Sunday, August 31, 2014

SOUNDS OF KENYA – Rain in my Tent

Kenya doesn’t have seasons, at least, not in the traditional American sense.  The Maasai Mara is nearly on the equator so the days don’t get longer or shorter and there is nothing you would call Spring, Summer, Fall, or Winter.  Instead, we have rainy seasons. 

During a typical year, there are two rainy seasons: One from November to January (short rains) and another from March to June, when we get long rains.  When the short rains arrive, we will get an intense, hard rain once a day, usually in the afternoon or evening.  If we’re lucky, the short rains will come in cycles and we may have a few days to a week break.  The grass gets lush and green but we are still able to go out on hyena observations (obs) when the ground dries out enough for driving.  During the long rains, it is almost always raining and we can end up stuck in camp for weeks at a time.

It’s not the rainy season, but we have had an unseasonal amount of rain in the Mara this August.  Unfortunately, anytime we get more than 6ml of rain we have to cancel obs and stay in camp.  If we get more than that, we have to assess whether we can go out the next morning or even the next evening.  A 20ml rain can shut us down for a day and a half.  If the ground is already wet from a previous rain, even 10ml can make us miss a couple obs.  The end result is that this August, we have been stuck in camp A LOT.  Instead of recording hyenas I have been listening to and recording the rain.  This is what a 55ml downpour sounds like when you live in a tent with a tarp above it:

Monday, August 18, 2014

Mom, Cubs, and Fur Answers

Hello Fisi readers!

I hope that you all have been working hard on aging the cubs from my last post. It’s finally answer time!

This hyena cub was named CHOBANI at the time this picture was taken. CHOBANI was the cub name given since we did not know who this cub’s mother was when he/she emerged the den (We’re still working on the sex of this cub). However, we were all pretty sure that this cub’s mom was YOGURT.  I’m sure that most of my yogurt lovers who read this can understand why we chose to name the cub CHOBANI. Once YOGURT was confirmed to be the mother, the cub was officially named LAZER. Now onto the aging!

LAZER has a fully black body but there are also white patches present around his eyes. These white patches are not the rings around the eyebrows characteristic of cubs 4-5 weeks old but larger. The patches are also beginning to spread to the other sections of his face. These features put LAZER in the latter part of the second stage giving him an age of 5-6 weeks.

The next hyena cub is BULMA. BULMA has what we call here at Fisi camp GREAT or AMAZING spots. His spots are very distinctive compared to the other cubs around the den. This makes him very easy to spot and identify.

The spots on BULMA’s shoulder and sides have appeared and are easily visible. He is not fluffy and the spots on his legs are not completely visible. The legs are mostly black. The short non- fluffy fur in addition to the black legs puts BULMA in the stage of 4-7 months. Since the spots along his sides and shoulders are completely visible and dark I would give him an age of 6-7 months. 

Last but not least is XENA. XENA is one of our interesting cases. When she was a cub she nursed from two different adult female hyenas; leaving us researchers with even more of a mystery to solve when it came to her age and maternal line.

XENA has long and fluffy fur. She is also pretty large in body size compared to the previous cubs. XENA’s features place her in the last stage. Her den graduation fur would give her an age of 8-9 months. 

How did you do? Do you think you would make it in the life of a Fisi researcher?!

Keep coming back to the blog for updates on your favorite hyenas and life at Fisi camp.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

SOUNDS OF KENYA: Vulture Scramble

In this line of work we see a lot of hyenas on carcasses.  If you stick around long enough, this leads to seeing a TON of vultures on carcasses.  Vultures here have amazing eyesight and are quickly clued in to a carcass by feeding carnivores, loping hyenas, and other vultures.  I have seen over thirty vultures arrive at a hyena den where there is only a small, meatless scrap.  They seemed to appear from out of nowhere, seemingly because they happened to sight other vultures swooping in.  They all waddled around very disappointed in the lack of available meat, but that didn't stop the bravest ones from approaching the den hole and trying to scare the cubs off of their carcass scrap toy.

At most kills, the vultures will fly in and wait patiently on the outskirts for the hyenas to finish.  Once enough hyenas move away from the kill though, they begin sneaking in to grab mouthfuls of meat.  A lone hyena on a kill will futilely attempt to chase the vultures off now and then, but its never long before they are sneaking back in.  Once the last hyena decides they've had their fill (either of meat or chasing vultures) and abandons the carcass, the vultures swarm over it, stripping every last bit of edible meat, tendon, and connective tissue from the carcass bones.

It looks a lot like this, but more frenetic:

And it sounds exactly like this:

Monday, August 11, 2014

Den Woes

Dens are my favorite places to sit at and do observations. I get to watch the cubs play, grow up, and learn. They start out as small funny looking but adorable black cubs who come out of the den so nervously and bob their heads up and down, smelling the air. Over the course of months, these cubs grow into bold, confident, fluffy cubs who strut up to the den and then leave the den whenever they want. They look so full of themselves (like any teenager). Don’t need mom! My favorite stage is when the cubs are still small but are very playful and are no longer worried about coming out of the den. Mom becomes their favorite jungle gym, and the moms are always so patient with them.
Jungle gym!! Hooker with her cubs Thriller and Mim (Man in the Mirror) and a smaller black cub. I couldn't resist putting these two pictures in. 
Thriller sitting on his mom!
But lately we have been having trouble getting to some of our dens… Our North clan has been denning in a cave! This is really cool but impossible to get to. The cave is near the top of a very steep, rocky hill. We can get within about 350m of the cave, and then there are just too many rocks. Our hyenas appear as distant specs, if you can even see them. When we look through our binoculars, we can see multiple adults and cubs of a variety of ages up there but that is about it. We have not seen the small den cubs in over a month. These include Deni (Dennis the Menace), Kath (Kathleen Hanna), Jett (Joan Jett), and Remi (Remington). I cannot wait for them to move dens. Last time we saw those four, Kath was the only one with spots. They are going to be so big and spotty!!! I hope they move soon!
Can you spot the black cub? The cub is just under the entrance to the den. (Photo credits: Emily Thomas)
Since February, our Happy Zebra clan had been at a very large den complex called Tigris Den. About a week and a half ago we showed up in the morning and nobody was there. That had never happened. We knew they must have moved dens, so we started driving the territory looking for a den or any hyenas. We did not see any hyenas anywhere except for one place. We were on one track and we could see them in the distance on a hill frolicking. The problem was we were separated by a large rock field and a lugga, a swampy area that was impassable. We have since been working on finding a track that might lead to this area and then figuring out the best areas to off-road drive in order to get to this particular hill and valley. We did it!! Unfortunately, we have still not been able to find the den. The four foot tall grass has been a major issue… , but we are happy that we are seeing hyenas.
We have seen them on the hill to the left and right and in the valley between the two hills. 
South clan is being the good clan at the moment and we are very thankful to them! They are all at this one lovely den called Artemis Den. Well, until a few weeks ago, I might not have called it lovely. It is surrounded by tall grass which the hyenas can easily slip into and become hard to find, but we can get to it!! And the wildebeest have been helpful in shortening the grass. It is wonderful to go to the den and see all the cubs. South has a large range of cubs of different ages. There are small cubs who we have not even seen yet. We just know they are there because their mom, Marten, is guarding this one den hole. Slinky’s cub has just started coming out of the den hole and is completely black. There are cubs that are just getting their spots (Gnug and Snug) and are starting to get really curious about the car. There are larger cubs (Reina and Four Eyes) who still live at the den and the largest cubs who we barely see at the den any more. It is a busy den!

Hopefully, our Northies move to a more accessible den soon and we will find the Happy Zebra den, so we can go to a den every time we go out!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Aardwolf Adventures!

Hello! My name is Molly and, as one of the new RAs, I will be spending the next year in Serena camp. Like most recent college graduates, until now my attention span has been kept quite short by semesters and summer jobs; I’ve never spent a whole year in one place doing one thing before! It’s become very clear, however, that field research in the Mara is not going to get boring anytime soon!

My first night driving on obs, we were waved down by a car and told that there was a dead hyena in a tree off the road. When we arrived at the tree we realized it was not a spotted hyena, but an aardwolf. Aardwolves are the smallest, and only insectivorous, member of the hyena family. They are nocturnal and are solitary foragers; sightings of them far rarer than sightings of our spotted hyenas. (You can read about Julie’s latest encounter and see pictures of a live aardwolf here!). A leopard probably made the kill and then stashed the aardwolf in the tree for a snack later.

The aardwolf in its tree
            After locating the aardwolf and tree we had a bigger challenge; figuring out how get it down. This involved driving the car under the tree and trying to poke the aardwolf down with branches.

Emily trying to get the aardwolf down!
              When Emily and Dave finally succeeded, we collected the head and brought it back to camp with us. Because aardwolves almost exclusively eat harvester termites, their teeth and skulls are adapted to a completely different diet than those of spotted hyenas and are an interesting comparison. Of course, as we started to drive home the headlights on our Land Cruiser decided to stop working, and we drove back to camp holding flashlights out the window to light the way. 

             In camp we took a several tissue sample from the ears and from the temporalis muscle, deep in the cheek, for DNA analysis. We wrapped the head up in a plastic bag, put it in the lab tent, and went to bed, tired after a long obs session. 

Maggie, Dave, and I removing the skin from the skull to get a tissue sample
Maggie preparing to take a sample from the temporalis muscle

Maggie getting the sample!

              The next day, however, our carefully secured head was totally gone! We think a genet (a nocturnal animal related to cats) that hangs out around camp managed to sneak into the lab tent and steal it from us, so we were hoping the skull would turn up around camp once the genet was done with it. Unfortunately we haven’t found it yet, but at least we got some samples before it disappeared!

Thanks to Yabanci TV from Turkey for telling us about the aardwolf! They will be releasing an episode about spotted hyenas, featuring our Happy Zebra hyenas and several Serena Camp researchers, this fall­­!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science