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!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science