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…

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