar), but either way, I have always enjoyed catching reptiles…

That is all well and good when you know the reptile you are chasing, as with the skink above. It is less good when you hear that there is a big black snake under the guest tent in camp and the camp staff wants to kill it. Not wanting to see this snake meet its end, yet unable to get a controlled grip on the snake’s head through the tent floor, there was little else to do but chase it out from under the tent. Happy to escape my incessant prodding the snake left out from the tent into the bush when we realized there was another large black snake making its way towards the cool recline under the tent floor. This second snake made flight up a nearby tree, before making a second attempt to escape the heat of the day under the tent. Insert here the chasing and fleeing story. Warmed by the afternoon sun, this second black snake was much faster at fleeing than I was at chasing and catching, but we made our way through the forest on edge of camp. In all the excitement, I missed the memo when the snake no longer wanted to play this game. Fleeing stopped, and so halted my pursuit. The snake rose up off the ground, staring at me. Unfortunately I have no picture to demonstrate this; fortunately that spitting cobra had just poor enough aim that if I did have a picture of it, I would still be able to see it sitting here today.

Some pursuits are best slow, casual, and from a distance.


In a few weeks the high season will conclude. There won’t be as many wildebeest, or tourists, or vultures here, but with all that eating and mating I expect the Mara will still host some chasing and fleeing.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


The migration finally came (on the 23rd of July) to my side of the Mara, and given how high the Mara River was at the time, there were some pretty dramatic crossings and subsequent die offs. Chris Dutton and Amanda Subalusky who study the river ( said that in the first crossing, they counted over 3,000 carcasses just below the crossing point. As I’m sure you can guess, that made for a pretty stinky river, but for some very happy vultures, crocs, and hyenas!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Dreaming of Hyenas

When you spend many hours a day watching animals like we do out here, it is not surprising that they begin to enter your dreams. So it was quite natural that I started dreaming of hyenas about a month and a half ago. A common breakfast table conversation in Talek camp is to ask if anyone has had any interesting hyena dreams. And as you might expect, our hyenas have a habit of popping up in many peoples’ dream-worlds in strange ways. In one breakfast table conversation, an unnamed Talek researcher revealed that she had recently given birth to two hyena cubs in her dreams! Kay’s immediate response… “Was it through a phallus?”

A large part of my hyena-watching time out here has been spent learning the distinct spot patterns of different hyenas so that I can recognize each hyena individually. So, many hyena appearances in my dreams have centered around me IDing them. Magenta, one of my favorite hyenas and one of the first I learned to identify, was often present just wandering around in whatever other scene might be playing out in my dream. One night I dreamt I was transcribing, recording the hyenas’ behaviors as we watch them, and I caught a flash of Buenos Aires’ distinctive thigh.

All of this seemed quite ordinary to me. My previous great ape study subjects continue to make guest appearances in my dreams. I’ve dreamt that Ulindi, a bonobo mother handed me her new baby to hold, that one of my favorite gorillas just happened to be peaking through my bedroom window, and that Sandra the chimpanzee sent me an email.

But never would I have predicted that hyenas’ presence in my dreams would actually prove useful in my training as a hyena researcher. A few weeks ago I had my first observation session without a seasoned hyena researcher along with me to confirm that I was properly identifying all the hyenas at the den. The session started out calm—a few cubs here and there. But then things began to get more hectic. The sun set and adults started showing up left and right. I’d ID an individual but then doubt myself and I inevitably felt overwhelmed by all the greetings and aggressions surrounding me.

By the time I left the session, I was confident I had correctly IDed everyone except for a couple of individuals. I was particularly frustrated by my inability to recognize one hyena. When she first arrived at the scene, I identified her as Dionysus. But then I changed my mind…and then changed my mind again thinking maybe it was in fact Dionysus. As you all know from Tracy’s previous post, this individual is the subject of much mystery and suspense at Talek camp. Much to our surprise, we realized Dionysus was actually female, not male, only when we darted her earlier this summer. This put her next in line to become the clan’s matriarch and take over control from her mother who had died earlier this year. However, we hadn’t seen her interact much with the other high-powered Talek ladies so there was still much speculation about her role. This makes it all the more important that when we see Dionysus interacting with other hyenas, we pay close attention in order to discern the changing rank relations of this group.

That evening I couldn’t stop thinking about the identity of this mystery hyena. At dinner, I wouldn’t let my fellow Fisi researchers eat in peace, bugging them with constant questions like, “Who has that big jack-o-lantern-looking smiley face on her side?” Brian’s reply shows the typical problem in trying to ID hyenas from memory with other researchers – everyone sees something different. He answered, “Hmmm I see smiley faces on about 12 of our hyenas.”

So I went to sleep annoyed and wondering who my mystery hyena might be. In my dream that night, I dreamt that an idea suddenly popped into my mind. My dream-self suddenly thought, “Check Yaz!” Yaz is not a hyena that keeps a particularly high-profile and I had only seen her a handful of times. In the dream, I pulled out our ID book filled with hyena photos and turned to Yaz. It was a perfect match.

I woke up that morning not taking the dream too seriously. Wasn’t it just slightly pathetic that I was dreaming about looking up hyena ID photos? When we got in the car, I mentioned to Brian that I had IDed my mystery hyena as Yaz in my dream. I laughed when he told me I should check the book because he had confused Yaz and Dionysus before. A little later, on our way to catching up with the hyenas, he again pressed me to check out Yaz’s photos. So I gave in and opened our book to Yaz. It was a perfect match.

My premonition gets even a little more strange. We pulled up to our first hyena wandering about in the darkness that morning. Brian and I reached for our binoculars and I immediately knew that this was the hyena I had seen the previous night and in my dreams. Brian and I were dumbfounded.

Like most researchers who are trying to unravel the lives of another social animal, I’ve felt a heightening of my hyena-related-senses since being out here. The quality of an interaction might give you a clue as to how two individuals are related, the smell of an area might help you determine if hyenas have been around recently, the energy level of a group of hyenas might help you predict if they are gearing up for a hunt…and apparently, your dreams can provide clues as well.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

KOI's Legacy

Similar to Tracy’s laments of hierarchical difficulties on the East side of the Mara, we’re experiencing some similar challenges over here in the West side operated by The Mara Conservancy. As I’m sure you faithful bloggers out there know, when an alpha female dies, the new highest ranking in the clan should be her youngest (and able) daughter. Although it seems really simple to us onlookers as to who should move to the top, the actual process of this occurring is usually less cut and dry.

Some background before I dive too deep: A little over a month ago, we lost our alpha female in our Happy Zebra clan over here to lions.

Even though we’ve only been following clans on this side of the park intensively since 2008, KOI was a tough hyena that we all liked to think ruled with an “iron-paw.” Finding out the new alpha of a clan is always exciting, as this determines a bit of how the clan functions in the future. Because of this, these are always exciting times in the Mara!

To understand the top of the hierarchy in her clan, here’s a snippet from the front of our Happy Zebra binder. Each binder has a “Clan List” that displays the linear hierarchy and members of the clan. To keep track of familial relationships, every cub that an individual female produces gets placed at one tab over, and then all of their cubs also get tabbed over as well. Therefore at the time of her death, Koi had 5 surviving cubs that we know of-- Coelecanth, Barracuda, Snapper, Pike, and Sawtooth (types of fish lineage). PIKE, SNAP, and SAW have all survived to reproduction and have produced their own cubs.

KOI - f
COEL (31Aug10) - f
BARR (31Aug10) - m
PIKE (30Oct07) - f
ADL (28Feb11) - ?
BOOM (16Feb10) - f
KATA (16Feb10) - m
SNAP (30Oct07) - f
GLET (13Oct10) - m
SAW - f
SGL (15Nov10) - f
HALA (15Nov10) - m
With Koi out of the picture, the throne should go to COEL. However, because she (and her brother BARR) were only 9 months old at the time of their mom’s death, we all expected they would perish given how dependent cubs at this age are of their mothers (cubs can nurse for up to 18 months!).

That’s why to my surprise, this morning we saw COEL and BARR looking pretty healthy at a topi carcass with both PIKE and SNAP. They’ve now survived over a month following their mom’s death, and seem to be doing just fine. Maybe they’re really good opportunists? Maybe PIKE and SNAP are still unsure of how to treat them and are allowing them to trail along on hunting expeditions and kills? Maybe PIKE and SNAP want more allies to help them in the future and see this as something that will directly benefit them later in life? Whatever the answer is, these two are still around.

Although most of us hyena researchers out here feel that PIKE will most certainly jump over them to take the position of alpha, we are all interested in seeing if COEL and BARR can make it to adulthood. I think if they can make it through this first month and have latched onto their older and wiser sisters, things could be bright for their future.

We’ll keep you posted and check back soon!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Search for Queen

Who’s who in Talek West

Let me present Murphy's children, our cast of characters in our search for the new queen. Hyenas have a matriarchal society with youngest ascension, so in theory Murphy’s youngest surviving daughter should take over and become queen.

Hades and Cronus: Murphy’s most recent cubs, born in December 2010. Sadly, they undoubtedly perished shortly after she died since they were still reliant on her milk.

Dionysus: The chubbiest, fluffiest (and most spoiled) cub I have ever seen. As Murphy’s youngest surviving cub (b. Aug 09), Dion is currently the highest ranking hyena in the clan. As a male, however, he is not in the running for queen.

Juno: Our regal teenage mom, Juno (b. Apr 08) is theoretically poised to take over the clan. She has all the makings of a good queen: calm and noble, but not afraid to show her power with some aggressive bite-shaking when food is involved. She has two cubs, Gus Gus (b. Mar 10, now missing) and Mushu (b. Jan 11, currently an extremely healthy, adorable, chubby cub).

Loki: Juno’s subordinate twin sister and the local bully - she arrives at the den at night and proceeds to aggress on all her subordinates just to prove her dominance. In my opinion, this simply shows that she is insecure in her position, but all this testosterone-fueled aggression could ultimately prove an advantage in the battle for queen. Loki also has two cubs, Alderaan and Endor (b. Nov 10), who are currently graduating from the den and making their first tentative steps out into the world.

Helios: A beautiful, brawny baller of a female (b. Feb 06), some of our past fisi campers have their bets placed on her. While she is strong and proud, Juno and Loki are well-established daughters with their own lineages, so I don’t think she’s much of a threat.

Since Murphy’s death, we have been waiting with baited breath to see these hyenas interact, so we can really establish who has taken over. Until recently, luck has not been with us.

Juno is queen…or is she?

On June 10, two months after Murphy’s death, we FINALLY saw Juno, Loki, and Helios interact over food when the Talek West clan was fighting over an impala carcass on the NNH plain.

Helios arrived at the session one minute before Juno did, so one of the first things we saw was Helios open-mouth appeasing (you are better than me, you can totally have the food) to Juno when Juno came to take the carcass for herself. Unsolicited open-mouth appeasing (oma; see photo), when one hyena oma without the other hyena aggressing on her, is one of the interactions we use to establish rank. So, we can conclude that Helios is still lower-ranking than Juno.

Loki arrived at the session at the same time as Juno, but we had to wait 20 minutes for them to interact! Finally, Juno and Loki were both feeding on the carcass, and the following happened:

1806 JUNO t3 bite (food) LOKI

LOKI t1 (scape) DTH

LOKI brt app eb snf ll oma JUNO (grt)

JUNO t3 bsh (food) LOKI, cc

JUNO brt t2 chase (food) LOKI, squeals av w/ scrap

For you non-fisi campers, this means that at 6:06 pm, Juno decides that she wants the carcass all to herself, and so she bites Loki and kicks her off the carcass. Loki takes out her feelings on Death Valley (DTH), who is lower-ranking than Loki and can’t hurt her back. Loki then re-approaches Juno and acts submissive to her, going ears back (eb) and open-mouth appeasing (oma). Juno, who is likely glad Loki is respecting her but still REALLY wants Loki to go away, bite-shakes and then chases Loki, who carpal crawls (cc, a submissive behavior) and runs, managing to keep a small scrap of food for herself but leaving the majority of the carcass to Juno.

As you can tell, Juno is definitely dominant over her twin sister Loki. Juno fed until she was full, at which time she left and Loki took over the carcass. For the next hour, we saw Loki routinely aggressing on Helios and driving her away from the food. During these aggressions, Helios always exhibited submissive behaviors, which means that Helios is subordinate to Loki as well. So far, everything has played out according to our expectations. Until….

The last two standing

We saw Chicopee (one of our immigrant males) paw the ground in front of Dionysus. Pawing the ground is a quintessential mating behavior, so this is a very weird interaction: we think that Dion is a boy, but Chicopee clearly thinks that Dion is sexy. Chicopee could have turned gay, but that’s unlikely. So, the question becomes: is Dion a girl or a boy????

Sexing hyenas is ridiculously difficult. As cubs or sub-adults, the only way to tell is to look at the shape of the erect phallus. If the phallus is pointy, it means boy; if it is flat, it means girl. As you can imagine, it is easy to confuse the two - so easy that camp protocol requires that you sex the hyena three times before it goes into our notes. But even with these precautions, we make mistakes. Therefore, once a hyena is darted, we also check the scrotum/pseudo-scrotum. If the hyena is male, you can feel two discrete testes sliding around within the scrotum, whereas a female’s pseudo-scrotum is simply full of soft tissues.

After nine desperate days of trying to dart Dion, Brian finally shoots him/her and he/she goes down. Brian jumps out of the car to cover his/her eyes and immediately checks the scrotum: boy. Kay does the same and comes to the same conclusion. It is only later, when Kay has a teaching moment for our two undergraduate visitors, that we realize that Dion’s sex is more ambiguous than we had previously thought. Five minutes later, we finally decide that we can’t actually feel testes within her pseudo-scrotum. Dion is a girl!!! She is also (maybe) pregnant.

So now we wait. Just like with Loki and Juno, we need to see Juno and Dion interacting over food in order for us to determine who ultimately is the new queen in Talek West.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Vomiting. There, I said it. Now lets talk about it hyena style.

For animals that are known for their bone cracking abilities, and can level a carcass to nearly nothing in a matter of minutes, I always think it’s a funny sight to see the things that they can’t digest (usually some shards of bone and hair of their prey).

And although at first vomiting may seem like a normal occurrence for animals that can bite off more than they can chew and eat up to a third of their body weight in a single sitting, when it happens in the field, we record it.

As gross as it may sound, when one of our hyenas vomits, we need to note it because it becomes a new food source. This new food source is something to fight for, snatch up, or even my personal favorite, roll in it. Nothing like adding a little Eau de "Crocuta" to really make you irresistible to the ladies.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

New York Times: Scientist at Work

The first of Kay Holekamp's entries in the New York Times' Scientist at Work series was published on June 20, 2011. Read her story The Land of Dik Diks and Pangolins.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Cracking the hyena code

Having spent my first month in the Mara, I’ve decided it is time for me to jump into the blogosphere. I just finished my first year as a PhD student in the lab and for my dissertation, I’m hoping to investigate how differences in maternal behavior and physiology that others in our lab have linked to human disturbance are impacting the developmental process of hyena cubs. To do this, I’ll be comparing hyena development in clans exposed to different levels of disturbance, focusing on behavioral, physiological, and cognitive aspects of development.

I am thrilled to be spending this summer getting familiar with the hyenas I have been thinking, reading, talking, and writing about for the past year. Last semester, I spent a great deal of time reading through hyena notes back in Michigan. As we watch the hyenas in field, we record their behaviors into a digital voice recorder. Back at camp, we transcribe these notes into word documents that get sent back to MSU where they can be entered into our database and analyzed. These notes are written in a language all their own. Learning to decipher the rich behavior documented in the strings of acronyms that make up our notes is like learning to crack a code.

Last semester, grad students Sarah Jones, David Green and I trained undergraduate research assistants to “extract” certain behavioral data from this secret language and enter them into our database. This of course required that I learn to crack the code myself.

Both Sarah and David had already been out in the field. As they had already seen hyenas in action and transcribed their every move, it wasn’t so confusing to them to read pages and pages of notes like, “MOS t1 lk (food) MP, eb hb bo. ADON join MOS t3 bsh brt (food) MP, eb cc squeals.” In reading this, Sarah and David could imagine an interaction in which Morpheus (MOS) got annoyed with MoonPie (MP) as they were arguing over some scrap of meat. MoonPie got the message and did a bunch of submissive stuff, pulling her ears back (eb), head-bobbing (hb), and backing off from the situation (bo). But clearly this wasn’t enough because Morpheus then got seriously pissed and bit and shook her (bsh). Adonis (ADON), standing nearby, thought this was a just reprimand…or maybe just wanted to use the opportunity to reassert her own rank… and joined in with Morpheus. This time, MoonPie squealed and crawled submissively on the ground (cc).

Reading our hyena notes before actually seeing a live hyena made for some funny situations. Sarah had to demonstrate a “defensive parry” for me, David had to act like a male hyena anxiously “approach-avoiding” a female he is interesting in, and everyone in the lab had to try out their impression of a hyena whoop for me. Over time, I began to be able to imagine what the hyenas might be acting like as I was reading the notes. Some of the individuals even began to feel familiar. It some sessions, I could feel their personalities jumping off the page as I read the code like a soap opera.

But every once and a while, it would come out that I had a little misunderstanding about one of many components of the hyena code. I have become known in the lab for one of these realizations. One day as I was reading some hyena notes, imagining what the scene must look like, and checking over the work one of our undergraduates had done. I announced to everyone working in the lab, “I love it when everyone oos!” They looked at me a little confused. “Um, what do you mean?” Sarah asked. “You know, it often happens at the end of a session. Everyone oooooos and then the session ends,” I answered. I had been imagining that an “oo” was one of the hyenas’ charismatic vocalizations. It made sense. I often read “everyone oos” and then the researchers left the area. This must be a vocalization the hyenas do when they are about to leave or move on. I was excited to get to Africa and finally hear what one of these “oos” sounds like! Everyone in the lab starting cracking up at me. It turns out “oos” actually stands for “out of sight.” As Dave informed me, “All the observers leave because there are no hyenas around! That’s why the session ends!”

As I predicted, some of the hyena behaviors are just as I was imagining… and some are very different. Although learning the hyena code before ever seeing a hyena is the opposite of what most members of our lab do, it was useful for me to see what the learning process must be like for all the undergraduates who help us extract behavioral data without having the opportunity to see a hyena in the flesh. Needless to say, it is great to be out here seeing what the hyena code actually looks like when acted out live by the cast of characters.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

That was my May in the Mara

I used to have a yellow lab when I was younger. Isaac (my brother) and I had this game we played where we would fish for our dog off the picnic table with a rawhide tied to a broom handle with some twine. To call this a bit odd seems fair, but I think the concept is accessible…drag the rawhide around and the dog chases it until he catches it, tug of war, and then embellish some heroic tall tale about catching a trophy; it is the kind of tale where the catch gets bigger and better each time the story is retold.

About 10:00 pm on June 2, 2011, the bait was secure and the line was cast. Following a Land Rover and the dead hyena in tow, 2-6ish hyenas (very much alive ones) revitalized my sense of excitement from my dog fishing days, as I hung on to the spare tire mounted on the back of the Land Rover. Although yellowish-tan, furry and pretty charismatic like my old lab, I hesitated in wanting this evening’s edition of carnivore fishing to end in a catch. Rather I was hoping that once the necropsied remains of the recently found dead Koi (alpha female hyena from the Happy Zebra clan studied by the Serena Hyena Camp within the Mara Conservancy Park) had been drug a safe distance from the camp drive way, I would be able unhook the tow cable from Koi’s body in a timely enough fashion that I would not be mistaken for the bait.

The fact that I am doing well and writing this now a few days later makes it clear that this tale has already lost the element of danger, and bravery, and tragedy that tend to weave a series of events into stories of epic proportion. Maybe a few beers in, sitting around with some friends a few months from now and a more exciting version will manifest, but because I have already unveiled the end of May and the beginning of June, I should fill in the story line up until this point in time.

Right, so Koi was found dead along the High road the evening of June 2nd by a watering hole we call Egyptian Goose. That same evening Koi was brought back to camp and a handful of people (the water researchers, camp staff, a few visitors etc) all helped or watched the necropsy of Koi in the glow of mag lights and headlights. Koi appeared to have been dead for less than 24 hours. Her cause of death seemed most likely to be lion(s). This was determined by the puncture wounds found around the neck and amongst the writhing mass of ticks, flies, and non-descript ecto-parasites inhabiting Koi’s matted fur. I am not sure how many of Koi’s ecto-parasites decided to switch hosts and join my team that night. Still you are faced with a serious question when deciding whether to leave well enough alone or swat with a hand covered in hyena fluids ripened by the warmth of the Kenyan sun. To be fair not all of the excitement was at the focus of our scalpel blades and sample vials. Cast in the interface of shadow and trailing headlight or mag light beams that were focused away from the necropsy, a number of local North territory hyenas had gathered. I imagine, as much as I could smell Koi, these North hyenas must have been able to smell Koi from some distance. I have no idea what the North hyenas intent or interest was, but they paced and dodged in the artificial light with increasing energy and boldness as the necropsy continued. It was like if you have ever been at a small venue bar to see a show. Before the main act comes out the crowd kind of jostles in this uncoordinated but unified rhythm of impatient discontent directed at that first band; we were the lead singer for that unappreciated opening act the night of Koi’s necropsy. Soon enough though Koi had been preserved forever in the records and data logs, and was hooked in tow by a cable to the Land Rover. Out across the plane we go, with at least 6-12ish hyenas (very much alive and big ones) in pursuit…

Koi was not the only one to suffer lion troubles in May. On a morning earlier in the month, myself and a few other research assistant/grad students were at a den conducting a fairly standard obs session. The morning was nearing the time we might drive around and try to find other hyenas, but before leaving we saw two hyenas loping across the plane. In casual pursuit were three male lions. At first it did not appear as though the lions’ course would bring them much nearer than 100m from us and the den. That was an incorrect presumption. The lead lion quite intentionally shifted attention and gear, and came running at the adult and cub hyenas at the den. I will try not to sensationalize this part. However, a big male lion, when moved by some inspiration to do more than sun bathe and nap, becomes an impressive display of muscle contractions and potential killing force. This fact was also realized by the hyenas, and the adults all scattered while the cubs dove into the nearest den hole they could find, as the lead male lion leapt over a ditch next to the den. The male lion reached into the den with its paw but to no avail before it began urinating on the den. Meanwhile at a den hole about 50m away, one brave cub ventured a look out of the den. The hyena cub caught the lead male lion’s eye, and he again sprang into action running at the den and trying to reach in and grab the cub. Soon the other two adult male lions had arrived at the den. Again there was a series of macho displays in which the lions were urinating and pawing the ground with their rear legs on top of the den. Not long after marking the den, the lions moved on and retired for the day long nap that was sure to follow. We soon left as the morning was waning, as was the potential for a Mara headliner. It is not that we are impatient, but at that point in time it would be like trying to watch and episode of the Bachelor following an episode of Jersey Shore; relatively it had just become too tame.

Don’t get me wrong, it is not that tame is always bad, but I think everyone can better know where they stand day to day when the stakes go up. Take for example two other den sessions in which the only animal participants were hyenas…well at least live ones. Both of these session involved Clovis, the alpha female from our South territory clan. In two different cub provisioning events, Clovis provided her youngest cubs with almost exclusive feeding access on wart hog kills. If lions, as a context, tend to excite hyenas I think it is safe to say that food does as well. The question is then, if you are Clovis, why bring the wart hog remains back to the den and have to stand by vigilant to ensure that no other hyenas steal your cubs’ prize? It seemed most likely to be a lesson. Why bring the food back among all those other hungry hyenas? One reason might be, simply because you can… and that is the glory of being at the top of the social hierarchy. During the excitement of both of these apparent provisioning events, not only did Clovis provide a lesson to her cubs and the rest of the clan in regards to rank, but it also helped me rank my own status thus far in the Mara. Prior to the two wart hog den sessions, I figured myself close to adequate in terms of observing behavioral interactions among a group of hyenas. Well that day, even as a bystander, I was able to reflect and re-evaluate. Thank you Clovis for increasing the session energy and humbling me with nearly 160 tracks on my DVR to the tune of, ‘NOTE: …incomplete CIs.’

Well that was May and it has been fun and challenging and educational, but now it is already June. Just yesterday on the 5th of June I saw the first of the migration (zebras) crossing the Mara River.

I am sure as the herds increase in number I will get many more opportunities to improve on my kill session data collection. Watching those first couple thousand zebras crossing the river I was struck by one peculiarity. Even after making a frantic effort to swim, run, or stumble past four large and waiting crocodiles, many of the zebras re-traversed the river back towards the bank they had just left behind. 

Maybe the grass is always greener, or maybe the adrenaline and sense of accomplishment is addicting? I think if I was I zebra I would at least look for another river to cross or maybe consider the lions still waiting just up the bank. Anyway I’ll save from some tacky analogy (I have likely exhausted those) involving my time in the Kenya, compared to a journey full of river crossings and crocodiles. Suffice it to say I am sure June will have at least one or two blog worthy events, but if not… Did I ever tell you about hyena fishing…

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science