Wednesday, April 29, 2015

How to sack out like a hyena: a photo essay

Cock-a-doodle-doo sacked out on top of Recluse
Booty napping against his mom, Boomerang
Eremet waiting impatiently for her kids
to come and nurse
Savvy being used as a pillow by
Booty and Smaug 
Pug has always had intriguing ways
of sacking out - such as nursing upside-down...
...or simply deciding to nap on his back
Recluse sacked out on top of his littermate,
Daddy Longlegs
A Happy Zebra "cuddle puddle" of six cubs!
So cute and so curious :)
Even adult hyenas love cuddle puddles -
there are at least seven hyenas asleep in this culvert!
Subadults tend to look like flat little balls of fluff
when they sack out
Trunks engaged in her beauty sleep one afternoon
Santa Cruz all curled up in a ball
Boomerang snoozing after a giant meal
Skittles napping on her back...
...only 30m from lions!

Monday, April 27, 2015

An Inching Infestation

Recently we in Serena camp were blessed with some cute guests – thousands and thousands of them!

These little inchworms appeared one day and spent about 5 days moving through camp, devouring every leaf on every Orange-leafed Croton bush in sight. Although initially somewhat adorable, these pests turned out to be quite a nuisance! Imagine spending an evening picking 85 inchworms out of your tent before you go to bed. Imagine going running and having to claw at the air in front of you like a lunatic in order to remove all the inchworms abseiling down out of the trees.  Imagine turning the light on to find you are standing in a pile of hundreds of inchworms. Imagine trying to brush the little crawlers off of your body only to have your hand come back covered in caterpillar slime! This has been our life in Serena camp recently.  Cute, yes, but also incredibly annoying.

At one point the caterpillars took up residence by the toilet.

These inchworms are the caterpillars of a species of geometrid moth, one that apparently has a particular fondness for Croton bushes.  We don’t really know why they all appeared at once or what happened to them, but starting yesterday morning there have been a LOT of moths around camp. This could  be a coincidence, but I think they are our inchy friends all grown up and back for another visit.

Check out the photos and video below, including a fight between some of the caterpillars over the last bite of Croton on the bush!

A Croton bush in the process of being devoured.
The inchworms sit on a completely defoliated Croton bush

Friday, April 24, 2015

Trapped in Nairobi

When we Fisi campers traverse to Nairobi we feel basically two emotions:

  1. Excitement to eat refrigerated goods/go out to lunch
  2. Despair of the errands and general Nairobi chores

Matt and Ashlei think about Nairobi

Just like my comrades I experienced said feelings, however I am mostly an optimist and thought that the deliciousness of chocolate milkshakes and cheesy/meat meals would outweigh the bad.

In the course of 3 weeks (longer than normal Nairobi trip) I learned a hearty lesson. There’s a lot of behind the scenes permitting and licensing that allows such an extensive research project like this to function.

For example:

Everyone who’s out here researching must obtain a NACOSTI research permit.
This takes time and equates to several trips to downtown Nairobi.

Benson and I eat a big breakfast, while looking up directions in the Nairobi A-Z book (maps of Nairobi streets.)

We also must receive a Pupil's Pass to be here for a whole year (gives us residency in Kenya.)
This involves meeting with a lovely official downtown and gathering copious amounts of paperwork.

When we have to deal with GPS collar things, we spend almost every day in Safaricom (our simcard provider and phone company) pestering and explaining a complex situation to a different person each time.

We renew car insurance as well as vehicle inspections. If a car needs a service/repairs, we take her up to our trusty mechanic Ian. Got to keep these cars up to speed with Kenyan regulations!

This time, KBY, the new truck, was transformed into KBY, the new canvas cruiser.

Mara Ready

We pick up new tents for very lucky future researchers.
Heidi admires the new tents and examines the ground textures using her bare feet.

We restock on LN2, light fixtures, toilet paper, ketchup, Nutella, and all other camp food necessities.

However, when not doing errands you are forced to entertain yourself without hyenas:

I took up knitting!
Benson, looking dapper, in a newly knitted cap.
You can also visit the David Sheldrick Elephant Sanctuary for orphaned elephants.
A young elephant is fed by his keeper.

This guy apparently is still hungry.

Or the Giraffe center. Careful, these guys apparently like to kiss. French kiss.
Agathe gets a goodbye kiss from Ed, a Rothchild's Giraffe from the center.

Eat pizza (on a daily basis. So much cheese!)

Artcaffe pizza looking greasy and tasty as always.

Organize your room.

Clearly, an activity that I did.

Watch hail pound the ground outside the cottage.

Safely tucked away in the cottage, we watch the hail storm!

Or find chameleons wandering the Nairobi Streets. Dangerous little guys.
The chameleon attempts to blend into Heidi's hand.

Overall, Nairobi is full of adventures, but it’s always nice to return to the Mara to see your favorite Fisi and fisi camp friends alike.

Fisi Camp United!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Great Day in Happy Zebra

Friday, April 17, 2015

A long-term lens on Fig Tree

As I near the end of sessioning Fig Tree notes, I’ve gotten a perspective than I never could have in the field. While I lived in Kenya for a year following the hyenas, I witnessed the everyday drama of our clans in what I now realize was a very short moment of time. In sessioning, I get a broader picture over many years.

It’s been fun to watch the individuals that I knew as adults in the field grow up in the early notes. In the field, I knew Lucky Luciano (Lu, for short) as a tough mom and confident female in the clan. With the notes I get to see how she started out as an aggressive little cub, went through a loner phase, started getting courted by various males, and became a badass hunter, but still lost her first several litters. Another example is Einstein, who was a shy subadult who started getting courted as soon as she left the den. She then had a rocky start to motherhood before she became the steady mom I knew in the field. One of the biggest surprises for me was Juba, an immigrant Talek West male that I hadn’t even known was originally from Fig Tree, where he was affectionately known as Pumpkin.
Lu, with her cubs Akiba and Starehe
Juba, as an adult in Talek West
From my desk in Michigan, I am cataloguing an entire life history for the animals we’ve all cared about in the field. I always love watching cubs playing at the den, but I am sobered by going through the notes and realizing how very few actually survive the first year of life. It takes so long for the moms to get the hang of rearing their young, and almost all of the young mothers lose at least one litter of cubs before any survive. Even with experienced mothers nothing is certain either. So much of the hyenas’ success seems to be left up to chance. A good example of this is Medusa, a high-ranking female with a small posse of aggressive young offspring poised to have an incredible success biologically speaking—plenty of high-ranking females to swell her lineage. Suddenly Medusa died, no one knows how, and I watched as one by one her children disappeared as well without their strong leader to help protect and provide for them. One random event and an entire lineage goes away.
Fig Tree cubs, their future always uncertain
Another thing I’ve realized is that on the other hand, just because some hyenas die young doesn’t mean their stories aren’t still meaningful. Bella barely managed to rear one surviving offspring before she went missing, yet that cub has been relatively successful for a lower-ranking hyena. And all of these animals, no matter if they only lived a month or are still around, still add to a valuable dataset. When I think about the poisoning that killed so many hyenas when I was in Kenya, it’s comforting to realize how each one of them still gave us important scientific insights.

This broader view helps me realize how important these large, long-term research projects are. It takes an incredible amount of time to see rare events happen in these clans. For instance, in the eight years I have sessioned of Fig Tree, observers only witnessed one actual mating. We have documented only a handful of lion-hyena interactions of any kind, and even fewer successful hyena kills. This doesn’t mean these data aren’t useful, but rather that it takes a long time to collect enough information to make these rare events numerous enough to quantify or analyze.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

April Showers

April showers bring May flowers…at least that’s what they told me in kindergarten. In the Maasai Mara it seems the only thing these showers bring are mud, mud, and more mud.

While being rained in has it perks (we get to sleep in, the days are cool, the grass is greener) it also has its downfalls. When it rains it becomes hard if not impossible for us to get out of the driveway. Throughout the day we can hear other cars making their way through the territory. This symphony of car engines and sinking tires occasionally leads to us leaving our camp to investigate the commotion. Sometimes curiosity and adventure gets the best of us. At times our adventures result in us being stuck in the mud but other times we end up finding situations like this…

A tour car driver and his passengers found themselves trapped in Leopard Crossing.

Our driveway can be very treacherous especially for those who aren’t familiar with the area. You have to know which crossings to avoid and which are safe when it comes to Mara travel. Those who aren’t familiar with the territory have to learn the hard way. With a lot of teamwork and shovels we were eventually able to free this car from the trenches.

Along with bringing mud rain also brings some new visitors. I was getting ready for bed one night when I heard a tapping against my tent. I did not have to wait long to find out what that tapping was. As soon as I reached the entrance to my tent the culprit revealed itself…

I think this frog was just looking for a nice warm place to spend the night. Too bad this tent is already occupied.

Sometimes it can rain over 50mm within an hour! I recently went to my tent to take a nap and when I returned to the lab tent rested and refreshed I found large puddles waiting for me at the entrance. We keep track of the weather using a weather data spread sheet and use rain gauges to measure the amount of rain that falls per day.

Each data sheet has a column for the minimum and maximum temperature and the total amount of rain.

Our handy dandy rain gauges

After three months of dry dusty weather I was very excited when the first few drops began to fall. I decided to share my excitement by puddle jumping. Jumping in puddles in one way to keep your-self occupied during the rainy season.

Another way we keep ourselves occupied is board games.

Chief, Joseph, and Matt playing a game of cards in the kitchen tent.

Although the rainy season has been fun I'm starting to miss going on obs and seeing the hyenas. I never thought I would look forward to waking up at 5am. My fellow RAs and I are hoping to make it out of camp soon. Fingers crossed we do!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science