Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Teen Moms and Koi's Female Army

Eremet (Pike's daughter) and Pike with their four little black cubs. Chakram and Trebuchet (Pike's cubs) are the front most and back most cubs with the white eyebrows. Spyro and Falkor (Erem's cubs/Pike's grandcubs) are the two smaller black cubs in between Chak and Treb (nursing from Eremet). 
It’s cub season now and all three clans have very active communal dens. Most of the cubs are around 3 months old now and are showing their spots as well as their personalities. This year Koi, Happy Zebra Clan's former alpha, would have been the grandmother to 2-4 new cubs and the great grandmother to 5-7 new cubs if she hadn’t been killed by a lion a few years ago. When Pike took the matriarchy after her mother’s death she started a tradition of teen moms or “babies having babies” as we’ve been calling it. Most female hyenas won’t have cubs until they’re over 3 years old and many not until they’re 4 or 5 (lower ranking hyenas tend to wait longer before having their first cubs). Pike was only 3 years old when she took the matriarchy and she already had two cubs Boomerang and Katana when she was 2 years old.

Arbalet, Boomerang, and Boomerang's two new 3-4 week old cubs RumG and Plank. 
KOI - f (died 02Jun11)
            PIKE (30Oct07) – f
                        TREB (09Dec13) - ?
                        CHAK (09Dec13) - ?
                        CLAY (23Jan13) – f
                        ARBA (26Sep11) – f
                                    TULA (?) - ?
                        EREM (26Sep11) – f
                                    SPYR (22Dec13) - ?
                                    FLKR (22Dec13) - ?
                        BOOM (16Feb10) – f
                                    RUMG (14Nov13) - ?
                                    PLNK (14Nov13) - ?
                                    SWAG (23Oct12) – m
                                    JLYR (23Oct12) – f
                        KATA (16Feb10) – m
            SNAP (30Oct07) – f
                        MOJI (5Nov12) – f
            COEL (31Aug10) – f

Above: The linear hierarchy for Happy Zebra clan (only showing Koi’s descendants). Birthdays are in parentheses followed by sex. Offspring are tabbed once underneath their mothers. 

Boomerang and Plank.
Now, at 6 years old she has already had five cubs, four girls and one boy. Her son Katana (now 4 years old) is in the process of dispersal and we’ve seem him hanging out with both south and north hyenas. Katana’s littermate Boomerang was our second teen mom, giving birth to two cubs when she was 2 years old. This year she’s 3 and already has another two cubs who are growing up big and strong. Boomerang’s younger sisters are also, to our amazement following tradition, teen moms for the first time this year. Eremet has two cubs and Arbalet has one.

Plank, Boomerang's cub, was very explorative from a very young age.
Claymore, Pike’s youngest daughter at 1 year old, seems very confused by the sudden switch from being the baby of the family to almost completely ignored. Her two older sisters Arbalet and Eremet used to be her constant playmates and with Pike as her mother she was the clan’s princess. Now her mother and older sisters all have new babies. Most hyena cubs nurse for over a year, but Pike’s family seems to have no problem getting more than enough to eat and all of them are having new cubs every
year, meaning Clay was actually weaned at a little less than one year old. She doesn’t seem too happy but Clay has plenty to eat, just no more milk.

Boomerang carrying Plank back to the den. 
For comparison to Pike’s “baby making machine” family her take a look at her littermate Snapper and her younger sister Coelacanth. Snapper in this same time period has had only one surviving cub, Mojito. Coel finally had her first two cubs this year but we're not sure they survived. We also think Snapper has new cubs this year but we haven’t seen them yet. If I were to post the entire linear hierarchy for the entire clan you would see that Koi’s descendants make up almost half the clan! Considering their high rate of reproduction in the last 4 years this isn’t surprising.

Boomerang nursing RumG and nuzzling Plank. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Routine and Adventure

A while ago, a balloon pilot friend and I were talking about routine.  We were talking about how most balloon pilots don’t seem big on routine and love adventure.  Then he said that researchers must have a routine, and I replied, “Well, sort of, but it’s never the same.”  How is routine never the same?  I’ve been thinking about that conversation a lot since then.

Everyday, our general schedule is wake up to go out on obs at 5:30, observe the hyenas till about 9am, return to camp and eat breakfast, work and do camp chores during the day, go out for evening obs at 5pm, observe the hyenas again until about 8:30, return to camp and eat dinner, and go to bed.  We do this general thing everyday of the week.  It sounds simple, but it rarely is. 

There are surprises that don’t change the routine much if at all.  For instance, I can be sitting at the same seat every morning for breakfast.  You would think you would see the same view every day, but you don’t.  Sometimes we’ll see an elephant crossing the plain in front of camp, dwarf mongooses working up the courage to try to steal some peanut butter, warthogs walking up to us to snort for our leftover vegetables, zebras grazing by my tent, etc.   The following pictures are all taken from our dining table at Serena.

Some of our warthog breakfast companions

Zebra by my tent

Dwarf mongoose eating a banana

Driving down our driveway after obs, we don’t expect to see much of anything besides antelope, but then there are those days when you have a lion or a rhino in the “front yard.” 

Lion at the bottom of our driveway in Serena

But most of the time, none of these things are there.  There are the extremely rare and amazing surprises, like when you’re driving the same path you take everyday, and all the sudden a leopard appears right outside your window!  Those experiences are so unusual, they just take your breath away.

These events don’t actually alter our routine any, but they definitely make it so much more interesting.  Other occurrences can radically change our schedule though.  Usually it’s cars that make us completely drop everything and deal with them, rather than following our usual schedule. 

There are things that we do frequently enough for the cars that should be simple, but because we’re in Kenya, the chores run on their own time or some strange twist occurs.  For instance, you can go get petrol for the cars and be stopped by tourists to take awkward photos shaking hands.  Or, you can go to pick up car parts from the airstrip one day, but they weren’t put on the plane, the next day the plane forgot to unload them, and finally they get sent to the wrong airstrip, but your great Kenyan friends drive out to get them for you…Even car parts have adventures flying around the Mara.  If you have to go into down after a tire puncture on obs, you may have to explain to everyone why there is a fake hyena in the back of the car before they will fix the puncture.

People exclaiming about us having a fake hyena in the back of the car while changing our tire in Talek town.

Cars are so important to us; they’re necessary for us to go out on obs and follow our plan.  They’re so crucial that one of the rules in the Research Assistant Manual is always drive with the windows down so that you can immediately be aware if something breaks.  When (not if) something breaks, we have to drop everything and get the car fixed.  This leads to us spending whole days with the mechanics and not doing our routine work.  There are the rare, awful for us animal-obsessed researchers, occasions when we can’t go out on obs at all because there is something wrong with all of the cars.  Other times, everything is working until you drive into an unseen mud hole you can’t get out of after all the tour cars that can help pull you out have left the park…then your plans change from going home for dinner and bed to spending the night in the car in the middle of the Mara until a balloon tractor can pull you out in the morning.

Tractor to the rescue! You really can't see what we got stuck in...

To me though, the worst change in the routine happens when you find out a hyena is dead.  Sometimes you find it on obs, sometimes you get a call from someone and get a pit in your stomach because you don’t want to know who was found dead; we get to know all of our hyenas really well.  When there is a dead hyena, we have to drop everything, ID it if it is one from one of our study clans, and then perform a necropsy and collect the skull.  All of this is time consuming to say the least, but it’s also emotionally draining but interesting to see something’s insides.

Basically, there is always something that can pop up in our daily routine that is out of the ordinary.  I find myself frequently saying, “Always an adventure,” when I’m out here.  There is so much that can change or happen at any given time whether it’s a hunt, a rare animal, an engine explosion, an unexpected hole, a surprise storm, a shower gone awry, or any other thing you can (or can’t) imagine.  Everyone who has been out here has their own crazy stories.  We come to expect nothing to go as planned; so maybe that is our routine?  Our “routine” always is an adventure.

Monday, February 10, 2014

February is hatari time with hyenas

This is what Philimon told us at the beginning of the month. Hatari means danger or dangerous in Swahili, and Philimon was explaining how the hyenas can be naughty this time of year.

The migration has moved on, and the rains are (theoretically) over; so there is a lot less prey in the area. This means that the hyenas are having to look harder for food. We can see their GPS points clustering around the trash pit in Serena or town in Talek; human scraps can be easy pickings.

The hyenas also come into camp more and can get into trouble... hence, this is what happened to Philimon's chair the other night. 

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Life can be hard for a hyena cub.

Watching cubs at the den isn't always fun and games; Clever was a rather depressed cub yesterday morning! Her brother Shooter, wasn't letting her nurse from their mom T-Rex at all. First she went and moped on top of mom (above), but T-Rex was too tired to give her second cub much affection. So Clever went and curled up with Jude (below), a young subadult female who has been spending a lot of time at the den playing with the cubs. 
It was awfully cute how sad Clever looked curling up with Jude, but it was also a reminder of how tough life can be for a hyena cub! T-Rex is a young mom and this is her very first litter. That both cubs have made it to 9 weeks is quite impressive, especially since T-Rex has been lame on her front left leg for over a month! Usually siblings are best buds and Shooter and Clever play quite happily with each other when they aren't nursing. At first it looked like Shooter was being really mean to not let his sister nurse, but it's more likely that T-Rex simply didn't have enough milk for the two of them at the moment. 

We have over twenty new cubs between the three clans we study in Serena, and though I really want all of them to survive I know that a large proportion of them won't. Watching these nursing troubles between Clever and Shooter is a strong reminder of how tough life can be for a hyena.

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