Monday, March 30, 2015

Elephant Graveyard

In the Lion King, the hyenas live in an elephant graveyard, a neat looking place full of giant bones. While none of us have ever seen an elephant graveyard, you may have heard about our recent discovery of an elephant carcass being eaten by lions and hyenas.  While still a far cry from the Disney movie, this ‘elephant grave’ has proved to be the meeting grounds for hyenas from at least 3 different clans!
The elephant carcass as we found it.
The afternoon after we discovered the carcass, we returned to the scene to find a subadult feeding on the elephant head. Expecting it to be a hyena from the local Happy Zebra (HZ) clan, we were momentarily perplexed…until we realized it was Lunch Lady, a 2.5 year old male from North territory! Lunch Lady munched on the carcass for a bit before realizing that a lioness was stalking him, at which point he high tailed it out of there. Higgs-Boson and Istanbul, two hyenas actually from HZ clan, watched Lunch Lady and her stalker from the comfort of some nearby bushes. 

Lunch Lady eyes us while he eats the elephant carcass.

Lunch Lady isn’t the only North hyena spotted at this carcass. We also saw Raleigh, a North immigrant male, checking out the rotting elephant.  While Raleigh was sniffing around, Apple (a HZ adult female) showed up and snagged a lower leg and foot from where she had stashed it in the grass earlier (the lions didn’t even notice her). Raleigh seemed intrigued by Apple, but even more intrigued by that delicious looking foot! He came over to give her and her food a sniff, although he was sure to demonstrate that he knew she was dominant to him. After he approached and submissive postured and sniffed her, she proceeded to ignore him completely and work on devouring her afternoon snack.

Apple walking proudly with her elephant foot
Photo by Agathe Laurence
The coolest interaction we have seen between hyenas from different clans was between a female we’ve named Bertha (likely from the Oz Valley clan, a neighboring group of hyenas) and a bunch of the HZ clan! Bertha and one other alien hyena were hanging out in the midst of the Happy Zebra hyenas as they all watched jealously while the lions fed on the elephant meat. You could tell Bertha wasn’t particularly happy about being surrounded by hyenas from a different clan; her ears were plastered back and she was submissively grinning nearly the whole time! The Happy Zebra hyenas were fairly gracious hosts, however, aside from some low level aggressions against her from Higgs-Boson, Silkwood, Apple, and Baccarat. In the end, Bertha even coalitioned against the lions with Tempe, a Happy Zebra immigrant male!
Higgs-Boson and Silkwood coalition against the alien female.
Note her ears plastered way back and her submissive posture.

These were pretty exciting observations for all of us, given that inter-clan interactions are very rare sightings for our project.. Perhaps the presence of lions suppressed the intense aggressive behavior that we sometimes see directed at females when they are found in foreign territory. Interestingly, the elephant carcass was located right at the border of the territories of North, South, Happy Zebra, and potentially Oz Valley (a non-study clan).  It could also be that the liminal location of the carcass made aggressions between groups from different clans less likely, as no one clan felt the need to defend carcass for themselves. 

The elephant carcass provided us a lot of action, some interesting behaviors, and a plethora of awful smells. Alas, on our most recent visit to the carcass, we found that it all had been devoured or carried off. Here is the most recent photo taken of the carcass, just 8 days after we first found it – all that remains is the skull. Our Disney-inspired hopes for an elephant graveyard have been crushed surprisingly quickly.

All that remains of the carcass 8 days after
the above photo is the skull. The rocky patch
is where the carcass used to be.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

 The den scene was nothing extraordinary. In fact, it began as a great day to practice IDs and training with our new recruit, Matt. But, then the madness commenced.

“This is crazy...” I whispered to Matt as I unclenched one tense hand from the steering wheel and pushed the record button on my DVR.

“At 0626 five lions walk arrive...”

So it began.

The following video is only a small snippet of what occurred on this fateful morning. We watched our brave Talek West hyenas mob (approach rapidly in mass) a group of seven lions! (There were six sub-adults lions and one adult female.) Our overly aggressive adult female Amazon led most of the charges, however the beautiful sub-adult Decimeter was also one of the leading ladies.

Throughout the confrontation, our main mobbing group would lose interest and slowly wander away back towards their den (located about 150 meters away!) Then ten minutes later, Amazon would sniff the air and stare intently in the direction of the sleeping lions. I would be observing a greet between El Paso and Lust, and turn back only to see Amazon’s bristly tail as she loped towards the cats followed by Buenos Aires, Helios, Decimeter, Wrath, Atacama, and others. The lion/hyena interaction finally ended around 0800 when the hyenas lost interest (for the last time) and wandered away.

I know what you’re wondering, but don’t worry. No hyenas were harmed in the making of this film and no lions either. In fact, the two groups never even made physical contact. In that way, it was similar to WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) since we were able to see some great behavior mostly through intimidation with no real fighting.

Overall, the Talek West hyenas defended their den from a group of young lions and gave both Matt and I an unforgettable morning.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Take a drive with Serena Camp

Monday, March 23, 2015

From the Mara to Michigan: How our field observations turn into computerized data

A year ago from the day I sat down to write this post, I was in Kenya sitting in front of a den full of rambunctious little hyena cubs. Now, my love of the hyena project and the lifelong friends I made in the Mara has brought me to Michigan to help out on the data side of our research.

As a research assistant out in the field, I honed my skills at taking field observations and translating them into a consistent code of behaviors so that I could write them up in my notes and send them back to MSU. However, I had little to no idea what actually happened to the notes after that.

My job in the lab right now is to “session” the field notes from Fig Tree. Sessioning involves taking parts of the written notes and entering them into a computer database that graduate students and other researchers can use to do larger calculations. Sessioning is the backbone for data analysis in the hyena lab; it gives a reference number for every observed event that researchers record. Using this foundation, we can calculate (for example) demographics of the various clans, how the location of the clans changes over time, observation rates in the field, and when we add in other behaviors to the sessioned notes, we can also calculate things like rate of aggressions or other social behaviors. In this way, sessioned notes become a powerful research tool.

In many ways, this transition from the page to the computer feels similar to the transition from real life hyenas to observational notes in the field. It all involves translating data from one form to another with the ultimate goal of taking the complexity and unpredictability of a natural system and turning it into patterns that we can analyze and use to understand more about behavior, ecology, and evolution in the world around us.

To get a sense of how this process works all the way from the field to the database, I thought I’d illustrate the different steps of the process.

Here’s a video from one day when Hadley, Dave, and I went on observations and saw natal female Crimson and immigrant male Juba acting strangely. This was one of Hadley’s first transcriptions, and Dave walked both of us through what was happening. Crimson was a subadult female in the clan who was approaching the age at which many hyenas start to have cubs, and Juba was clearly interested in courting her, hyena-style:

However, part of our job as RAs in the field was to take these observations and turn them into notes that someone who wasn’t there would still understand. Hadley’s transcription of the event looked like this:

She listed the time and location that the events occurred at, and then any behaviors that we observed, noting extra details or when we might have missed anything. So when Crimson (recorded as CRMS in the notes) was attacking Juba, these behaviors get translated into abbreviations like lk (look) or snap, indicating an angry glare or an attempted bite, with the t-level indicating how serious the aggression was.

Finally, at MSU, we can take these notes and session them so that the database includes which hyenas were present, where they were, and a general category of what they were doing. Other graduate students and their undergraduate student assistants will pull out the specific behaviors that they need from the notes and enter them into different tables. All of the notes get printed out and put into binders in the lab like this:

Here is how we mark up the written records to be entered into the computer:

Each hyena gets circled, and the entire interaction, or session, is given a number and a code to indicate whether it was at a den, a carcass, etc. In this case, the situation is just “o” for “other” but we could still make a note that they might have been mating.

And here is what it finally looks like in the database:

The locations, hyenas, time, date, and session number are all included.

Now this session is part of the giant hyena lab database of approximately 83861 sessions in Talek, and that doesn’t even include the other clans! As it becomes part of such a long history of data it enables us to learn more about these amazing animals.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Cross Driving

Driving through the territory is a daily adventure. You never know what to expect. Instead of paved roads and cars lined along either side of you, you get roads filled with bumps and ditches and most of the time the only other thing along side you on the road is an animal such as a zebra or giraffe. Driving through the territory during the migration has been one of my favorite experiences. The plains are lined with wildebeest and giraffe making it seem like you are driving through a parade of ungulates.

One of the key elements that makes driving throughout the territory possible is crossings. Not all crossings are created equal. While some are a breeze to drive through others must be met with extra caution and care.  Here X marks the spot. Without these crossings it would be difficult to follow our hyenas into the unknown. I have put together a list of my favorite crossings in the Talek West territory.

Suicide Crossing

Well the name pretty much says it all for this one. The first time you drive through Suicide your heart is pumping and you are praying that you don’t destroy the car in the process (at least that’s how it felt for me). Suicide is the first crossing we past through to enter the territory. It marks both the start and the end of the work day. We usually avoid using this crossing when it rains because the bottom of it fills with water making it difficult for the car to get through. 4-wheel drive can become your best friend when going through this crossing on a muddy day.

Coucal Crossing
Coucal X or as I like to call it Coo-cow X is one of our most frequently used crossings. We use this crossing to enter or leave an area of the territory we call Baboon Cul-de-sac. Coucal is not known for getting people stuck but it can be a source of “traffic jams”. Lots of animals use this crossing. Occasionally you will see a hyena loping by as you are driving through it.

Chai Tee Crossing

Nope that’s not a typo. Chai Tee X is one of the newest crossings in Talek West. We recently discovered it while following some hyenas after a carcass session. My middle name is Tee and after discovering this the guys in camp (specifically Benson and Wilson) decided to give me the nickname Chai. Chai is tea in Swahili and thanks to some clever word play by Chase this crossing was created. Chai Tee X is another crossing you would want to avoid when wet. It has lots of holes that fill with water after it rains. These water-filled holes create the perfect recipe for getting stuck. 

15 Year Crossing

Drivers beware. This crossing is not for the faint of heart. While it looks harmless it is far from easy. You should only use this crossing if you’re willing and ready to be stuck for at least 15 years. Once wet the mud within this crossing will suck you down making it impossible to escape. Make sure you have your shovel and rain boots ready. A nice snack and lots of water are also handy to have. Digging a car out of 15 year is a very tiring and demanding task (just ask Hadley and Wilson who were stuck in 15 year for over 4 hours trying to dig out one of our poor ‘ol cruisers). Make sure the gears are locked and 4-wheel drive is set before you go through this one.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

SOUNDS OF KENYA: Displaying Bustards

As an innocent, impressionable undergraduate, I worked in Gail Patricelli’s lab studying the vocal display of the male Greater Sage Grouse.  The sage grouse display is outrageous (You should check it out).  Therefore, I was surprised to find a bird in the Mara with a display even slightly reminiscent of the sage grouse’s display.  The kori bustard is huge and is rumored to be the heaviest animal capable of flight. They usually spends their time wandering through the tall grass looking like this.

A few weeks ago we were confused when we saw this one from a long way off:

It didn’t look like anything we had ever seen in the Mara, much less the usually drab kori bustard.  So, we drove up alongside him to get a good look at his strange strut display.

It took us a good five minutes of oooing and aaaahhing at his display to realize that he was also vocalizing.  If you listen to this recording with headphones or a set of speakers with good bass, you will hear a very deep drumming noise.  That is the kori bustard.

It was only a few days later that I discovered another interesting display from the Black Bellied Bustard.  I have often heard this call, seemingly to their current mate, when they are out of sight.

Their display, in contrast, is performed on a termite mound sticking up above the tall grass and sounds like this:

These bustards aren’t as flashy as the sage grouse, but it was nice to see some cool mating displays nonetheless.

With the entertainment over, I would like to personally ask a favor of all you trusty blog readers.  I am part of a crowdfunding effort to bring underrepresented groups to an international conference.  As a PhD student, an assistant professor, and a researcher from an underdeveloped country, we lack the funds to travel to and participate in international conferences. These are conferences where great scientists come together to further great science through knowledge transfer and collaboration.

If you have the means and the desire to fund exciting science on the evolution of communication and cooperation, please donate.

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