Friday, December 27, 2013

Hippo ribs- it's what's for breakfast.

This is Fuzz, a subadult male in Serena North. This hippo died over a month ago and has been rotting in the water in this culvert ever since. This doesn't deter our hyenas however, they know that ribs can still be a great source of food.
Although Fuzz didn't cache these hippo bones (the hippo died in this spot) hyenas have been observed to store food underwater and return to it days later. Hyenas have also been seen to catch fish in shallow waters. Somehow hyenas are able to detect food in completely murky water- we're not sure if they're feeling for it with their paws or snout, or if they can smell it, or if they're just using their excellent memories.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Just how far is Waffles falling?

More updates on our favorite alpha (or not?) female from Serena North clan. After a week of rain we are finally back out in the field and it looks like Waffles and LCS have moved to Schiphol Den up on top of the hill (and right next to the road) near camp. Unfortunately it looks like Waffles has definitely dropped in rank, this morning she approached Sherman (the 2nd highest ranking adult female) and a subadult male named Fuzz with her ears pinned tightly back. The message here couldn't be clearer.

What was interesting was that when Sherman walked away Waffles proceed to greet with Fuzz with her ears back. In this photo you can see Waffles lifting leg for him while his ears are clearly forward. Fuzz is a mid/low ranking natal male and if Waffles is behaving submissively to him then she not only has lost her spot as alpha, but dropped quite far indeed. Or it could be that Sherman's presence had Waffles just acting submissively to everyone, only time will tell for sure. 

I also recently learned that Tinsel's and Mistletoe's (two mid ranking females) mother, Elf, was alpha at a point in Serena North's history before RBC was alpha. It seems then that North has a long tradition of an unstable hierarchy. Talek West clan (the clan that has been under study for 25+ years) has exhibited a very stable hierarchy, so we're not sure if Serena North's instability is unusual or if it is perhaps related to the location of Serena North in prime riverside (high prey density) territory, or some other unknown factors.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Waffles has babies!

Waffles, the matriarch of North clan, has recently shown us her two new cubs; the greatly anticipated Mrs. Butterworth and Aunt Jemima or Mrs. B and Aunt J for short. (Waffles' lineage is "syrups").

We're hoping they're girls not just so that they'll match their names but also because we want Waffles' to maintain her place as alpha. With her coalition partner Peepers dead and Eleanor only mid-ranking Waffles' has only her daughter LogC to support her reign. Sherman, the second highest ranking adult female  has a daughter and two granddaughters (still subadults) to back her up. Recently we've seen some worrying behaviors; when LogC or Waffles has been interacting (individually) with both Sherman and Hooker we've seen them acting submissively. However when Waffles or LogC interacts with Sherman or Hooker one-on-one their ranks still hold. Sherman is a tough hyena who could definitely be making moves for the alpha position.

We love Waffles because she is so benevolent and friendly to the low-rankers but we need to see her asserting herself more if she wants to maintain her rank! Also of note: Waffles' is sharing her natal den with the second lowest ranking adult female hyena LCS (so named for her ear damage, a left "c" slit). Even though Waffles has risen in rank while LCS remains low ranking they are still best buds.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Waffles and her cave

Waffles, the matriarch of our Serena North Clan, has recently found what seems to be the deepest hole in the territory to make her natal den (we think, we haven't actually seen the cubs yet). We would have never found her if it wasn't for her collar, thank you GPS points!

Hopefully, she will emerge soon with Mrs. Butterworth or Aunt Jemima (or both)!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Hyena Pillows

Over half the time, when we find a hyena, she's asleep. Now, hyenas don't just sleep anywhere- it turns out hyenas are very particular about finding a good pillow. However, pillows can be just about anything.

Termite mounds are a favorite pillow. Then gentle dirt slope of a mound makes a very good resting spot.

If no termite mound is available, sometimes a hole or depression can do the same trick.

Even mud is okay, especially on a hot day.

If there aren't any dirt pillows around grass can be a comfy pillow too.

Fellow cubs make excellent pillows if none of the other options are available.

If a hyena is all alone, their paws can be used for a pillow.

Rocks are a very commonly used pillow.

For more creative hyenas even a carcass can make a good pillow!

Or buffalo poop!

Of course, sometimes a hyena is so tired they just fall flat asleep in the middle of the road with no pillow at all.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Solar Eclipse

Two days ago we got see a rare solar eclipse- visible from most of Kenya. The sun here is extremely bright and it was impossible to see anything with naked eye but I did manage to get some good photos of the eclipse. Some thin clouds started passing in front of the sun part-way through the eclipse which actually helped darken the sun enough to be able to see the moon taking a slice out of it, but later on the clouds completely obscured the sun and we were unable to see the total eclipse. Watching the lighting change across the landscape was fascinating as the sun's light became dimmer. 

The sun still too bright to see the thin sliver that the moon was taking out of it.

Me trying to get a good photo! (Credit to Emily Thomas)

 Halfway obscured!

Almost all the way covered, but the clouds were getting darker.

This is the view we had from our "front yard". Sun covered up by clouds at this point.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Pan's ghost

Just in time for Halloween, we had a ghost in camp. Benson and I were working in the lab tent when I got a text from Emily, who’d been looking at gps points from our collared animals. She asked us whether we’d seen Pan around, since her collar was active again and had been sending in points from around the territory, though she added that there were a lot of points in camp. At first, I was really puzzled, since Pan was a hyena that died a few months before I arrived. They found her body and collected her collar and skull, but she was too far gone to determine what killed her. So now we were receiving gps points from a dead hyena all over the territory.

For a brief moment, I wondered if there was any way Pan could still be alive. After all, we’d seen some hyenas in our other two clans that had been on the missing list, most recently Muhammad Ali, who hadn’t been seen in over two and a half years. However, I’d held Pan’s skull, which seemed pretty definitive.

It was Benson who solved the mystery: We had a new collar in the darting box with the same frequency as Pan’s, and the magnet (which we use to stop collars sending out points until we deploy them) had come off. So every day when we went out with the darting supplies, the collar sent out another point from somewhere in the territory, but most of the time it was in camp. It also explained why we’d had inexplicably large amounts of interference on the tracking some mornings.

Then, last night we saw Pan’s grand-cubs and I couldn’t help but think of how much impact a single hyena can have in the future of the clan, depending on how many of their offspring survive. Maybe that’s all that Pan’s ghost was trying to tell us.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Hyenas LOVE water.

(For those of you whose internet is too slow for videos see photos below.)

This morning most of our Happy Zebra hyenas were playing in Egyptian Goose watering hole. Most hyenas seem to enjoy a little bit of splashing, and some are very timid about getting their paws wet or being splashed. Then there are those that somehow don't seem to mind water up their eyes, ears, and nose and will allow themselves to be dunked under water in addition to voluntarily sticking their heads under the water as they swim and play.

The larger adult in this video that you see in the deeper water playing with a cub is Cosby (a low-ranking adult female) and the cub is Jolly Roger (or just J-Rog for short). Her brother Swag goes in up to his belly a few times. They hyena who balances with all four paws on a grass mound is Eremet, J-Rog's subadult aunt. At the end of the video you see Andor (female cub, possibly a second or third cousin to J-Rog) being very timid about getting splashed by Cosby or J-Rog.

Here is Cosby swimming and diving. It was very fun to see such a low ranking female playing with the cubs and enjoying herself. Earlier that morning before the pool party had started she was tearing up some turf while play romping with the bigger cubs.

Some play romping and splashing.

There were some zebras present that really wanted to go to the watering hole to get a drink but with the hyenas being so absolutely crazy they weren't so sure. The cubs thought it would be really funny to chase them away.

Jolly Roger in all her dripping glory. She has a really good circle with a dot in the middle that looks like a target on her left side that makes her easy to ID from a distance.

Later on the cubs started play romping near the zebras who weren't so easily spooked this time.

Finally the zebras were able to get their turn to come and drink. Note the out of focus cubs sleeping in the foreground. Overall it was a pretty exciting morning in Happy Zebra today. Right now none of the cubs are really young enough to be at a den (except for Higgs) which means there isn't a consistent den for us to go to every morning and we haven't been seeing too many hyenas. Finding every single cub here (including Higgs who was too afraid to go into the water) was a lot of fun.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Endless Car Troubles

Hello, my name is Emily and I'm a new(ish) research assistant in Serena. I have been out here for almost three months and have yet to post to this blog – sorry about that. I think it would be crazy to try and recap my first three months here so I will just dive into what happened last night. Somehow a biology degree has not completely prepared me for work in the mara. I should have double majored in auto mechanics. 

This is KAL.

KAL doesn't like to start sometimes. My first week here Julia, Lily and I were stuck at a den one morning for hours waiting for the mechanics to come and give us a jump. Three months later, the starting problem has yet to be fixed. The immediate cause of KAL's not starting in every single case has been a low battery. We have had all the connections leading to the battery cleaned, fully charged the batteries, replaced one of the battery wires and then re-did the wiring, and rewelded the battery holders. Our mechanics suggested that the two batteries in KAL were just naturally going bad (though one was leaking some due to it's holder not being securely welded). This didn't sound right to us though because both batteries were less than a year old. Finally we gave in and bought a new battery hoping that this would either fix the problem definitely rule out a problem with “old” batteries. The cruiser worked fine with the new battery for all of two weeks before dying two days ago. This time the mechanic decided it was the starter (despite the fact that jumping the car got us back to camp) and we were hoping that it was the starter and getting that cleaned would do the trick. Lily and I didn't really think it was going to be this simple since this has been going on for months but the starter was cleaned and the car turned on, so we were happy. We tested the Cruiser a few times, turning it off on a hill and each time we were able to start her up! Woo! Maybe cleaning the starter finally did the trick!

Wrong. Last night we were at a hyena den during evening obs and after only having the lights on for 10min with the engine off we were unable to start the car. We waited a half hour with everything turned off and tried again. (When a battery is only slightly low turning a car off and letting it sit for 30min or even overnight can allow the battery to collect enough charge to start again. So next time you leave your headlights on, try waiting 30 min. before calling AAA). After 30min, still nothing, we had a very dead Cruiser. Our normal mechanic wasn't in town, Chris and Amanda (the Mara River researchers) were not in town, Chelle (Balloon pilot) wasn't around and Langot, our other mechanic, didn't have a vehicle. After calling around another balloon pilot was able to ask his balloon crew to come and jump us. An hour or so later, maybe 9:30pm, three members of the balloon crew showed up and jumped the cruiser. Everything was running and we were happy to get home and get some dinner. We thanked the crew over and over and were just happy to have a running Cruiser.

Maybe a half a mile down the road something was wrong. The fuel gauge read empty! I couldn't believe it, weren't we over a quarter tank when we left? How did that drop so fast? Soon the Cruiser was out of gas and we were once again stuck! Lily and I couldn't believe how stupid we were! Ugh! How could we not have enough diesel to make it back to camp! Stupid, stupid mzungus! Now, the maruti (our other research vehicle) has a very finicky fuel guage and a half tank sometimes means empty in that car, but KAL traditionally has a very reliable fuel guage and a quarter tank should last at least a day, including morning and evening observations, and we had over a quarter tank. We embarrassingly called the balloon crew back and asked for a second rescue. I think something was lost in translation because 30min later we were still stranded. After another embarrassing phone call to make sure the crew understood that we were stuck, again, they said they would send someone out so we didn't have to spend the night in the Cruiser.

At some point we called back to camp to let Jorgi and Moses know why we were so late. After we were rescued by the balloon crew (for the 2nd time) we were driving down the low road feeling pretty stupid. Soon, we see a car driving slowly towards us, which was pretty unusual considering how late it was. It was Moses and Jorgi coming to rescue us in the maruti! We were extremely impressed that they had manged to drive the maruti over a kilometer from camp because the maruti is very difficult to drive if you are not very experienced with manual cars. Despite this, they had decided to try and come get us. Now feeling really bad that we had inconvenienced more people Lily and I sheepishly informed them that we had run out of diesel.
The dependable maruti to the rescue! 
This morning we headed straight up to the lodge to get diesel and brought it to the Cruiser. We figured we could just fill up the Cruiser, and jump it using the maruti and then we could just head out on morning obs. Nope. The Cruiser was dead and it was staying dead. We waited around for an hour or so to see if Langot could come check it out but he was working. We couldn't just leave the Cruiser sitting in the middle of the road so we weren't really sure what we were going to do. Luckily, a very nice photographer with a very powerful Rover drove by and offered to tow the Cruiser to the Conservancy. When we arrived at the Conservancy headquarters our mechanics were there and took a look, it turns out that not only was our brand-new battery totally drained for some reason but a connection in the fuel line became disconnected and no fuel was getting to the engine which was why jumping it this morning had failed. Great. It made me feel good at least that Langot couldnt't jump KAL either and that it wasn't for our negligence that we ran out of fuel.

Finally, with the Cruiser running and fixed up the mechanics told us to drive it around for a half hour to charge the battery a bit and then it should be okay. We drove it around and arrived back in camp. We turned it off and held our breath as we turned the key over to see if it would start again. Only a clicky noise resulted from the key turning and the Cruiser is, once again and unsurprisingly, not starting. Now I'm sure that this is a more serious problem, possibly the alternator is going bad, because a brand new battery should be charged with 30 minutes of driving. Hopefully now the mechanics will be convinced of this and we'll be able to fix it once and for all!  

Sorry for the wall of text, my next post will be shorter! 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Carcass Party

We’ve been getting frustrated at our hyenas lately because they’ve been very difficult to get to. We discovered around 70 or more wildebeest carcasses in the river near where we think the clan might be denning, and the hyenas have been ecstatic with all the free food. We think the wildebeest must have tried to cross when the river was too high and then got washed down stream. I would’ve thought this would make for a perfect situation, since well over half the clan has been spending most of their time near there, but unfortunately, the river is at the bottom of very steep banks, so we can’t get down to the water, and visibility is poor from the top. As if this was not enough, the entire area is surrounded by impenetrable bushes that the hyenas like to hide in when they aren’t busy eating the carcasses in the river. So it’s been very difficult trying to identify fifty hyenas at once based on brief glances. Nevertheless, the huge number of carcasses has been neat to watch because it draws in scavengers from all over. The first night, we saw crocodiles yanking meat off of the bloated wildebeests, and during the day, the whole area is blanketed by vultures and marabou storks. After a few days, the stench has gotten nauseating, but many of the carcasses have already been cleared away by the collective scavenging effort.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

At least it's just the seal...

Leaks under the car are always a place for concern. Luckily, this time, it's only the seal that needs to be replaced.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A scary reminder

A post by Kay Holekamp. Photo courtesy of David S Green.

I stayed in from afternoon obs yesterday to work on the talks I must give in India next week. At 7 pm, I realized I had been sitting at my computer non-stop since 10am, and that my back was hurting from sitting so long in my awful desk chair, so I decided to lie down on my bed to read until my students and RAs returned from obs. I had slept badly the night before, so I soon dozed off, but I awoke shortly after 8pm when I heard a car drive into camp. I worried that I might be keeping everyone waiting for dinner, so still very groggy from my nap, I got a torch, grabbed the pile of stuff I had assembled to take to the lab tent, shut up my tent, and headed down the path toward the kitchen. I was halfway there when I heard bushes rustling violently in the 5-meter wide space between my path and the river, and then heard what sounded like galloping horses right beside me. I aimed my torch down the path just as a big bull buffalo came crashing out of the bushes about 10 meters in front of me and went charging off to my right. We had seen two buffalos grazing in camp two nights earlier, so I should have been paying more attention, and proceeding down the path much more cautiously, than I did last night. Knowing there must be a second buffalo and hearing more thundering hooves beside me, I turned around and started running back to my tent, my arms still full of papers and flash drives, when the second buffalo now crashed through the bushes and crossed the path right in front of me. He was so close that I threw down all the stuff I was carrying (sure glad I wasn’t carrying my laptop!) and tried to run back toward the lab tent in case he decided to come after me, but I promptly tripped on a root and fell down. Luckily the buffalos were both as freaked out by this encounter as I was because, down on the ground like that, I would have been very easy for either or both of them to squash. Happily for me, they both ran off into the night. Our Masai night watchman, Lusingo, came racing over from the camp driveway to where I had fallen, thinking perhaps I’d been gored. He was clearly as frightened as I was!  The Masai have a VERY healthy respect for buffalos, which among all African animals, are tied only with crocodiles and hippos for killing and maiming the most humans! But after Lusingo helped me collect all my papers and flash drives from the dusty path, he scolded me for not shining my torch around laterally as I was heading down the path, and he was absolutely right. I was very foolish, and as a result, got a major scare that I won’t soon forget! I was lucky this time, but the next buffalo I encounter on my path might not be so forgiving of my stupidity. At the dinner table, I told my students what had happened, and I can only hope that they will learn from my mistake so they don’t make it themselves.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Ratchet enjoying a good back scratch...

Ratchet is the lowest ranking natal male in North clan, but he enjoys coming to the den to visit the cubs and have a good roll in the dirt of course! Emily and I were impressed with his good balance.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Serena Matriarchs

Now that I've been out here in the Mara at Serena Camp for over four months I’ve started to get a feel for the personality of each clan’s matriarch. Disclaimer: I talk about the hyenas attitudes and feelings in this post which obviously I can only guess at. Though all the events that I talk about in this post are accurate accounts I can't stand by how the hyenas really felt about things. 

From the outside it seems that each matriarch has a very different style of ruling and each clan has their own unique social dynamics. On this side of the park we study three hyena clans: North, South, and Happy Zebra. The camp is located in North territory and we often get North cubs wandering through our camp. Unfortunately they’ve become rather desensitized to us yelling at them (to stop chewing on the car) and they can sometimes get a little too close for comfort.

North is home to the Syrup Rebellion that ended with Waffles as matriarch. Waffles cubs are all named after syrups, hence the name. As a formerly low ranking animal Waffles is (mostly) a very forgiving alpha. I’ve seen her be very friendly with animals of every rank in this clan. Waffles made it to the top with the help of two other low rankers. Unfortunately they have both since disappeared and are presumed dead leaving Waffles alone at the top. RBC, the overthrown matriarch, has also been missing since before I arrived in the Mara. 

Waffles is unusually sweet to the low ranking animals in the clan and we think she remembers that she used to be one of them not too long ago. LCS is the second lowest ranking animal in North clan but she and Waffles maintain a good relationship. Late one evening we spied the matriarch and this low-ranker bristle-tailed, parallel walking together followed by the two of them laying down together and grooming each other’s faces. Bristle-tail parallel walking is a social behavior where two hyenas walk next to each other in step, often sniffing the ground, and is a common sight during border patrols and lion-hyena interactions. It seems to serve to strength the social bond between two hyenas.

South clan’s matriarch is quite the opposite of Waffles. Where Waffles is friendly and forgiving Clovis is old, grouchy, and irritable. We don’t know if Clovis’ mother was the alpha before her but as far as we can tell Clovis is not closely related to the other adult females in the clan. If she were they would be ranked directly below her and her offspring but Clovis is anything but friendly with the second ranker, Slinky, in this clan. (Perhaps it is common for the greatest conflict to take place between closely ranked animals). Last year RAs documented Clovis killing Slinky’s cubs and feeding them to her own cubs.  

Clovis is growing old now and the matriarchy should pass to her daughter Cheese Whiz. Oddly (for hyena society) in addition to hating Slinky, Clovis also hates her daughter. The other RA here, Wes, has told me of Clovis’ frequent and unprovoked aggressions against Whiz. She seems quite determined to prevent either Whiz or Slinky from taking the throne as she grows older. All the other hyenas in the three mara clans seem to have very close mother-daughter relationship and we have no way of knowing what went wrong between Clovis and Whiz. In the months that I’ve been here Clovis has stepped down and seemingly retired her rank as alpha not to Whiz, not to Slinky, but to Java. 

Java was the fourth hyena in line for the matriarchy (behind Whiz, Slinky, and Slinky’s daughter Rasta) but with Clovis taking Java’s side during aggressions Java has risen in rank and is now the new alpha of South clan. Clovis has never been friendly to Java but perhaps her hatred for Slinky is simply greater than her dislike of Java. We have yet to see what kind of leader Java will be, but from what I have seen of her she is a strong and smart hyena and a good mother to her two offspring Sula and Komo.
Happy Zebra clan, named for the lush green grass the zebras so love, is ruled by Pike, a hyena in a very large royal family of fishes. Her mother, the former alpha, was named Koi, and following theme all of her cubs were also given fish names. Pike did have a younger sister (hyena society follows youngest ascendency, all new cubs outrank their older siblings) named Coelacanth but Coelacanth was too young to take over the clan when their mother Koi was killed by lions. Pike also has a litter-mate named Snapper, but the dominance relationship between litter mates is established at a very young age, leaving Pike the clear choice for the matriarchy. 

Pike, though not an old hyena, has already had five cubs and two grandcubs (in addition to one niece). And all but two are female. Since female hyenas will stay in the same clan for their entire life, Happy Zebra clan has a very large royal family that is here to stay. Pike’s sisters, daughters, and niece will support Pike’s matriarchy and make her position at the top extremely secure. Perhaps due to this security Pike is probably the most relaxed of the three Serena alphas. 

Hyenas have a greeting behavior where two hyenas will stand side by side, head to tail, each lift a back leg, and sniff each other’s phallus. This behavior typically happens standing up but when Pike shows up to the den (the focal point of social interactions) she often will lay down, lazily lift up one leg, and let three or more hyenas all sniff her at once. This can be frustrating for us RAs to record because there will sometimes be a ring of animals lifting leg for one hyena while sniffing another hyena (therefore not a greet) with a few cubs thrown into the mix performing submissive behaviors to everyone and no one in particular while Pike basks in the middle. Pike usually arrives with her entourage of sisters and daughters all at once and we will announce to our DVRs that at 06:15 (for example) the royal family has arrived.

Pike sacked out nursing Clay

Pike’s youngest daughter Claymore is my favorite hyena cub. She has a faintly orangish coat color making her easy to identify and she is much larger than the other cubs her age. Clay is extremely spunky and always game for rough housing with her older sisters (and anyone else she cares to play bite regardless of their feelings on the matter). 

Some of the RAs and grad students call her lazy and spoiled (in jest) because she is also the last cub to emerge from the den in the evening but I prefer to think that she is simply tired from all of her play romping. (In this way she has managed to avoid several behavioral trials that a graduate student conducted with the cubs). Clay is getting older now and the other Serena RAs recently saw her mother mating with one of the immigrant males in Happy Zebra clan and we are all looking forward to a new addition or additions to the royal family!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Hyenas in a Haystack

By Emily Thorne, IRES 2013

Emily T., Emily B., and Moira with Digs.

I always figured one day I would come face to face with some large and scary carnivore, but had you asked me a few months ago I never would have thought it would be a wild adult female hyena. Moreover, I couldn’t begin to imagine that I would be in the back of a moving Land Cruiser straddling this hyena, keeping her safe as she started to wake up, while trying not to let myself get thrown around with every bump and dip in the road that threatened to send me flying. If you asked me today I would tell you I couldn’t wait to do it again.

Hyena research has its exciting and unbelievable moments, no doubt, but it also requires a lot of time and an incredible amount of patience. Some of the hyenas being studied here in the Mara have been fitted with GPS and VHF collars that provide the researchers with valuable data about where the hyenas are located, allow the hyenas to be tracked using radio telemetry equipment, and even record the temperature. Once the hyenas are wearing their new high-tech accessories they can usually be found much easier and may lead us to a few collarless hyenas they happen to be hanging around with. The difficulty lies in finding the hyena and putting the collar on in the first place.

Since we arrived in Serena, Dave has been on a mission to find and collar one particular hyena in the Serena North clan: Sauer, the lowest ranking of the high ranking females. A female spotted hyena’s rank in the social hierarchy is inherited from her mother. For this project the hierarchy was divided into equal thirds (high, medium, and low) and a few high and low ranking females from three clans were selected to receive a GPS collar. We spent several mornings driving around the entire North territory in search of a needle in a haystack. Sauer’s cubs were no longer den-dependent so she could be anywhere.  One morning we managed to stumble upon her and her two cubs. This seemed promising so we followed her. And followed her. And followed her some more. She seemed quite content to wander around in what seemed like every patch of tall grass in the Mara, almost strategically avoiding any areas that would allow for a safe and easy shot with the dart gun. Finally she settled on a nice cozy spot. Unfortunately for us that spot happened to be in a lugga, which meant tall grass, water, mud and absolutely no chance for us that day. The next time we found her she was on the move again. We followed her for over an hour through excellent areas with short grass and no thickets or luggas but she just wouldn’t stop moving. She wound up leading us back to the den, which happened to be hyena party central that morning. Our luck seemed to be turning around when she wandered away from the den to a patch of short grass and sacked out. Just as we were finally about to get a good shot along comes another female. Apparently Sauer wasn’t in the mood for company because she stood up and started to wander off again. We followed her but she gave us the slip once more. We watched her walk into a rock field, up the side of a hill and out of site into a thicket. Twice we almost had her and twice she managed to get the best of us.

It turns out however, that it was a good thing she did. To our surprise, our plans suddenly changed when we witnessed an interaction between Sauer and another female named Digs. It turned out that Digs, who had been lower ranking than Sauer, had jumped a step up on the social ladder, something that isn’t seen too frequently in a stable hyena hierarchy. She had surpassed Sauer (who was now a middle ranker) and was now the new lowest ranking of the high ranking females. This meant that Sauer was out and Digs was our new target.

Dave, Wes and I had spent several mornings driving around South in search of Marten, another female Dave wanted to put a collar on, when one morning we received a call from Lily, Moira and Julie who were driving around in North. They had spotted Digs so we headed on over.
At first we thought Digs was going to give us the run around like Sauer had. After over an hour of slowly following her around the North territory past luggas and thickets, through tall grass and around lots of puddles she finally made it to the perfect spot. We were driving slowly next to her, as close as possible trying not to spook her. In one fraction of a second she stopped right next to us, turned her head away with her back end in just the right position and Dave took a perfect shot. It only took a few minutes for her to go down and then I got to see a truly wild (but chemically immobilized) hyena up close and personal. My first thought was that she was huge, but at about 50 kilograms she was actually on the small side for a female hyena. Being that close to a wild large carnivore was surreal. Her feet looked like my dog’s feet only twice the size. Her fur was surprisingly coarse to the touch.  Her sharp carnivore teeth and huge jaw muscles left no doubt that she could do a number on a wildebeest or buffalo. We got to work immediately. We collected blood and other bodily substances (we can all now say we have “milked a hyena”, literally) and measured her head, teeth, limbs, and numerous other body parts. We measured her neck and fitted her new collar so that it was loose enough to be comfortable but tight enough that it wouldn’t fall off. After checking to make sure the collar was working properly we weighed her.

Just as we were finishing up she started to come to. Perfect timing. We carried her to the car on a stretcher and Lily, Moira and I climbed in the back with her. Since it was a rather bumpy ride and the immobilization drugs were starting to wear off (and I happened to be sitting closest to her) I made sure she didn’t get tossed around. And let me tell you, riding in the back of the car with one knee in a puddle of hyena drool, the other leg over Digs’ body (which smelled ever so slightly of dead elephant) in order to brace myself and not squish her, while leaning over to keep her eyes covered and head down was probably one of the most bizarre and coolest things I have ever done. We left Digs under some nice trees in a shady thicket, made sure she was nice and cool so she wouldn’t overheat and surrounded her with big branches to keep her safe. When we checked on her later that day she had fully recovered and was already out and about taking care of hyena business.

Digs is doing very well with her fancy new collar. We have tracked her around the territory multiple times since then and Dave has been collecting lots of GPS points for her. Her data, along with the other collared hyenas’ data, will enable researchers to answer important research questions that have never been able to be answered on such an interesting and dynamic species as the spotted hyena. I hope I get to lend a hand in more of these incredible experiences during the rest of my stay here the Mara.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Some cub cuteness for those of you who need a smile!

This is a video of George Costanza playing with Terodactyl, a young female, while George's mother Log Cabin (aka LogC) rests in the background. LogC seemed very happy to have Tero babysit so she could catch up on some sleep, she always looks exhausted these days. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Winter in Kenya

The migration is here and with it hot dry winds and brisk chill nights. It has not rained since the herds of wildebeest started to arrive and every car kicks up a cloud of dust behind it, visible from many kilometers away. The grass is parched and yellow though the massive seas of grass (where I can see nothing but grass in every direction) are starting to get grazed down. No longer are the sounds of the river and the wind the only things I hear- now the gentle lowing of wildebeest and kwa-kwaing of zebra echo in the distance.

When the zebra cross the river they do it slowly and carefully- but not without excitement. They gather on the banks until that critical mass has been reached and then finally one will take the first step into the river and start to wade across while the young ones are forced to swim. The river is not that high this year- many of the adults do not have to swim at all- but it is still high enough to take its toll.
Photo: A crocodile attempts to take down a zebra (unsuccessfully in this case).
When the wildebeest cross they do so with speed, as if without it they would not have the courage to cross at all. They kick up massive clouds of dust as they stampede towards the river and enter it without a glance, seemingly without planning or foresight. They scramble up the opposite slope as the dirt crumbles beneath their feet and sends many of them plunging back into the water. The carcasses are starting to pile up, catching on the rocky sections of the river and bloating in the sunlight. The vultures are ever-present hovering on the river banks, picking at the dead. Every vulture in Kenya is in the Mara now to enjoy the feast and marabou storks are a common sight. The crocodiles do not have to work very hard, in the frenzy of the crossing many wildebeest are trampled and drown. The many egrets, cranes, storks, and plovers that riddled the wet areas of the landscape a month ago are now a rarer sight.

Beyond the river and the lions and hyenas are getting fat. I have not seen a single dead zebra yet but there is at least one wildebeest carcass being eaten every day by the hyenas or the lions. This morning as some of the wildebeest were milling by the edge of the river, having recently crossed, we see lion ears poking out of the grass. A flash of movement and a young lion is leaping towards the scattered wildebeest. We drove closer and in another flash this lion has leaped onto the back of a wildebeest and taken it down. This is a group of four lions, a mother and three subadults. The wildebeest thrashes about for twenty minutes while the mother lets the subadults practice their killing grip.
Photo: Three north hyenas (Lady on the right) feed on the remains of a wildebeest carcass. 

The other day we came upon a freshly dead wildebeest with three hyenas feeding. The eyes were gone and the guts spilled from the belly, starting to balloon out in the heat. Carcass sessions do not have the same level of aggression, everyone has eaten recently and no one cares to squabble. Other animals show up occasionally but they are already fat and do not even bother to come close. Every inch of free space is starting to fill up with animals. I'll drive over the top of a hill and suddenly the sight of thousands of wildebeest and zebra is spread out in front of us fading into freckles on the horizon. As we drive along a track a few thousand wildebeest are glistening wet in the sunlight and loping across our path into the distance, like a living river they move away from the Mara, the survivors. We drive towards them and the herd moves smoothly, splitting around us until they gallop in front and behind us and then suddenly we are through and the gap we made seals itself without a sound. We drive on.
Photo: Ratchet carries a wildebeest tail while Lady follows.

Clouds build on the horizon in the afternoon and the low rumble of thunder greets the night but the storms stay away from this half of the Mara, instead they skirt the escarpment and we see lightning flashing in the highlands beyond. Still no rain. Wildebeest fill the small luggas and waterholes, covering their shiny coats with what mud is left. The sun is bright and scorching most days- other days the air is thick and hazy with smoke from fires in the south. A dusty sheen coats everything and anything beyond a kilometer quickly fades into the dust. The sky is brown and only if I look straight up can I see the blue peeking through. The dust from the hooves of a thousand grazers fills the air and merges with the smoke that covers the horizon. The light takes on a strange orange and brown glow- it is both stunningly beautiful and eerily surreal. At night the full moon rises and casts a strange white glow across the landscape, flashlights and headlamps rendered unnecessary. In the morning the moon sets slowly into the purple haze on the western horizon against the sea of yellow grass, aglow with the light of the the rising sun. 

Happy zebra hyena clan and north hyena clan have both moved dens. Happy zebra to a den just 500 meters away from their first one, a little further from the road and a little more tucked into the valley between two broad hills. Perhaps it is a little more private from the many steps of the wildebeest? North has moved down closer to the river to a den that is surrounded with thick nyazi grass with a few ideal flat open patches for socializing. Neither clan has to move far to hunt and feed now, food is on their door steps and even the males and subadults are fat. All the tracks are dry making it easy to travel to each corner of the territory but this time of year it is not necessary. Wells are starting to get low and eyes search the sky, wondering if those clouds blowing in will bring the rain here. Weather is very localized in the Mara - it may rain at the oloololo gate and be bright and sunny at the south gate on the same day.
Photo: Log Cabin (adult) and George Costanza (cub) with a carcass at the den.
Photo: The mara river, viewed from above.

A genet has shown his face in camp, being so bold as to approach the lab tent while we sit at the table with the light on. He briefly meets our gazes, ascertains that we do not have any food and continues on his way down to the kitchen tent. He has no luck down there either and we see him skirting the trees and disappearing into the darkness. During the day banded mongooses and dwarf mongooses befriend us, scurrying throughout camp and occasionally attempting to get into trouble. I don't mind them for it means that we will not see any snakes in camp while they are there. We did have a black mamba in camp last week, just a glimpse of twisting black flesh in the grass and leaves as it continued on its way through the woods.

The elephants have left now that the migration is here. They do not care for the thousands of noisy wildebeest invading their home and they have gradually disappeared from the area, slipping away quietly without a backwards glance in a way that one would not think to associate with creatures the size of elephants. I have learned that elephants have a unobtrusive manner about them that somehow causes them to blend into the background such that you hardly see them until they flick an ear or turn their heads and you catch a glimpse of white tusk. Unless it is night time and you rudely interrupt the herd as they cross the road. Then elephants are the scariest and most dangerous thing in the Mara as they flare their ears and raise their trunks to trumpet their anger at your noisy intrusion into their quiet lives. 
Photo: Log Cabin (adult) and George Costanza (cub) relaxing early one morning.

The youngest little black cubs are starting to get their spots and show their faces to the rest of the world. While their mothers sleep by the den holes they boldly step a few meters away then run, trip, and tumble back. They are quite the curiosity to other hyenas who steal careful glances at the mother and then gently lick and play with the newest member of the clan. The males have started showing up around the den more often too, perhaps drawn by the females whose cubs are graduating or perhaps with full bellies they just have more time on their hands (paws). Matings and immigrations (of new males from other clans) tend to peak around the migration. They too show high curiosity towards the cubs but the adult females are quick to chase them off if they get too close and then the cubs join in the chase as if it's a game - keep the males away! 
Photo: Ypsilanti (left) cautiously approaches Log Cabin (right) and George Costanza (cub). 

At night I've been zipping up my tent tight, no longer allowing the gentle night breeze to sooth my dreams. Nights are chill now and I pull on sweatpants, a long sleeve shirt, and pile on the blankets. Waking in the darkness at 5:15am is hard, and putting my feet down on the floor of my tent in the cold night air is difficult. But when I unzip my tent to step outside and relieve myself in the woods the gentle scent of forest in the morning fills my senses and I scan with my light quickly (looking for eyes) while the smells and sounds of the Mara invigorate me. By breakfast time I have peeled off my layers and retreated to the shade of the lab tent. Still- no rain.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science