Friday, January 24, 2014

Serena's Dudes

In response to my post about Serena matriarchs Emily and I thought it would be a good idea to include a post about high ranking males, so we collaborated to write up this post about a few of Serena’s dudes.  When a male hyena first leaves his natal clan and joins a new clan he becomes the lowest ranking member, not only below all the females and their cubs, but also below all the other males (among the males rank is based on tenure). Joining a clan isn't easy though and many males spend many years alone. We see these males passing through our territories on occasion and every once in a while one of them sticks around. Eventually if a male survives long enough all the males that were there when he arrived will have left or died and he will find himself at the top (albeit still below all the females and their cubs). Here we profile the three highest ranking males in each territory. 
Leprechaun is the highest ranking male of north territory. Like most of the males in north clan he stays fairly distant from the drama of the clan. The north males are most often seen in trios, strolling around the territory, enjoying life. If we ever see Leprechaun at the den it’s usually a distance, but luckily Leprechaun’s face is extremely easy to identify (note the crease in his forehead below) so we never have to pause our observations at the den to drive after him.
Out of all the north males Leprechaun is very tough and smart. I saw him once underneath a tree where a leopard was hoarding an impala carcass. His patience paid off; when an impala hoof dropped from the tree he promptly picked it up and swallowed it whole. We know Leprechaun is an accomplished hunter because at carcass sessions he is usually quite bloody (since the highest ranking animals usually eat first, eating isn’t a good indication of who made a kill, how much blood is on an animal’s face however is). Overall we think his name is quite fitting, his angry facial expression, the rainbow of spots on his side, and his place as the highest-ranking immigrant male.

When I first arrived in Serena, Happy Zebra’s top ranking male was an ancient old dude named Pegleg. I only got one good look at him and he was easily identifiable by his facial expression. I think someone may have described it to me as a drooly expression. However it’s been 8 months since I’ve arrived in Serena and Pegleg hasn’t been seen in over 6 months (and though we usually wait a little longer to classify HZ animals as missing since it’s such a large territory) we’ve considered Jazz to be the top-ranking male for some time now.

The first time I ever got a really good look at Jazz, Happy Zebra’s extremely handsome top ranking immigrant male, was at Holy Grail Den. This is a rather unusual place to learn a male hyena’s spots because immigrant male hyenas aren’t typically tolerated the den (natal males often come to play with their younger siblings without any harassment). This was about the time that we had first seen Higgs Boson poking his head out of the den, Ojibway’s new cub.
When the other hyenas left the den Jazz cautiously approached and carefully stuck his head into each den hole, sniffing curiously. Julia, a graduate student, was about ready to MI in place of the absent hyena mothers! (MI stands for maternal intervention which is an aggression context we use when coding behaviors. When a lower-ranking hyena is sniffing or interacting with a cub, or a high-ranking animal is being too rough, a mother hyena will often aggress on that hyena partly in defense of the cub but also so that the cub can learn its rank in the hierarchy). Infanticide has not been documented in adult male hyenas but it made all of us nervous to see him walking around the den holes unsupervised. However, over the next few months it seems like our fear was unwarranted. Jazz is a very sweet, playful, and friendly father to all the cubs at the den, but it seems like he has a special affinity for Higgs, the cub it looked like he was searching for that first time I saw him show up at the den. 

Whether or not Jazz is Higg’s father is up for debate until we collect poop from Higgs that we can extract DNA from but Jazz has seems to have a special affinity for him and all the cubs. In fact because of Jazz it seems that we may need a knew aggression context: PI for paternal intervention. When Higgs was about 4 months old he was starting to wander away from the den a bit and a mid-ranking immigrant male named Ista was slowly approaching Higgs and sniffing at him. When Jazz noticed this he immediately chased Ista away from little Higgs and then returned to give Higgs a little sniff himself. 

South’s top ranking male is a very old and scruffy looking hyena named Venice, or Veni, for short (disclaimer: in the above photo his spots are showing up extremely well). Despite his scruffy appearance all the ladies absolutely love him and he seems to sire a dominant proportion of South’s cubs. Like a lot of south hyenas he barely has spots at all (hyena spots tend to fade as the hyena ages) making him both easy to ID and sometimes very frustrating. Though scruffiness is a good indication of a male hyena being Veni we have to be 100% certain in our IDs and the only way to do that is by matching spots. So though the lack of dark spots tips us off very quickly to the fact that this is 95% certainly Veni, we still have to peer through the scruff and be sure to match a few key spots in order to confirm that it’s him. Hyenas’ appearances can change on a daily basis depending on the color of the dirt they’ve been lying in, whether they’ve been swimming, how fat they are or whatever else it is that hyenas get up to that change the fluffiness and color of their coat. The only thing that stays constant are the spots and all other generalizations tend to be variable.  

Veni is generally well loved by the clan but his favorite female hyena is a lady named Marten, who usually seems to just barely tolerate his presence. It’s quite hilarious to see Veni trailing forlornly after Marten for hours, going ears back and keeping his head low, trying to be as submissive as possible (above he shows the submissive behavior open-mouth appeasement to Marten). Abruptly he’ll turn and go bristle tail to chase off other males before returning to his puppy-dog state as he follows his favorite girl. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The drama continues in Serena North

This morning it was really rainy and wet. When I arrived at the den there were no hyenas visible and I wondered if it was even worth it to go out. I decided, after sitting for 45min at an empty den waiting for some action, that I would just do a quick loop by the river and see if anyone was down there.

When I got down to the river road I found Tinsel, Hurricane and Oakridge with a topi carcass. A few minutes after I arrived, Sherman (who I thought was the new matriarch) loped up to the carcass and chased everyone else off. I hung around with Sherman for a little while until continuing on down the road. About 300m away I found Waffles, LogCabin and Torani (the royal family that had fallen in rank, we thought). Waffles and LogCabin were acting very excited and were bristle tail parallel walking while Torani loped around after them. They were headed towards the carcass so I decided to turn around and follow them. I arrived back at the carcass just as Waffles and her two kids were arriving. Instantly, I knew LogCabin and Waffles meant business. LogCabin didn't waste anytime before approaching the carcass and bite shaking Sherman. Waffles is a little bit more benevolent than her daughter so she let LogCabin do most of the roughing up.

After LogCabin and Waffles chased Sherman I had to take a long detour to follow them (it was too wet to just drive straight after them). When I arrived, Waffles was standing eating the carcass with LogCabin and Torani. Sherman was out of sight. It was so exciting to finally see a face off between Sherman and Waffles. I don't know if this actually means that Waffles is still the Serena North matriarch or it just means that things are still really unstable but Waffles isn't giving up her throne easily. If Sherman gets her daughter and her two granddaughters together Waffles and LogCabin may not be able to keep up for long.

As I was driving away from all the excitement I saw some hyenas on the other side of the river. These weren't any hyenas that we study but I sat and watched them check out a crocodile while hippos look on anyway. This morning once again reminded me how absolutely amazing hyenas are and that I must have one of the coolest jobs around.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science