Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Stripey Snack!

We had a very big morning the other day.  We had plans to go check on a sick hyena in Happy Zebra territory.  On the way there, we were waylaid by our Serena North clan.  It almost seemed like they killed this zebra right on the road to keep us from getting to Happy Zebra on time.  Maybe they wanted a little more attention and were feeling lonely for their local hyena researchers.  Whatever the reason, their plan worked.  We stuck around and watched them feeding until everyone was fat and happy.

Wailing Wall is the smaller subadult with beautiful spots and Katana (a son of Happy Zebra's alpha female, who immigrated to Serena North when he was old enough) is the big fat guy that walks off with a leg to save for later.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Serena Camp Wageni

Having camp wageni (swahili for "guests") is always a fun change of pace for Fisi Camp. My family visited me in camp for Christmas, and showing new people the Mara and all of our hyenas reminds me how exciting it is that I get to live here for a year. 

Lately, however, camp has had a lot of uninvited guests, some more destructive than others. 

I'll start with the welcome guests. We were lucky enough to see this cheetah kill and eat a baby impala in our driveway not too long ago.

Willamina, an adult female warthog, has been hanging out in camp a lot.

Willamina taking a nap underneath the kitchen tent tarp

Not all guests make for fun animal sightings though. Quite a few animal visitors have been disrupting camp and work lately. Faithful blog followers might remember the baby buffalo that wandered into camp last month. Well, the night after Heidi posted that blog, that baby buffalo was killed and eaten by our North hyenas about 100 meters from camp. Heidi heard the kill at around 11pm and the carnage continued to about 6:30am the next day, keeping us in our tents and unable to go out on obs.

The kitchen tent has gotten a beating lately as well. A leopard climbed a tree right next to the tent, and then jumped down on top of the tent, breaking the pole that holds up the tarp and roof and collapsing the whole tent. Just after Philomen and Jorgi managed to repair that, hyenas ripped a hole in the side of the kitchen tent and ate all of our fresh, homemade bread. Philomen believes that Waffles, our North matriarch is teaching her 1 year old cubs, Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Buttersworth, how to raid camp for food and water now that the migration is over and the gnu have moved out. 

Leopard claw marks on the tree next to the kitchen tent

A baboon troupe has also been making trouble for Serena camp. One large male baboon in particular has gotten quite good at sneaking into the kitchen and lab tents. He managed to steal a tomato and an onion a few days ago, along with a fancy bar of chocolate.

The baboon, scoping out the kitchen tent
One of the coolest camp visitors, at least from the perspective of a fisi researcher, happened on a morning after a big rain, when we were staying in from obs. I was woken by loud hyena screams at around 7:00. I immediately thought of the time lions, hyenas, and hippos rampaged through Serena camp, flattening several tents and keeping the RAs under their beds to escape the destruction. These hyenas didn't do nearly as much damage to camp, but they did run between all the tents, waking all of us up. There were three hyenas chasing each other through camp. One was very aggressively chasing and biting a hyena that was squealing, continually submissing, and trying to run away. Despite the fact that the hyena was acting completely submissive, the aggressor did not let up and by the time they ran out of camp the submissive one had a large neck wound and was bleeding quite heavily. Ypsilanti, an adult male, was frantically running circles around them the whole time, but didn't join in the aggressions. Unfortunately, I was too surprised and asleep to ID the other hyenas, but it was the most aggressive behavior I have seen in hyenas in my six months in the Mara. Luckily, Chris Dutton, from the Yale Mara water project (you can read more about the project here!), who lives right next to us, managed to catch some of the noise and fighting on video. While it is too far away to ID the hyenas involved you can see some wrestling and running around, as well as hear how distressed the submissing hyena is.

Blood spatter left behind by the attacked hyena

Friday, December 26, 2014

Christmas evening at a hyena den

Holidays are some of the busiest and most joyful times of the year for mothers, as they work to create the Christmas Day magic anticipated by their children.  They are also some of the most exhausting.  It's easy to see why mothers are looking for a moment of quiet at the end of the day.

I imagine hyena mothers have those same yearnings for a few minutes peace.  Here is a Christmas video of Wrangler (mother) trying to sleep while her two small black cubs and another cub, Slowpoke, play on and around her.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sounds of Kenya: Hyena holidays

It’s the holiday season, and the air is filled with sounds: family dinners, fireworks, caroling, singing, late night gatherings…at least for most of you. For us and the hyenas, things are a little different. While the hyenas aren’t celebrating any religious holiday or the end of another year, they are certainly making quite a racket! Here are some recordings of what our holiday season sounds like. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Merry Vultures

The Christmas season is upon us, and what better way to celebrate with beloved pictures of vultures? Similar to hyenas, these species are often, to put it lightly, distrusted and hated. Unlike hyenas however, vultures are not exactly the cutest specimens...Therefore, to spread awareness and overall holiday cheer, I present some Mara vultures.

A black-backed jackal digs into a carcass whilst Gypsii vultures stand cautiously nearby.

We get a chance to see these guys when we find a dead animal. It may sound less than glamorous, but I personally enjoy the feasting of dead ungulate. We typically see six species of bird in the Talek part of the Mara (listed in terms of feeding hierarchy, aka who’s the boss): the Lappet-faced vulture, the Rüppell’s vulture (also known as Griffin vulture), the white-backed vulture, the hooded vulture, the tawny eagle, and the Marabou stork.

A Lappet-faced vulture rules the roost, you could say.
Gypsii vultures, aka white-backed and Griffin vultures. The Griffen have the yellow-ish beaks.

The hooded vulture 
The gorgeous/weak tawny eagle
A chatty Marabou stork voices some important thought.
If hyenas are eating, the vultures look on cautiously from a safe distance of at least a meter. However, if only one or two hyenas are feeding, the vultures showcase their bravery by jumping at the meat while the hyenas ward them off with snarls and lunges. Otherwise, the birds wait until the hyenas have their fill and then they dive in. Interestingly enough, there is a vulture species hierarchy. The Lappet-faced (the big creepy ones with pink heads) have first dibs. They typically use their strong bills to break open the carcass, preferring to eat the hard tissues like cartilage (the ears are quite tasty apparently), tendons, or even bones. After they have gorged, the Gypsii vultures take their turn. This genus of vultures contains the Rüppell's and the white-backed. They prefer the soft tissues like the fat, muscles, and inner organs. In fact, the Rüppell’s and white-backed will often wait for Lappets to crack open that tough carcass outer hide. But, if the Lappets are really late, the Rüppell’s and the white-backed are sometimes forced to break through more sensitive areas of the body, the eyes or anus. Hooded vultures eat next, and lastly, the tawny eagles eat. I’m not sure where the Marabou storks fit into this hierarchy, but from personal observation I mostly notice them meandering around the carcass while everyone else eats.
Bon appétit!

Additionally, Gypsii (Rüppell and white-backed) vultures have been found to follow tawny eagles to carcasses. Most of the time, eagles are the first to find a dead hunk of meat while the vultures instead scan the skies for their competitors. Because the vultures are the dominant species, they can arrive fashionably late and still kick a tawny eagle off the dead carcass before you can say, “let’s tear open that wildebeest’s anus!” Tawny eagles also have a stronger bill, which can dig through an ungulate hide, whereas vultures act more as scroungers (Kane et al. 2014). So unfortunately for the eagles, though they may open the carcass, the vultures tend to get more of the meat.

A white-backed vulture giving the death stare and marching.
If you would like to watch vultures devour a dead wildebeest (no shame, everyone at Fisi camp does) then click play on the attached video. If you just ate lunch, you may want to pass.

Some of this information came from the following source, however a lot was relayed to me by a wonderful RA out here, Wilson Kilong, who worked on a vulture project before studying hyenas. Thanks Wilson, you’re the best!

Kane, A., Jackson, A.L., Ogada, D.L., Monadjem, A., McNally, L. 2014. Vultures acquire information on carcass location from scavenging eagles. Proc. Royal Society. 281: 1793.

Sexed, the un-sexed and the mis-sexed

When new cubs are born, one of our first tasks is to “sex” it (which is to say—distinguish if it is male or female). It seems quite obvious—look at the genitals! But it is never quite that easy with hyenas…

Because one of these hyenas is girl.
Yes it is true! Females have male looking genitals or a pseudopenis. However, a female’s pseudopenis is more round at the tip as well as lacks constriction toward the tip. We use this queue as our main objective to “sex” newly born cubs. Often, hyenas are mis-sexed as the former description can be somewhat “subjective”.  

FUZZ was one such hyena. Originally, former RAs had sexed cub FUZZ as a male. Only years later did we see FUZZ have nursing nipples and a torn phallus (evidence of birth). Sadly, FUZZ’s first cubs did not survive which is often the case for first time mothers. But cheer up because FUZZ has had cubs again!

In order to mitigate mis-sexing, we sex each hyena from birth 3 separate times. If we sex a hyena the same 3 times in a row we will designate it that sex. With hope, good binoculars, and some scrutiny we will sex FUZZ’s cubs correctly.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Like your puppy at home?

(A blog post from Lily Johnson-Ulrich)

I’ve been back in the US for over six months now and I miss the field like crazy. Though work here in Michigan is fun, it isn’t the same as waking up to little hyena cubs romping around every day. I’ve been spending a lot of time going through my photos of the cubs and I remember how strikingly similar hyenas can be to dogs (or at least the cubs are to pups). I don’t have my own dog but I have quite a few doggy nieces and they certainly remind me of hyenas sometimes too-especially when they’re chowing down on a piece bone and carrying bones around like little trophies. Hyena cubs play just like puppies do, they love chasing sticks and playing tug of war with sticks and they love climbing on and chewing on anything they can get their teeth into (including the land cruisers as most of you have heard about).

One of our graduate students' dog, with a squirrel kill

Photo: Lily J-U
FYRE, BARI, RANG playing. Photo: Lily J-U

This similarity isn’t superficial and isn’t just us humans projecting dog-like qualities on our research subjects or hyena-like qualities onto our pets, but dogs and hyenas aren’t actually very closely related. Hyenas are in the Feliformia half of the carnivore family and are more closely related to cats than dogs (dogs are in Caniformia). Dogs and spotted hyenas do exhibit many similar traits, which in evolutionary biology, is called convergent evolution. Convergent evolution happens when two completely unrelated species independently evolve similar traits presumably as a response to facing similar environmental pressures. 

Hyenas and dogs have both evolved skulls and jaws specialized for crushing bones. In addition, hyenas and wolves have similar hunting styles, as endurance hunters. Though not incredibly fast at a sprint, they can easily run their prey to exhaustion in order to bring them down. This hunting style is also called cursorial hunting

When dogs became domesticated however, they seemed to lose their hunting ability, or perhaps hunting large prey was no longer necessary. For many years the general assumption was that humans purposely domesticated dogs from wolf pups in order to use them as hunting partners. Recently a different hypothesis for the domestication of dogs has come to some prominence. This is the self-domestication hypothesis which was put forth by Brian Hare (2012). It claims that dogs self-domesticated from wolves because being less aggressive towards humans was an advantage by allowing dogs to take advantage of a novel food source: human trash. 

The bone-crunching ability of dogs was probably a useful adaptation for surviving on human trash and leftovers and hyenas seem to be following the same path. In the city of Harar, Ethiopia hyenas feed on trash inside and outside the walls of the city. In Harar they are believed to eat bad spirits and are not just accepted but actually fed meat every night by two families.  
Man feeding hyenas trash. Harar, Ethiopia
In the hyena lab a lot of the graduate students, including me, are really interested in the effect of human disturbance on wild spotted hyenas. In the Maasai Mara National Reserve one clan that we study, the Talek clan, is the largest hyena clan on record. Their territory overlaps that of a growing Maasai town and many clan members certainly seem to be taking advantage of the human trash in the area.

Since dogs and hyenas already exhibit convergent evolution, I think hyenas could provide a modern model of the pressures that dogs faced as they were self-domesticating and possibly provide some new insights into just how the self-domestication process may have happened. Domestication takes a long time to happen naturally however and there isn’t evidence to suggest that hyenas will ever become domesticated. However, spotted hyenas are the most abundant and successful large carnivore in Africa and part of the reason for this fact seems to be their ability to cope with human-disturbance.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Lost and Found

While our eyes can be the most useful tool when it comes to finding and identifying a hyena; collars also help us in our search for Talek West fisi (hyena) in the field. With the help of collars and tracking equipment we are able to locate hyenas by using both GPS coordinates and our tracking equipped car.

A couple of mornings ago however we ran into a bit of a dilemma. We found a collar but no hyena!

 It seems like this collar has been through a lot. The battery box has been torn to shreds along with some pieces of the strap. We found this collar a couple of meters away from one of our active den sites. It is an old VHF collar. We think that it may have belonged to either MoonPie (Talek West female) or Dublin (Talek West male). Each collar comes with its on frequency and we program that number into the receiver once the hyena is collared so that we are able to track it. I think we are going to have a bit of a hard time figuring out who this collar belonged to. Recently we have started to write the frequency on the inside of the collar which helps us identify who the collar belongs to. This collar however does not have the frequency written on it; this along with the state of the collar creates an interesting task for us here.

 A comparison between a working GPS collar and the one we found. The fancy GPS collar has put this one to shame!

We have two types of collars VHF and GPS. Most of out adult females wear VHF collars and both the natal and immigrant males are equipped with GPS collars.

Stay tuned for my next blog for more information and details on collars and how they aid us in the field. Hopefully we can figure out who this collar belonged to. My vote is for MoonPie!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Things Hyenas Survive

In the natural world, it is survival of the fittest.  We see a ton of crazy animal injuries out here:  various antelope missing horns; lots of limps; zebras with misaligned stripes, clearly due to barely slipping out of the grasp of a lion’s claws; and lions gored by warthogs.  None of these come close to comparing to the crazy injuries that we have witnessed hyenas surviving.

Hyenas are tough, REALLY tough.  They have an amazingly impressive immune system and we don’t even yet fully understand how it works as well as it does.  Most hyenas carry the antibodies for rabies.  This means that they contracted and fought of the disease, but we don’t ever see them come down with symptoms and start acting rabid.  Canine distemper, a particularly nasty virus, does not appear to bother hyenas much.  While epidemics are decimating lions and wild dogs, we only have a few hyenas go missing.  We also know that they can eat anthrax.  Anthrax! 

Like I said, hyenas are REALLY tough.  This blog is devoted to all the things that we have seen hyenas survive.

Kay loves to tell us the story of her favorite hyena, Cochise, and how she survived being bitten on the nose by a cobra.  As Cochise stumbled out of sight into the bushes, Kay thought she would never see her again.  Less than a week later, Cochise was spotted looking perfectly healthy and completely recovered.

We all know about Navajo.  She has survived 22 years of tough living.  I mean, just look at her:

Navajo, surviving life, one day at a time
Moon Pie survived being kicked in the face.  Her jaw was very clearly broken, she couldn’t eat, and we watched her get skinnier and skinner for weeks.
Moon Pie: Her face so swollen her right eye is shut
We thought for sure she wouldn’t make it, but the swelling went down and we knew she was out of the woods when we saw her stripping meat off of a fresh carcass that another hyena had taken down.  The offset of her jaw, once fully healed, is a testament to how bad the injury was and how tough she was for pulling through.

Moon Pie, looking skinny but all healed up
We have had a couple cubs survive orphaning.  Our most recent tough little survivor, Cyberman, is still going strong, despite losing her mom to one of the worst hyena poisonings in project history when she was only seven months old (hyenas usually rely on mom’s milk until they are at least twelve months old). 

Hyenas also survive a crazy number of intense physical injuries.  
Peebles with a nasty-looking gash on her head
Harpy, in addition to having a huge goiter-like growth on her neck, has some awfully painful looking scars.
Harpy's goiter and some impressive scars
More scars on Harpy's left side
Snares are a common, nasty injury for hyenas, especially in places where poaching is prevalent.  Hyenas often get caught in snares meant for other animals.  They usually manage to escape the snare’s tether, but then they are stuck with an ever-tightening loop around their neck.  Eventually, the snare cuts into their neck, creating an open festering wound that can cut off the wind pipe or make it impossible to swallow chunks of meat.

An old Talek West male, Oakland, survived one such snare.  The snared worked its way into his skin and was imbedded there.  We darted him, in an attempt to remove the snare, but it the wound had healed over and it was too deep to safely remove.  The snare has remained there ever since.  When Oakland whoops, you can hear the snare resting on and interfering with his vocal cords.

In contrast with Oakland, Bruno’s snare was NOT healing over.  When we darted him, it was an open, festering wound that circled his neck. 
Bruno's snare

Another close up
Some close-ups of Bruno's snare

Removing the snare

Luckily, (and as a testament to how tough hyenas are) Bruno is looking great these days.  You can still see the hole in his windpipe, but otherwise he seems right as rain.

In case you didn't believe me before, I bet you do now.  Hyenas lead a rough life and they have to be REALLY tough to survive it.  It's no wonder they occur in so many habitats, adjust reasonably well to human presence, and are not declining like many other large African carnivores.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science