Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Learning about spots

As a new research assistant, I have been given the very overwhelming task of learning all the hyenas. This definitely takes some time! The trick is to find some distinctive spots on each side of every hyena. This is definitely easier said than done. And, of course, some days the hyena is fat or skinny or muddy or just having a really pale day, and then everything you think you know goes out the window (or at least that is how the new RA feels!).
This is Gummy who is one of Saur's cubs.
This is Tula. Her mom is Arba, a member of Pike's army.
My favorite hyenas to learn are the cubs, and they are probably the easiest to learn because we spend so much time at the dens. Meet Gummy (Gummy Bear). She has awesome spots. Now what I mean by “awesome spots” is that she has lots of unique spots that I can pick from and use to id her. On her left side she has a candy cane shape with three short lines to the right of it. The bottom two lines are each composed of two dots. This is what I use to id her when I see her left side though other people might see something slightly different. Now you see a bit of an 8 shape on her shoulder? Solely using that would be a bit of a rookie mistake. Lots of hyenas have that pattern or something similar to it. Learning what is unique and what is not is part of what takes time.

Tula is another cub with great spots. Her name is short for tarantula. If you look at her shoulder you may see an X shape, but what I see is a spider shape which fits her name perfectly! With so many patterns to match to names this connection is amazing! (Also note the 8 shape on her shoulder...)

Mim (Man in the Mirror) is a young cub who has just lost his black. When this happens, the first clear spots that show up are shoulder spots. I was really excited to see this great star shape on his shoulder!
This is Thriller at 2.5 months with his shoulder spots.

Mim's brother, Thriller, also has great spots. He has some widely spaced shoulder arches.

Now that he has lost all his black you can see a squiggle on his lower shoulder a dark sideways V shape on his side. Perfect!!
This is Thriller at 3.5 months after he has lost his black.

Unfortunately youngsters hit a fluffy stage… During this time, it becomes really hard to see the separate spots because things just mush together.

Gummy has already started to get fluffier… The candy cane now looks more like a heart or part of a circle…

A recent picture of Gummy at 5.5 months old.
This is Star. He is a fluffy 1.5 year old sub-adult. 
Star is so spotty, but with all the fluff his spots just disappear. Fortunately he is always hanging out with his mom Taj!

This is Euchar who is just a bit over a year old.
Thankfully, they eventually out grow this phase and their spots reappear! Then they are no longer the bane of the new RA's existence. These sub-adults and young adults tend to have the brightest, most beautiful spots. However, as the hyenas age their spots fade. Our oldest ladies have very faded spots which can make them hard to id. Fortunately, these old ladies have plenty of other characteristics including leg spots which become very important. Leg spots are more important than I ever would have imagined and are super helpful in id-ing any hyena particularly old, muddy, fluffy, or sacked out hyenas.

This is Arrow. She is a North hyena. 
Arrow's spots are somewhat faded, but you see that curve of dots on her upper right front leg with another curve to the right of them? I have used this so many times to id her.

This is Big Bad Wolf. (Photo credit: Hyena ID Folder)
As you can see, most of Big Bad Wolf's side spots are faded, but her leg spots are nice and clear! 

Meet Kneesocks! (Photo credit: Hyena Id Folder)
One pattern I use is the sideways V on Kneesocks's right hind leg. She has an eye shape on her other side.

So hyenas go from black with invisible spots to having great clear spots to fluffy with hard to see spots to amazing spots. These amazing spots gradually fade. However, there is so much individual variation. Some hyenas just have really pale spots or have spot patterns that are not unique.

I could fill so many more posts discussing spots! I pretty much eat, sleep, dream hyena spots! While, I still have a ways to go, over the last few months, I have really enjoyed learning everybody's spots and getting to know them as individuals. It is very satisfying to just look at a hyena and know who it is!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Talek West Tragedy

We’ve been living a nightmare these past several days. Someone poisoned a carcass in Talek West territory, and we’ve lost four hyenas that we know of so far, which are in addition to Honey, Idi, and Endor, who were poisoned last week outside the reserve. This second poisoning happened relatively close to the den, but we never found the carcass itself.

Blanket was the first casualty. Hadley and Benson found him dead at the end of morning obs. He had a sticky pink substance coming out of his anus, and was bleeding from his mouth, nose and eyes. When they brought his body back to camp, it looked like he was crying blood. The necropsy was fascinating in a very awful way; whatever they used to poison him was a disturbingly potent substance. The flies that landed on Blanket began to die, littering the ground around him with their twitching bodies. His internal organs, especially the liver, were discolored, and had a blotchy, irritated look to them. The inside of his stomach contained the remains of a calf that looked like it had been doused in a pink substance the color of pepto bismol.

Then, while we were still reeling from Blanket’s death, we got a call that there were more dead hyenas. I had been hoping we might get a day or so before other bodies turned up, or that maybe the calf in Blanket’s stomach was too small to kill many others, but there’s practically no way to kill only one animal with poison. This is because poison is indiscriminant and creates a huge amount of collateral damage. What I have been told is that usually, when a herder poisons a carcass, it kills scores of hyenas, a few lions, lots of jackals and vultures, and even domestic dogs. What is even more concerning is that the flies that died around Blanket clearly demonstrate that this poison remains deadly even after it is consumed, which means that it can spread secondarily to an even broader swath of the ecosystem. To add another level of concern, when an animal is poisoned, it seeks out water to drink. This means that they can also spread the poison to an aquatic ecosystem, which in an area where most people get their drinking water from rivers could actually end up harming humans as well. The probable and potential effects of a poisoning event are extremely serious and disturbingly wide reaching. So we knew after Blanket that there would be others, but we were still dreading what we would see.

As we drove towards the area where Hadley and Benson found Blanket, we saw a strange shape in a tree, a tangle of cream-colored wings sticking out at odd angles from the branches. As we drove up, we saw it was a dead tawny eagle hanging off its perch. Above it, there was another eagle that was panting and struggling to fly away. We managed to get the dead one out and when we looked at it, we saw pink goo oozing from its mouth and the stain of pink on its feet. Tawny eagles are a bit like vultures in that they will also congregate at a kill to eat the meat. In this case, that exposed them to the poison as well.

We had to climb on the car to get the tawny eagle out of the tree, and as we looked across the plain, we realized that there were more small bodies scattered across it, from a variety of species. Even before we got close to each of them, I felt a sense of horror seeing the scale of effect laid out before us.

After a half hour of collecting dead animals, our non-hyena casualty total was three tawny eagles, one vulture, and two jackals. We knew that there were probably many more that we would never find, because there was a dense lugga nearby that most of the dead animals would have sought out as they died.
Hadley photographs a dying Tawny Eagle that was killed secondarily after feeding on this Black-backed Jackal that died from ingesting poison

The first hyena we found that afternoon was Mousetrap. She’s a bossy young female with one of the most distinctive spot patterns of any hyena in the clan. She had just had her first cub, Earl Warren (Ewar for short), who is a rambunctious mischief-maker and is too young to survive without her. When we found Mousetrap, there were two strings of dried blood coming out of her nose, coated in dead flies, and the same telltale pink stains on her fur.
Mousetrap, as we found her

The next hyena was Xenon. She was another beautiful young first time mother. We had just finally confirmed seeing her nurse the night before, and hadn’t even given her cub a name yet. Her cub is also too young to survive without her. Later, when KWS vets were doing a post-mortem on her body, they found signs of internal hemorrhaging. Her lungs were full of blood, and her stomach held the remains of a calf that were stained an otherworldly neon pink and purple.

Wilson mentioned that some of the hyenas might try to get to the den as they were dying, so we made our way towards it. We found another hyena in the creek behind the den, deep in the bushes. It took us a while to get her out of the water, but when we laid her out we saw it was Obama. Obama is yet another first-time mother, and her cub Sycamore Fig is also too young to survive without her.

Finding Obama highlighted just how difficult it will be to know exactly how many animals were killed by this single event. If others also went into water surrounded by bushes, we may never find them.

The KWS vet team conducting their post-mortem on Xenon and the others
Despite the sincere concern expressed by those officials present at the post-mortem for Mousetrap, Xenon, and Obama, we were a little worried that no real action would be taken as a result of the poisoning. We were very wrong about that. The response has been overwhelming. The County Council blocked all livestock grazing in the reserve until the community brings them the person responsible. If nothing else, I hope this sends a strong message that poisonings are not an acceptable reaction to livestock predation and that hyenas are a valuable part of this ecosystem.

(Correction: Sycamore Fig is actually not Obama's first cub, but her second. Her first cub, Acacia, died when Obama got her snare.)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Muddy hyenas- the bane of hyena researchers.

Two young subadults playing in the mud. Ditches are a favorite spot for soaking in mud.

The rainy season has started in the Mara, although this is always a good thing for the ecosystem, it certainly makes doing hyena work much more difficult. We do a lot of off-road driving in order to find our hyenas but we have to be extremely careful to not leave tracks with the tires while we’re driving. It only takes about 6mm of rain for off-road driving to be a no-go. Luckily in the Mara Triangle the roads are very well maintained so there are certain parts of all three hyena clan territories that we can usually get to even when its wet. Despite good roads and tracks we’ve already gotten stuck twice now in our furthest territory. (The first time we had to jack up the cruiser and put some rocks underneath the tire and the second time we were able to maneuver the cruiser out).
I had no idea who this hyena was and they looked extremely smug about not contributing data to the research project.

Faces are not exempt from mud baths.

Once we arrive at a hyena den or find a group of hyenas we encounter an entirely different problem that the rainy season brings: muddy hyenas! Since we primarily use spots to ID hyenas the mud can be extremely frustrating. The hyenas love mud and they especially love to obscure the spot patterns that we use. On the hot sunny afternoons between evening rain showers the hyenas all seem to seek out muddy puddles where they can nap. Over the last year I’ve accumulated quite a few photos of unIDed muddy hyenas. If we’re lucky they have ear damage that we can use to identify them, but most of the time we can only guess.
George Costanza with caked mud all over his body. (Only IDable due to his size, he was the only small cub at the den.)

Perfect spot for a nap on a hot sunny day.

This cub was rolling in black-cotton mud. This mud is especially gooey and sticky. (He had a few shoulder spots on his other side so I can tell you this is BRON).

Two fluffy muddy cubs. This age is the hardest to ID because the fluff, even when they're clean, already obscures their spots. These two seemed quite perfectly camouflaged.

This hyena was covered in not just one type of mud, but two! Red murram and black cotton. She also seemed really itchy so I think she'd been trying out different mud holes in order to relieve the itching (from bug bites?)

Another unID. Happy as can be and not a spot in sight.

Buffalo also love the mud on hot sunny days. Surprisingly they are not adverse to sharing the good spots with hyenas. 

Bonus: Cute baby warthogs also like to get really muddy.

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