Monday, August 31, 2015

Porcupines and Vervets

From Hadley, at Talek camp
For the past couple weeks, we’ve been at war with a porcupine. Not the most usual of camp pests but he got himself high on the list in a short period of time. Night after night, we would wake up to find tears in the kitchen tent walls, as the porcupine bit and clawed through in search of produce and other food waste. Day after day, Samwell and Chief diligently sewed the tears, glued on new patches of canvas, and created a multitude of barricades to try and deter the pesky porcupine.

We thought perhaps we were starting to get the upper hand; but then the porcupine collaborated with the vervet monkeys. We didn’t stand a chance.

When I went to the kitchen tent in the o dark hours before obs to get ready, I was confronted with the porcupine’s work – a long new tear in the tent and the organic waste bucket toppled over. All I could do at that moment was pick up the pieces and secure one of our makeshift barriers over the tear.

Late that afternoon, when Samwell passed by the solar tent (houses the solar batteries that power many of the tents in camp) where I was working and said, “Monkey’s in the kitchen,” I thought he meant a lone trouble-making vervet monkey had slipped inside, maybe knocked some jars down, and got out.

Little did I know that it was in fact the accomplice of the porcupine bandit of the night. Let us tell you - never underestimate the destructive power of vervet monkeys (especially those with easy access granted by porcupines!). When I walked to the kitchen tent to get some water, I was faced with the full reality of what ‘monky’s in the kitchen tent’ meant.

Cans were thrown off shelves, bread was eaten, and pots and pans were tumbled. As the guys tried to get him out, the little sucker got scared….and so began defecating and urinating. No one wants that in a kitchen tent, so we began our full ‘spring clean’. Every jar, pot, plate, utensil, and object was removed, wiped clean and sanitized (you never realize how any spice jars you have until you have to hand wash each one). Every surface and corner was cleaned, furniture moved, and the tear, once again, sewed up. Take a look for yourselves: 

Jared, Matt, Emily, and Wilson empty the kitchen tent.
Wilson gets into every corner cleaning.
Ciara and Samwell scrup every pot.
Emily and Hadley wash and re-label every spice jar.
Chief sews the tear in the tent wall.

It was days like that that make it hard for me to answer questions like, “What is a normal day like at Fisi Camp?” or “Why don’t we make a schedule of when we are going to get what done?”

Never a dull day in Fisi Camp, never a day when we aren’t reminded of whose home we are in, and how laughable it is to think we have the upper hand on the wildlife. Even with our opposable thumbs.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Beauty & The 'Beest: A Talek Perspective

           Courtesy of Wilson Kilong, our gracious tour guide for the day, we were able to take a day off to venture to Sand River in the hopes of seeing a wildebeest crossing. The Talek crew piled into our cruiser early in the morning having packed the left-over chicken enchiladas that Joseph had treated us to the night prior, as well as some banana chocolate chip pancakes that he surprised us with before we took off. Eager and ready to hit the Mara roads, the day began.
            Making our way from camp to the border of Tanzania and Kenya, we were lucky as always to see the usual suspects: zebras, giraffes, ostriches, gazelles, topi, and elephants. Avian species were also plentiful (per usual here in the Mara, the birder in me has never been so delighted) and we spotted some Lilac-breasted rollers, Marabou storks, Secretarybirds, Tawny eagles, Striped kingfishers, and even a Bateleur eagle.
Marabou stork (Leptoptilos crumenifer) trotting along
       After a while we came to a cluster of safari vehicles, which I’ve come to learn, can usually mean one thing: a big cat. This time, it was a cheetah. As the tourists flock, and consistently to our surprise, rarely for fisi (Swahili for hyena), to crowd around a sacked out big cat, I’m always wondering about the other African animals, those that don’t receive this attention.
            What about the creatures that the common tourist doesn’t dream of seeing - like the wildebeest, as a prime example? Perhaps most susceptible during times of the migration are the wildebeest as they move in masses seeking more preferred grazing conditions. As these odd-looking ruminants collect in abundance, it is the carnivores that eagerly await their arrival upon their home plains in which to feast. Within my two months here I’ve grown to appreciate the wildebeest, the gnu, for its persistence and sheer beauty - always moving, a combination of unique morphological features and behavioral quirks.
Common wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) amongst a few zebra
           Distributed and originating wholly on the African continent, the common wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) is one of seven species of the tribe Alcelaphini. Of them, the wildebeest is the most nomadic and travels in seek of open, available landscapes with the shortest grasses. Calling home to acacia savannas, these large, high-shouldered antelopes with broad muzzles and cow-like horns exhibit high social organization amongst their herds. Territorial, they are abundant as mobile aggregations or dispersed as sedentary herds. Their coloration varies from slate gray to dark brown and sport dark vertical stripes of black hair along their bulky body. Reproductively, every territorial male (bull) that an estrous female encounters will attempt to mount her (and she may encounter dozens during a day of aggregate movement!). From the moment they can stand, wildebeest calves accompany their mothers for protection. That being said, the tan natal coat makes the light calf stick out in a mass of black bodies quite conspicuously, and since outrunning a common predator like a hyena is unlikely, a calf’s only refuge is losing itself in the herd. With seemingly no concealment strategies, a newborn’s survival hinges on older calves and herd members around to cover their highly visible blonde bodies. Interestingly though, roughly 85% of the calves are birthed during a 3-week peak period, so the interval of vulnerability is highest during these times for the neonates, a highly restricted birth season that further enhances the wildebeest uniqueness. Fortunately for us in the Mara, witnessing their following strategy and waking up to “seas of black” in our hyena territories has taught us much of wildebeest form & function and we are grateful for all that we continue to learn of another African organism.  
A juvenile wildebeest nursing from his mother.
           The day brought wildebeest sightings galore. Fighting our way slowly through the numbers of black and brown bodies and hearing their familiar grunting and quaking call that was often enjoyably overwhelming and noisy throughout the day was unbelievable. Although we didn’t see as intense a crossing as hoped for, we saw many passing full-throttle through a bone-dry crossing and it was, in one word, incredible.  Watching them travel from miles as far as the eye can see in single-file lines that spanned the horizon - one by one making their way as fast as they could to the other side was an incomparable experience. Over the river and through the plains to Kenyan grasses they went. Stopping for lunch along the Sand River and knowing that just across it was Tanzania we were able to take in again just how breathtaking the African landscapes are.
The longest game of follow-the-leader I've ever witnessed. 
A sampling of the masses.
           On our way home it seemed the day’s heat got the best of us and we collectively decided to stop for a brief nap beneath a generously shady tree. Catching whatever z’s I could, it didn’t take long before we were on the track again heading back home. But first, Wilson took a turn and brought us to this hill that overlooked the lands in a way that I hadn’t yet experienced. Being at an elevation that high here and seeing further than I have so far was indescribable. To top off the trip and our “beestly” day, the gnu proved once again magnificent. Looking down upon them moving in masses that appear as minuscule black dots slowly making their way across the plain proved once again an unmatched sight. 
An aggregate in motion.
          The first of many game drives and the continuation of an ineffable journey here in the Mara, our day with the “beesties”, as Benson likes to call them, was just as magical as I’d expected. 

Source: Estes, Richard Despard: Behavior Guide to African Mammals. 1991.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Welcome to The Mother Continent

Good morning! Good afternoon! Good evening!
Greetings from KENYA!

My name is Ciara, but here I am known as Akinyi, which means “born in the morning” to the Luo tribe of Kenya.  

I am one of the two new research assistants (RAs) that will be living in the most suburban of the hyena research camps here in the Mara—Talek Fisi Camp. Here we study the largest hyena clan ever documented, known as Talek West.

I was born and raised in sunny California and having recently graduated from UC Davis (Goooo Aggies!). I have a BA in Animal Science with an emphasis in Animal Behavior. At UC Davis I was working under the mentorship of Dr. Gail Patricelli and one of her graduate students, Anna Perry, studying seasonal changes in courtship behaviors of male sage grouse. In this project I watched endless amounts of videos recording male courtship behaviors. I wanted to see if individual males performed differently, or even similarly, to attract females and if so, if females chose males based on these different aspects of their display.

My interests in male display and female choice carried into other mating systems, particularly mammalian matriarchal societies. Matriarchal societies are those where the females in a group maintain dominance over the males in the group, such as the Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta). Female hyenas are highly aggressive towards males, leaving males few opportunities to display their “sexiness.”

When males are allowed to court a female, they perform a variety of interesting behaviors that include: baiting (i.e aggressively biting, snapping and chasing) a female, grooming a female’s back, or bowing (i.e lifting up one paw and crossing it over the other) to a female. How well a male displays (or how attractive he is), may determine if he successfully mates. The more interesting questions is, what is the female looking for in a displaying male? Do higher ranking females set “higher” standards to males that court them? I’d like to investigate these questions and entertain my thoughts while I am here.

Additionally, I will be assisting Kenna Lehmann, a graduate student in the hyena lab, with her project on hyena vocalizations (i.e. whoop, growl etc.). This is just one of many fascinating mini-projects we have available to work on as RAs.

I am super excited to spend this next year in Kenya with my fellow 2015 cohort: Jared, Erin, Emily, Robyn and Amy. I am also enthused to be trained by the professional fisi RAs Hadley, Benson and Wilson.

It has been 27 years and this project has revealed a vast amount of information that has been distributed all across the world; I cannot wait to help contribute. It is an honor and a privilege to be a part of such a long lasting project.

Blessed beyond measure


¡Adiós Kenia!

I am back in the States! My stay in Kenya was short-lived, but fun-filled nonetheless. I was sad to leave the beautiful mara, its people, and of course, the hyenas, but I am comforted by the fact that I will return. No question about it. And next time I come back, I will have a project, an idea, something in mind to inquire about. Next time I come back, I will:  know more Swahili and Maa, teach the staff Mexican food recipes, successfully drive in the mud and rain, and identify hyenas/transcribe data. It’s going to be great (and more stressful, but that’s part of growth).

A month at Talek camp seems like a short time, but I learned a lot in that month! I was everywhere and nowhere; like a fly on the wall. Observing, engaging, and enjoying. For one, I went on observations; I still don’t know how I woke up so early everyday (I am not a morning person, regardless of the amount of sleep I get)—I guess I was motivated by the hyenas and the possibility of a darting. While I did not transcribe data or was the driver or darter, I was that helpful assistant who would shine hyenas when it was dark, occasionally identify hyenas, passed along the milk/popcorn/maglight/backpack to whoever needed it, sometimes reminded the transcriber about tracking, and counted herbivores and carnivores during our prey census. I learned about the equipment that was loaded to the vans every day, the responsibilities of transcriber, the specific behaviors that counted and not counted as critical incidents, and the art of hyena identification (you really do see things like smiley faces, letters, and unique lines/dots). Furthermore, I saw how hyenas were located via tracking, and how to count prey in a census.

Typical OBS  :) [Serena den]
I am quite terrible with directions and navigation, but I did learn some landmarks! Hello, mushroom tree, photogenic tree, Paul’s tree, Julie’s tree, drunk tree, horseshoe lugga, pond lugga, a third lugga I swear I knew the name of but cannot think of it for the life of me right now, Kilong’s crossing, and suicide crossing. I never did know if hyenas were arriving from the North, South, East, or West, sadly. My first darting did not happen immediately, and at some point I was scared that I was going to leave without seeing one, but then it happened and it was awesome. Matt took a perfect shot (and Benson was so proud!), and I got to touch a hyena’s ear. I really wanted to see if was soft (it was, at least in the back; it’s also very muscular. The hyena’s hair is very coarse fyi). Dartings are busy because so many morphological measurements are taken, plus all the swabbing, and blood collection. Once back at camp, the blood is centrifuged and processed, blood smears are done, and there is a whole DNA/RNA protocol that happens but I can’t describe because I was paying attention to the other things happening.

Other things that happened:

I saw how poop was collected and processed! So smelly, but I love it. Poop is going to make me happy when I carry out my lab analyses.
I learned how to differentiate the dens, male from female hyenas, sub-adults from adults (kind of), and how to sex cubs.
I assisted with market day, get water from keekorok lodge day, and car checks (I did not know there were so many car parts!). I practiced my driving!
I had githeri-chapati burritos (best thing evaaaa), that delicious cabbage, lots of lentils, curried chickpeas (chickpeas for lyfe amiright), cheesy omelettes, and pizza (<3 <3 <3)
I developed a bread and chai addiction
I got 1 tick, oh wondrous tick. Hardly any mosquito bites, and no stomach problems!
I experienced DNA day and the Nairobi trips. I took a matatu from Narok to Talek—it was a cultural experience.
I went to a couple of sundowners (?)—basically had wine/beer and ‘saw’ the sunset
I read. A LOT. I had more free time than everyone at camp, and more free time than I will ever have at camp. Those days are over.
I saw a leopard (at Serena), but no rhino :/
I may or may not have fed Sasha, the camp dog. I definitely fed Kelsey, the genet. I tried to hate the vervets and baboons but I couldn’t (I like primates, even if they ravage our food).
And I got to bond with the staff, RA’s, and other grad students. Miss them already. Thank you for being so welcoming :D

Notes on Serena: I visited Serena the last week of my stay in Kenya, and I’m glad I did. It is useful to see how different the two camps are. Serena’s grasses complicate observations, but the landscape is much more beautiful! And I saw more lions, elephants, buffalo, hippos, waterbuck, and eland there; less hyenas though. Serena got me hooked on early dinners (sorry late dinner peeps)—I just felt more energized during observations and did not go to bed feeling bloated. And I like that we give presentations at Serena Lodge every week—people need to know just how cool hyenas are!

Pretty sunset 
Right now I am trying to pack my life away in suitcases, avoiding the stifling California heat, and stuffing my face with as much Mexican food as I can. It is bittersweet to be leaving to Michigan; I am terribly excited to start classes and move in to my new apartment and be part of the lab (!!!), but I hate saying goodbye. After so many trips and travels, I still get teary when saying goodbye to my mama and mi hermano, and my cat! I will be strong because I know Michigan will be great.

Anyhow, I leave you with that. I cannot wait to return to the mara and write on this blog (I have so many ideas).

Thanks for reading, hasta pronto!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Golden Girls

Serena Hyena Research Camp started in 2008. When this camp was first established, our researchers scoured the immediate area for hyena clans and found Oz Valley Clan, Olare Clan, 17km Clan, Happy Zebra Clan, North Clan, and South Clan. For research ease, our camp decided to study Happy Zebra, North and South who were all in the immediate area of our camp.  We knew nothing about these hyenas when we started (ie. their rank, age, genetic relations, etc…). Each member of the clan when we first arrived was given an arbitrary name (see this blog post if you want to learn more about our current naming scheme: ) and we call these hyenas the “originals”. These original hyenas eventually gave birth and we could then track the life history of their cubs and their cub’s cubs. However, there are five hyenas in South who have never had cubs! We have named these ladies the “Golden Girls” after the NBC sitcom.

But why have these adult females never had cubs to term? Are they in menopause or maternal senescence? Are they lacking certain hormones? Are they not desirable for mating? Are they having cubs that are not surviving? We find this interesting because it is very important for a female hyena to have cubs; a female hyena can better maintain her rank with more offspring, and more specifically, more female offspring. As far as we can tell, the Golden Girls’ rank have held strong within the clan since we established their rank. Why is this?

Recently, we have discovered two of the five Golden Girls mating! This begs the question: are all of the Golden Girls sexually active? And if they are, are they having cubs and losing them or not having them at all?

Pretty Neat!

Big Bad Wolf




Robin Hood

Monday, August 17, 2015

Good Gnus, the Migration is Coming!

The great migration of wildebeests in East Africa refers to the annual movement of their herd, numbering over one million individuals, from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara, and back. Their migration seems to follow the rainfall so that grass and drinking water are always abundant for the wildebeests. When the migration comes, we have the distinct pleasure of being able to watch tens of thousands of wildebeests, or gnus, cross the Mara River at a given time.

Apart from the breathtaking sight which I described above, the migration also makes for one of the most exciting and challenging times of the year for fisi camp researchers. Most of the observational data we collect involve interactions and aggressions between hyenas within our study clans. We see these interactions on a daily basis, however they become significantly more frequent and intense at carcass sessions. These sessions are extremely important, but can also be very overwhelming; imagine trying to identify and keep track of thirty hyenas who are congregating around a carcass, standing in front of each other, changing places, and blocking your view. All the while, you're also charged with catching any and all interactions between the hyenas present to make the most of the session. And if you happen to come across a session like this while the sun is up, consider yourself lucky!

When there's food to compete over, the state of the hierarchy really becomes clear as the higher ranking hyenas aggress on the lower ranking hyenas to keep them away from the carcass, providing us with tons of valuable data. For this reason, when there is a change in the hierarchy, a rare but exciting occurrence, we're most likely to notice it at a carcass session. When the wildebeests come, the abundance of prey for hyenas and other large carnivores in the Mara increases tremendously. This means more hectic sessions, and in turn, more useful data.

So, as the migration closes in on us in Serena, we're looking forward to the annual grass trimming provided by the wildebeests, and the crazy months ahead!

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Other, Other New Kid

Hi there everyone! I’m Emily, yet another new RA on the project for the upcoming year, staying in Serena Camp. And goodness, does it still feel surreal. After year of planning and preparing, waking up every morning to a view of the Masai Mara and falling asleep to the sounds of elephants and whooping hyenas feels both unreal and exhilarating at the same time.

A little background on me: I hail from Herndon, Virginia, a large town right outside of Washington, D.C. I have two cats, a dog, and the most amazing, supportive friends and family. I am an avid reader, love to travel, enjoy dance and the performing arts, and have an unhealthy relationship with Netflix. As for my education, I graduated in May with a B.S. in Wildlife Conservation from Virginia Tech. Academically, I’m interested in endangered species conservation, field research, and the intersection of science and policy. As for my future plans, I’d venture to guess field jobs, grad school, and traveling will all be happening some way or another. For now, I’m diving headfirst into everything hyena and cannot wait to learn what these incredible animals have to teach me!

As for my time here so far, it’s been about a month – a truly spectacular month. As if being here in the Mara surrounded by some of the most breathtaking animals on the planet wasn’t enough, in my first two weeks I saw rhinos, a serval, a massive carcass session with the North Clan, and 3 male lions chase hyenas off said carcass. I was also able to participate in a full darting with Tracey, which was a great chance to get up close and personal with a hyena. Plus, not breaking the cars while learning to drive was certainly an added bonus.

I am so very lucky to call this magnificent place home for the next year. I look forward to getting to know the Serena hyenas, mastering this challenging job, and enjoying this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Thanks for reading, and I can’t wait to share more stories with you soon!

On a recent hike back in Virginia - realizing my need for some Mara selfies!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Another new face

Hello, hyena lovers! My name is Erin Person and I will soon be joining the ranks of the new Fisi Camp RAs. I recently graduated with a degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Michigan. I spent my four years at U of M working for the Gelada Research Project, where I developed an interest in animal behavior and endocrinology. Those interests led me to the Hyena Project, which I’m totally delighted to be taking part in.

I’m set to depart for Kenya on August 9th, which gave me a few months after graduation with nothing to do but pack and twiddle my thumbs. Being the sort of person who goes stir crazy after about two weeks of relaxing, I got in touch with our lab manager Hadley and asked if there was anything I could do to help out at the lab at MSU before I left. She set me a task of Herculean proportions: organizing and inventorying the lab’s -80°C freezers with a couple other members of the lab.

This process involves emptying a shelf at a time into coolers of dry ice (“My hands are so cold”), sorting through the contents (“What’s in that bag?” “It’s…a dead bird.”), and attempting to put everything back in some kind of logical order (“Does hair qualify as a tissue sample?”). Once we had everything sorted into categories, we began the long process of inventorying every single sample into labeled boxes so future students could use our new repository to quickly find the samples they need. Two months, four lab members, and a couple hundred pounds of dry ice later, we emerged with two complete freezer maps and a partial repository database of hyena blood, DNA, and tissue samples.

Besides that deeply cathartic sense of satisfaction from taking something chaotic and making it organized, it’s been a lot of fun getting to know both the lab and its members while working there this summer. Before starting here, my only hints of what my year would be like were from this very blog, so it’s been marvelous to talk to people who have been there and done that and lived to tell about it. I’ve gotten a lot of great packing advice, but perhaps more importantly I’ve found that learning how the samples collected in the field will be used in the lab can help inform how I will collect said samples. For one thing, I can tell you right now my handwriting in the field is going to be spectacular after attempting to read and record the labels on hundreds of tubes (“Is that a 5? A 3?” “I think it’s an 8?”).

For a slightly more serious example: when blood is collected from darted hyenas in the field, it’s separated into many small tubes instead of one big one. One reason this is done is that blood can be affected by freeze/thaw cycles; if a member of the lab wants to study blood taken from a particular hyena, they can thaw one of the small tubes and leave the rest frozen and therefore unaffected for future use. Understanding the logic behind some of the protocols will (hopefully) make the mountain of new things to learn when I arrive in camp a little more manageable.

After a summer of talking about nothing but hyenas, I can’t wait to begin my year as an RA. I look forward to writing my next post from a tent in the Mara. Kenya, here I come!
A photo of yours truly on my last epic journey. The stunning Greek background is soon to be replaced by a stunning Kenyan background when I start my newest adventure!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science