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.


Leslie said...

Oh man, a surprise ending! I love it. Keep us posted (pun intended). And tell those little hyena harlots that teenage pregnancies are no joke!

Katie (Nature ID) said...

Love this post. Very interesting. Your style reminds me of the ol' classic Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. I'm looking forward to reading who ends up being queen.

dee said...

I can't believe all the "good stuff" started happening the day after I left! Wonderful blog Tracy! Great photos. Please keep us posted as things develop.
Any action with the thigh bone?

watchergryph said...

The note about Chicopee makes me curious: do you find yourselves documenting homosexual behaviour amongst your hyenas?

Jaime said...

Now you know how I felt when we discovered my "boyfriend" Falafel was actually my girlfriend!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science