Friday, February 27, 2015

Elephants interaction

In November of last year, Molly and I noticed a herd of elephants approaching Happy Zebra’s den. Naturally, we filmed the interaction!

At first, most mothers at the den ignore the elephants. Only as the elephant matriarch approached the den with wide, flapping ears did most mothers walk away. Only one brave hyena stayed to guard their cubs in the den hole.


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

How To: Get Gas

Living in the Mara provides countless experiences that elicit the 'Wow!' response, the pause to consider, "Is this really my life?" When a herd of elephants jostles you from your sleep at night, when you witness a gregarious lion-hyena interaction, when you watch a giraffe give birth, and when a storm rolls across the broad sky and open plains of the Mara. The fantastic, "Is this really my life?" comes from the big moments, but also from the daily chores and tasks we undertake. Take getting gas for instance...

Getting Gas in the Mara (Talek Edition)

1. Notice that you’ll need gas soon.
2. Go check the jerry-cans of gas at the back of the lab tent, to pour in just enough to get you through morning observations. Don’t forget to grab the funnel, and find someone else to help you with the process. (Because do you remember the last time someone tried to do it on their own?)
3. After morning obs, remind everyone that a town trip is needed. Does anyone need to go to town for anything? Do we have enough produce, eggs, and phone credit?
4. Put on town clothes and sunscreen; make sure you have everything you need: camp cash, petty cash receipts, water bottle, egg tray.
5. Shout around camp that yes, ‘we’re leaving….as soon as possible.’
6. Finally get in the car, and start the drive.
7. Arrive at Dick Hedges crossing. Get out of the car, lock the hubs, engage four wheel drive, wait for the cows to move out of your way, decide that maybe waiting isn’t the best use of your time, inch forward, practice hill starts until you finally crest the top of the steep embankment.

8. Get out of the car, say hello to the Maasai herders staring at the white woman driving a car, unlock the hubs, and disengage four-wheel drive.
9. Continue driving to town. Wave to the school kids 'whoop'-ing at the hyena car....and then yes, of course you whoop back!
10. Arrive at Tafiq Petrol Station. Look at your watch and realize that no one is there because it’s prayer time.

11. Wait. Hope that there is actually gas still left.
12. There is! Hand Ali the keys to unlock the tank. Talk to him about Talek and America while he fills the tanks; stand back at the end while they get every last drop possible into the car. (‘Topping up’ is not just accepted, it’s expected.)
13. Hand Ali the cash you owe. 110Ksh/L in the off-season, 115Ksh/L during high season.
14. Ask for a receipt. Enjoy watching people pass by and saying hello to the ones you recognize.
15. Take the receipt, give thanks, call other Fisi Camp folk to see where in town they’ve gone off to so you can pick them up. Can't reach them? Well then, go visit Mama Christie and buy a ndizi (banana) or ngumu (similar to a donut hole, only so much better) until everyone comes and finds you.

Getting Gas in Michigan
  1. Notice that you’ll need gas soon.
  2. Glance at a few stations’ prices on your way to work.
  3. Pull into the one that’s on your way home and one cent cheaper than the rest.
  4. Insert credit card, remove quickly, pick up pump, select grade.
  5. Pump gas mindlessly till automatically shuts off.
  6. Replace pump, close tank door, drive home. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

What happens when you can't use the spots?

Spots are the most common way to identify the hyenas we study. Each RA uses the spots on these animals to create specific patterns and shapes. There are circumstances however, when spots are not very useful. We often see hyenas muddy, obese, and bloody. These conditions distort the spots and make our job a bit more taxing.  Bushes are another foe of patterns and shapes. The hyenas love to rest near shrubs and in thickets. These bushes cover the hyena leaving only a portion of its body visible, such as an ear or leg. All of these scenarios make it difficult to find the specific patterns and shapes that are key to identifying it.

It is times like these when you need to use something else to identify a hyena. Many of our hyenas have distinguishing marks or other physical features that set them apart from the rest.


Snaggletooth's name gives a big hint as to what her physical feature is. She has a tooth that extends outward on the right side of her mouth. All you need to do is see her face to figure out who she is.


Roswell is one of our immigrant males, you may recognize him from one of my previous posts. Roswell’s left ear is his signature trademark. Roswell is often found resting near the den charming all the females with his lady-killer looks.

There are many ways to recognize Yogurt. She is one of our spookiest hyenas. Once the car gets within 20 meters of Yogurt she takes off. Chances are that if you start driving towards a hyena and she runs away you’ve found Yogurt. Yogurt is also almost always obese. My favorite feature of Yogurt however is her extremely long neck.


Harpy is one of the sweetest hyenas in Talek West.  She is often seen in play with cubs or nursing the newest edition to her family, Unagi. Harpy has a goiter on the side of her neck that helps her stand out from the rest. There are many hypotheses as to what caused this goiter. What’s your best guess?


Alice is one of the oldest hyenas in Talek West. We don’t see her very often but when we do it is hard to mistake her for anyone else. Alice has what we refer to as elf ears. The top of her ears scoop down which causes them to have an elf-like shape.

Friday, February 20, 2015

SOUNDS OF KENYA: Accidental Elephants

Elephants are one of the most amazing animals we get to see in the Mara.  Unfortunately, they are also one of the most dangerous animals that we risk running in to.  If we get too close in the car, elephants are likely to charge.  If you came across an elephant on foot, you would be lucky to survive.  Given the terrible history of slaughter via hunting and culling, I don't blame elephants for getting angry when we get in their space.  We do our best to give them as wide a berth as possible, but sometimes, elephants end up in our space without us realizing.  If you haven't read Chase's story of one such instance, you should check it out.  Other times, elephants will decide our camp has the most tasty foliage and we can't go out to see hyenas because they are right outside our tent or between us and the car.

Here are a couple recordings of some times when elephants ended up much closer to us than we would like:

Someday, I really want to record the sound of their stomach when they're munching away on branches above my tent in the middle of the night.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

SOUNDS OF KENYA: Whoops large and small

So far on our blog's SOUNDS OF KENYA series, Kenna and I have brought you the sounds of many different animals in the Mara, including the dulcet sounds of the tree hyraxvultures fighting over a carcasshyenas vomiting, as well as gnu grunting, zebra barking, and, most recently, vervet monkey alarm calls. While sharing these recordings with all of you blog readers is a great bonus, it is not the only reason Kenna carted a ridiculous amount of recording equipment out to the Mara. The real goal of bringing this recording equipment out on obs with us every day is to record hyena vocalizations, particularly hyena whoops.

Whoops are rarer than other hyena vocalizations like groans or giggles, so it is always very exciting when we get a recording of a whoop. Whoops are long distance vocalizations that are used to convey information about the caller's identity and location, and to call in support. Adult males usually whoop as a sexual display, either to attract females or to intimidate other males. Adult females mostly whoop to call in back up during fights with lions or other hyena clans over carcasses (East & Hofer 1991).

An adult female whooping at a lion-hyena fight over a carcass
Photo by P Parker-Shames
A subadult running around whooping in excitement at a lion-hyena interaction.
Photo by P Parker-Shames
This is a recording of an adult male from Happy Zebra clan, Anne Arbor, whooping near the den. Despite the difficulty of catching a male whoop from a known hyena, we hear these whoops all night from camp.

Cubs also whoop, sometimes as self advertisement and sometimes to call for their mom's support when they get nervous during antagonistic interactions or after being approached by someone other than their mom (East & Hofer 1991). A whoop from a tiny, month old cub, however, sounds quite different than the adult equivalent.
Thneed, looking around for his mom from the den hole and getting ready to whoop
East, M.L. & Hofer, H. (1991). Loud calling in a female-dominated mammalian society. II.
Behavioral contexts and functions of whooping of spotted hyaenas, Crocuta crocuta. —
Anim. Behav. 42: 651-669.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Name that Hyena: Spots, Dots, and Patterns

One of the main priorities of new RAs is to familiarize themselves with the hyenas, and the Talek camp is responsible for both Talek West and Fig Tree clans.  Combined, there are around 200 hyenas that Talek West observes, and with hyenas having 2 sides, there are 400 unique sides to learn!  It takes 2 – 3 months on average for a new RA to feel comfortable recognizing the majority of the hyenas. 

RAs use patterns they see in the spots to identify hyenas.  Single spots, shapes, or even pictures are used to ID a hyena.  Some hyenas have obvious patterns that everyone sees, while other hyenas are more difficult to discern.  Below is a picture of a hyena named Hope Solo (HOPE).  

The RAs of Talek West each see a different pattern within his spots.  Benson (Red) sees the word “IT” on her hind leg.  Ashlei (Blue) sees a “S” in the same location.  Wilson (Purple) sees the number “9” and the letter “I” on his side.  Agathe (White) see the letter “U” on the side too, and Chase (Green) sees a face on the side as well. 

Here are more examples of some hyenas with the patterns that I see on their sides.

Tierra del Fuego (TIRA)
Cal Ripken Jr. (RPKN)
Barnacle (BNCL)
Rio Negro (RION)
Cyberman (CYBR)

To become more familiar with the patterns, senior RAs (everybody but me) quiz new RAs (me) on hyenas during morning and evening observation.  This is how it goes:

Me:  “I’m not really sure… Is it BAEZ?”

Benson:  (Acerbic tone) “No. BAEZ has a collar.”

Chase: (Laughter) “BENSON!”

Me: “Give me a break! I have been here 3 weeks!”

In addition, there are other traits (such as collars) that can be used to ID hyenas, which Ashlei will share in a future blog.

Before I leave you, here is a quick quiz.  Who is this hyena from above?

ANSWER: Barnacle

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science